Nakedness and clothing in early encounters between Aboriginal people of Central Australia, missionaries and anthropologists
John Hopkins University Press
Faculty of Education and Arts
School of Communications and Arts
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.