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How First Nations fashion design can rewrite painful memories and be a powerful method of healing

  • May 24, 2024

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains names, images and stories of deceased people.

Around the world, fashion researchers, designers and artists are exploring the links between clothing, adornment and wellbeing.

Enclothed cognition” considers the psychology of clothing, and designers are exploring how to create garments to heal the wearer.

First Nations people understand the power of connection to cultural clothing and adornment. Items like possum and kangaroo skin cloaks can contribute to healing and cultural practice.

But it’s not only traditional clothing that can lead to healing. In Australia, there is a rise of designers and artists creating and fashioning painful Protectionist-era clothing on the runway and in the galleries.

By recreating clothing tied to painful and traumatic memories and histories, these designers and artists hope to share these horrific policies, rewrite the meaning behind them, and move forward in healing.

A history of missions, reserves and trauma

First Nations peoples living in controlled reserves, missions and stations were forced to wear plain clothing and expected to keep them well-maintained and clean. Often, garments were forms of payment and punishment.

In some institutions, First Nations people generated clothing and adornment for interstate and international exhibitions and tourist trades.

These regimes and power through clothing significantly impacted those living there, including their cultural practice, identity and wellbeing.

The Aboriginal mission station Ramahyuk Gippsland.
State Library Victoria

There are two national days to pause, acknowledge and remember the Stolen Generation and their families and communities – National Sorry Day on May 26 and the Anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations on February 13.

Healing and wellbeing involve a holistic approach, and art contributes to this.

Using clothing as art or designing garments with a transformative and positive spin

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A brief look at the long history of First Nations fashion design in Australia

  • December 25, 2023

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains names and images of deceased people, and links to old newspaper stories and research papers using outdated and potentially offensive terminology.

The ABC’s series The Way We Wore takes a look at stories of Australian fashion design and style.

First Nations people participated in the series and spoke about various periods and tales, looking at forced clothing policies during the Stolen Generation period, the contribution of Flinders Ranges/Adnyamathanha knowledge to the creation of the RM Williams iconic boot, and the emergence of First Nations fashion design from the 1970s and at Parisian fashion shows in the 1980s.

Yet, left out from the show was the rich backstory of our First Nations fashion design industry.

Prior to Parisian fashion shows, First Nations people showcased handmade clothing and accessories at 1800s international and national exhibitions, often as unpaid labour.

Earlier still, the making and crafting of animal and plant cloaks, skirts, belts, shoes and accessories were the original fashion designs.

Read more:
‘The first designers and models of this world’: attending the 2023 National Indigenous Fashion Awards

Traditional clothing and adornment

Climates, materials and stories guided traditional fashion design.

Items were crafted from natural materials that eventually returned to the environment.

Footwear was made from animal skins, furs, and feathers, human hair and bark.

Group outside a bark shelter with possum skin cloaks in Victoria, photographed between 1860-1909.
State Library of New South Wales

Cloaks were made from animal skin and plants, often inscribed with designs that reflected a person’s identity.

Intricate jewellery and accessories included head ornaments, necklaces, mourning caps, belts and bags, some made from highly traded pearl shells and rare seashells.

Today, we are seeing a resurgence around the country of these

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Voice Merch by Aboriginal Designers and Fashion Labels

  • October 6, 2023

On October 14, Australians will vote in a referendum to enshrine recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the Constitution. If the vote goes through, an advisory group of Indigenous representatives will be established to give independent advice to parliament and government on matters relating to First Nations people.

In the lead up to the vote, a number of Aboriginal-owned organisations – from fashion labels to jewellers – have released merch that not only allows you to wear your vote on your sleeve, but can help spark important conversations around the Voice.

The upcoming referendum, and the Uluru Statement From the Heart (which first proposed a First Nations Voice in the Constitution), has inspired many First Nations artists and designers to both explore the moment through their practice and create works that amplify their message and perspective.

For its 2023 fashion collection, Yarrabah Arts & Cultural Precinct in Queensland used words from the statement on its graphic hand-stitched designs.

A new painting by Reko Rennie, YESMOTHERFUCKERSYES, combines the original “Yes” font used in the 1967 referendum with the artist’s signature “Aboriginal camouflage”. The acclaimed contemporary artist has long explored his Kamilroi heritage, Aboriginal identity and issues faced by lndigenous communities in his works. This striking, primary-coloured piece will be on show at Rennie’s upcoming exhibition, Remix, at Station Gallery in Melbourne.

The 1967 referendum, where Australians voted overwhelmingly to change the Constitution to officially count Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as part of the population, similarly saw Aboriginal communities using fashion to share their message and spark discussion. First Nations slogan shirts, first worn in the 1970s, continue to be worn by both “yes” and “no” advocates during this campaign.

“It’s imperative to note that Mob merch with a message – you could call it

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