From the beginning, due to the climate, the general roughness of life and the lack of material goods led to a determination of the inhabitants of the colony of New South Wales to make do, as was very apparent from their clothing.
Clothing was in short supply right from the start, the First Fleet set a precedent by not carrying sufficient supplies of cloth or clothing for the convicts on board. The situation as more joined the colony. Those officials who eagerly awaited the arrival of the next ship, expecting to receive much needed food and clothing, were invariably met with yet another boatload of ragged underfed prisoners and no supplies.
The popular image of the convict in a plain suit covered in black arrows is a misleading one. For at least the first twenty years convicts wore their own clothes and once the marked suits appeared on the scene, not all male prisoners wore them and none of the females did.
The convicts who arrived with the First Fleet must have looked a mixed bag; some in labourers clothes, with others in city rags or the remnants of finery. The female convicts were reputed to have an insatiable appetite for ribbons and lace; indeed such tastes had been the downfall of many. In 1790 a convict reported that all the women look like gypsies. Many arrived with only the clothes they stood in. One woman convict wrote we have hardly any cloaths; but since the Scar borough, Neptune and Suprize arrived we have had a blanket and rug given us.
For those who arrived with a bundle of clothing, there was a handsome profit to be made as detailed in this letter published in the True Briton, 10 November 1798, entitled Letter of a Woman Lately Transported to Botany Bay, To Her Father.
I have sold my petticoats at two guineas each, and my long black cloak at ten guineas, which shows that black silk sells well here; that edging I gave 1 shilling and eight pence per yard for in England, I got 5 shillings for it here. I have sold all the worst of my cloaths, as wearing apparel brings a good price.
Lack of clothes led to ingenious improvisation, and certainly in the heat of summer, the convicts must have been more comfortable than the soldiers in their gaiters and red wool coats. Confiscation of clothing, especially in Van Diemen’s Land, was often recorded as an effective deterrent for winter runaways. When Macquarie became governor of New South Wales, conditions for the convicts began to improve. Old soldiers’ uniforms were sent out from England and died maroon before being distributed among the convicts. The well-worn dresses of female convicts were brightened by lace or ribbons perhaps received as gifts from sailors along the way.
A clothing factory was set up, to employ the women convicts, at the Female Penitentiary at Parramatta. This factory continued to operate well into the 1820’s and the production of coarse Parramatta cloth and improved supplies from England meant that each male prisoner was issued with a woollen jacket, worsted stockings, a couple of shirts, a pair of duck trousers, a scarf, a hat and if they were lucky, shoes. Both well-clad convicts and free men wore moleskin or duck trousers and hats made from kangaroo skin or narrow strips of palm. These woven hats, known as cabbage tree hats, were worn in country districts for many years. Duck trousers were made from tough untwilled cotton and had been worn by sailors since the beginning of the eighteenth century. Both the hats and duck trousers became traditional Australian clothing and led to the Australians who went to the Californian goldfields in the 1840s being known as Sydney Ducks.
Taken from Duck Trousers and Cabbage Tree hats, The First Fifty Years of Colonial Fashion. Two Hundred Years Issue No.40
Article published in the First Fleet Folio June 1997, Issue 70
Illustration by Pat Crothers for an article on Authentic Convict Outfits (First Fleet Folio April 1996, Issue 63). Pat had to have a convict outfit for the 1988 celebrations and a trip to Norfolk Island. Pat was introduced to a lady who had made a study of costumes and she came up with a list of suggestions, together with her own research, and Pat made her costume by hand as authentically as was able.