The body and how it is covered and decorated is an important signifier within any society. Physical adornments communicate a wide range of information including age, status, gender and relative affluence. Members of a community have no difficulty reading each others appearance, but when members of two different societies come together in close physical proximity, it is not only their languages which are mutually incomprehensible, but their customs, values and morality which are often reflected in what they wear, how they treat their hair and other physical indicators, ‘In many early cross-cultural encounters … it seems dress served to bewilder or mislead rather than inform.1 In this article I investigate early encounters between Aboriginal people in central Australia and two waves of missionaries who came to their lands, the first in the late 1870s and the second in the 1930s, and the perceptions of bodily adornment by the two sides of these encounters. By the 1930s anthropological ideas of pristine cultures and the ‘authentic’ Aborigine had changed the views of missionaries and other settler officials responsible for Aboriginal administration, yet the field notes of anthropologists who visited central Australia suggest that their cultural relativism was not very thoroughgoing.2 Missionaries and anthropologists had clear ideas about whether Aboriginal bodies should be clothed or naked and tried to impose these views on Aboriginal people without consulting them over their own preferences. The evidence suggests that Aboriginal people were attracted to clothing and sought it out, but experimented with garments in ways which both missionaries and anthropologists found disconcerting resulting in tensions between Aboriginal people and missionaries over when and how clothes should be worn.
Central Australia is a vast, largely arid area encompassing the southern part of present day Northern Territory, northern South Australia and the arid interior of Western Australia. It was, and still is, a thinly populated territory. Several Aboriginal language groups occupied the region organised into small kin-based food gathering units which moved over large distances between scarce water sources to find seasonal food, coming together from time to time for ceremonial and other activities when environmental conditions allowed. Because of the harsh climate this region was one of the last to be colonised by Euro-Australians. Lutheran missionaries were among vanguard of settlers. Their mission station, Hermannsburg, gradually attracted local Arrernte people and then people from further west. By the 1930s the Lutherans were trying to discourage this eastward movement to Hermannsburg by establishing outstations. At the same time the Presbyterians (now the Uniting Church of Australia) concerned about the impact of uncontrolled contacts between Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people and Euro-Australians to the south west of Hermannsburg in northern South Australia founded Ernabella mission in the Musgrave Ranges in 1937.3
The late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century missionaries believed religious change could only occur among people who had adopted their sense of moral and physical propriety. As part of this project of cultural change they set out to cover Aboriginal bodies in European clothing. By the 1930s missionaries accepted that cultural change could follow religious change, rather than being a precondition for it. They were no longer affronted by Aboriginal nakedness, and at Ernabella the missionaries discouraged adults and forbad children from wearing clothes influenced by the burgeoning discipline of anthropology which also had an impact on Australian government policies.*
A group of ordained and lay Lutheran missionaries arrived on the banks of the Finke River in central Australia in June 1877 after a long journey of 19 months from the German settlement in the Barossa Valley in southern South Australia. They immediately set out to build a settlement for themselves to which they hoped to attract the local Arrernte people, ‘The native people among whom we were to work left us in peace for the time being. So books, pen and paper could also have a spell … We made use of axe, saw and hammer [to start building Hermannsburg mission].’4 It took two months for the first Arrernte men to appear at the encampment. They were described as vigorous and stately. The missionaries offered them a shirt and some food. As more men began to visit the small settlement...