The cloaks were made from numerous possum pelts sewn together with kangaroo sinew, and often decorated with significant incisions on the inside such as clan insignias. They were rubbed with ochre and fat to both decorate and protect them.
As well as being a significant means of keeping warm in this often chilly part of Australia, there was much importance around the making of the cloaks and their wearing. They were handed down through generations as heirlooms. As with most Australian Aboriginal belongings, there were many uses for the one thing – the cloaks were also used as blankets, mattresses and to wrap babies.
They were all clothed with Mantles made of the skins of o'possums which were very neatly sewn together and the outside of the skins were carved in a remarkably neat manner. They appear to be very inoffensive and cleanly in their persons.
The warm and weather-proof possum skin cloaks were also recognised and appreciated by European settlers in the outback, where they became a highly regarded personal item. Alexander Harris describes one as follows from his personal knowledge in the early 1830s:
... the opossum [of a large species] trapped by the wandering shepherd for amusement, as he follows his flock along by the woodside, furnish the material for a blanket [or cloak, to use the phrase of the country] of the most luxurious, furry softness. Sixty-three [9 x 7] of these skins are the stated complement for one blanket or cloak; when made it is large enough doubled to envelope a tall man completely beyond head and feet. As a bed and blanket in one, there is, I suppose, nothing on earth that surpasses it, whilst as a protection against a day's rain it is as efficacious as a roof of a house.
They are also reasonably common in accounts of the gold rush period of the mid-19th century, but gradually become rarities, and restricted to observations of Aboriginal people encountered on the margins of white settlement.
Decline in use
As Aboriginal people were dispossessed of their land, the making and wearing of cloaks became rarer. In addition, white missionaries and others were very efficient in the distribution of clothing and blankets to Aboriginal communities which, over a few generations, caused the tradition of possum skin cloak making to die out. Blankets and clothing were not as warm or as waterproof as the cloaks, and contributed to the spread of diseases such as the common cold in the Aboriginal population.
Possum skin cloaks today
Two possum-skin cloaks are in Museum Victoria's collection. One, which dates from 1853, is made from 83 possum skins. There are also cloaks at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, as well as four in overseas collections. The Krowathunkooloong Keeping Place, a museum of the Gunaikurnai nation in Bairnsdale in regional Victoria, also has possum skin cloaks on display; in the Gunai language they were called batha maruk.
A recent book, Wrapped in a Possum Skin Cloak, by Amanda Reynolds, Debra Couzens, Vicki Couzens, Lee Darroch and Treahna Hamm, tells the story of some south-eastern Aboriginal people, two Gunditjmara women and two Yorta Yorta women, who set out in 1999 to relearn the lost craft of possum-skin cloak-making.
- Reproduction of a possum skin cloak collected in 1872 from Lake Condah, National Museum of Australia
- National Quilt Register
- National Gallery of Victoria exhibition, including a large painting of Wurundjeri in possum-skin cloaks
- John So, Lord Mayor of Melbourne in a traditional Wurundjeri possum-skin cloak (Jiawei Shen, 2005 Archibald Prize Finalist)
- Culture Victoria: a series of video interviews and portraits of Elders in Victoria wearing possum skin cloaks
- Sarah Rhodes | Photographer: a series of formal portraits of Elders in Victoria wearing possum skin cloaks
- Making an Aboriginal possum skin cloak, ABC Newcastle
- Australian Geographic | The Aboriginal art of making possum-skin cloaks
- Cloaking the Aboriginal Past, NY Times, June 5, 2012
- Ancient Traditions, New Stories: Reviving the Aboriginal Possum Skin Cloak, Aviva Shen, Smithsonian.com, June 27, 2012
- Elder, Bruce, Blood on the Wattle: Massacres and maltreatment of Aboriginal Australians since 1788, New Holland Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd, Frenchs Forest, 1988, ISBN 1-86436-410-6 p 51
- Harris 1961 pp. 129-30
- ISX Forums: Indigenous Business focusing on Arts and Culture: Wrapped in a Possum Skin Cloak
- "Krowathunkooloong, Brabawooloong Country, The Keeping Place (Bairnsdale)". Bataluk Cultural Trail website. Gippsland and East Gippsland Aboriginal Co-operative. Retrieved 27 February 2013.
- Reynolds, Amanda Jane, Wrapped in a Possum Skin Cloak, National Museum of Australia, 2005 ISBN 1-876944-36-6
- Harris, Alexander The secrets of Alexander Harris: a frank autobiography by the author of Settlers and Convicts, Angus + Robertson, Sydney 1961.