Australian traditional culture is very different from other cultures around the world. And that’s understandable – Australian climate, flora and fauna, history, and lifestyle are truly unique. Most of the world knows too little about this one-country continent and the local traditions. One of the Australian traditional items of clothes used by the local indigenous tribes for thousands of years is a possum skin cloak that was used to protect the body, draw topographic maps, and write the story of its owner’s life.
These traditional cloaks are being used in Australia for thousands of years. And interestingly, this tradition is still followed – even in the 21st century, people continue to make possum skin cloaks. They even keep the tradition by making the markings inside of the cloak symbolic and similar to the original ones seen on vintage possum skin cloaks.
Australian possum skin cloaks were extremely popular among the local indigenous peoples. Usually, every person had one throughout the whole life. A baby first got a tiny cloak made just from a few possum pelts, and the cloak grew with the person as new pelts were added and new stories were written on the insides of the skins. Sometimes, the cloak of a respected grown-up person consisted of up to 50 and even more possum pelts.
The inner side of a possum skin cloak was covered with markings and writings. Of course, millennia-old cloaks contained symbols instead of text for obvious reasons. People marked leather with info about the person who owned the cloak, his/her family, native region, maps of the territory, and various other knowledge. This was sort of a personal notebook that contained all of the most important information.
For example, people often depicted maps with lakes, waterholes, and rivers on the cloaks because water is one of the most valuable resources in Australia. People taught their children and exchanged knowledge about places where you could find water. And they drew maps of these sources of water on cloaks to find them when need be.
The natives used bone tools or shell engravers to white on leather. They used ochre as ink. So, these marks on the cloak were long-lasting and could be read decades after they had been done. Of course, modern possum skin cloaks and markings on them are made with modern tools and techniques. But surprisingly, you can easily see symbols etched on the leather of the 19th-century cloaks with bone tools and ochre.
Besides being the ultimate books of life for the aboriginal Australian people, possum skin cloaks protected their wearers perfectly from the cold and rain. The southern part of Australia can be harsh in winter, so people needed something to warm up their bodies. And possum fur is very good for it, much better than most other animal skins on the continent. The possum hairs are hollow, so they don’t freeze, are rather waterproof, and keep the warmth better. At the same time, possum skins are great for the summer – they keep you cool because of those hollow hairs as well.
Traditional possum skin cloaks in Australia were an important everyday item. People wrapped their bodies in the cloak during the day, covered themselves at night, carried babies in them, etc. They are similar to the African blankets, Scottish great kilts, South-Asian shawls, Peruvian woven shoulder cloths, etc in their functionality.
At the same time, unfortunately, there are very few vintage (and no older than 19th-century) possum skin cloaks preserved in Australian museums and in the whole world. Why? Because possum skin cloaks were used throughout the owner’s life and went to the ground with his body after his death. So, these cloaks didn’t usually survive. Almost all of them disintegrated together with the wearer’s body. That’s why this authentic garment is so important, unique, and rare. It’s a heritage clothing piece of Australian indigenous tribes. And it’s wonderful that such traditional cloaks are still made today.