Bushranging is a great Australian tradition dating back to the first fleet. In the time since fashions have changed wildly, but strangely there is a very specific look assigned to the bushrangers that doesn’t really reflect the reality. The modern interpretation of the bushranger look is heavily influenced by popular media depictions of the Wild West and stockmen creating a strange mix of Akubras and six shooters as seen in the TV series Wild Boys.
The Bolters (1788 – 1820)
The early bushrangers were usually referred to as “bolters” and tended to be escaped convicts. In the beginning convicts wore civilian clothes but as time rolled on and prisons were established in Australia prison uniforms were introduced. The typical outfit of the bolter was breeches or trousers, stockings, leather shoes, cotton shirt with a high collar, cravat, waistcoat, tail coat or sack coat and stovepipe hat, sometimes a cloth cap. Lucky fellows could even get their hands on fashionable Wellington boots that were favoured by the upwardly mobile for riding horses. These garments, intended for urban living, did not fare well in the unforgiving bushland and thus clothes were frequently the most stolen thing in this era along with basic provisions like blankets and food. A case in point is the villainous Michael Howe who had become a loner and rarely emerged from the bush by the end of his life. He was described as being dressed in rags and a cloak of kangaroo skins stitched together like a kind of murderous Tasmanian Ben Gunn (a far cry from the leather coat and Akubra look sported by Damon Herriman in The Outlaw Michael Howe).
The first true bushrangers (1820 – 1850)
The 1820s saw bushrangers assuming the highwayman role they would become known for. With bushrangers like Brady and McCabe we saw a continuation of the mock-gentleman style. With cutaway frock coats and Wellington boots to compliment top hats and elegant cravats, the Australian highwaymen were dashing and bold. Yet not all bushrangers managed the look. As most were still escaped convicts raggedy prison uniforms were commonplace too – Alexander Pearce being a prime example. The relative difficulty in procuring new clothing meant clothing was a continued target for bushrangers. During this period flamboyant touches were common also with the Ribbon gang decorating their hats with white ribbons, while the Jewboy gang favoured pink ribbons. In fact Teddy the Jewboy (real name Edward Davis) was known for his eccentric style for, in addition to pink ribbons in his hat and horse’s bridle, he was known to wear a ring on every finger and his arms, hands and face were tattooed. Jack Donohoe wore an elegant blue superfine coat, pleated shirt and black top hat. By the end of this era of bushranging the idea of what a bushranger was and how they looked had changed dramatically. No longer were they merely bedraggled cut-throats that hid in the bush, now they were elegant highwaymen with manners and style who could ride a horse expertly and vanish into the forest to escape pursuit.
The golden years (1850 – 1870)
The peak of bushranging came about in large part due to the gold rushes in New South Wales and Victoria. It was in this period that bushranging began to appeal to the settlers and not only the convicts looking to escape punishment. Clothing changed quickly in this era. Bushrangers like Martin Cash and Captain Melville adopted stylish long coats, Wellington boots and top hats to continue the trend of imitating the gentry much like those of the previous era, but as farm workers went bush Crimean shirts, moleskin trousers and cabbage-tree hats became more and more common. The stereotypical image of the bushranger manifested in this time mostly due to the sheer number of bushrangers and their adopted fashion. By the early 1860s the typical dress was Crimean shirt, cabbage tree hat or a low-crowned felt hat, Wellington or Hessian boots, moleskin trousers, colourful sashes worn around the waist and either long duck coats or the shorter, lighter sack coat usually worn with only the top button done up. This distinctive look was favoured by outlaws like Gardiner, Gilbert and Hall. Dan Morgan was sometimes described as wearing a California hat and grey poncho early in his career and Bluecap was known to wear a blue eye shade to cope with his opthalmia (in prison he was given spectacles with blue glass lenses for this reason). In many cases bushrangers wore the jewelry they pilfered on the road, sometimes wearing two or three fob watches and many rings as well as lockets. Native-born bushrangers wore their hair long and in many cases the longer it was the prouder they were (perhaps to indicate that they had spent a longer amount of time escaping the remorseless cut of the prison barber’s shears). These bushrangers were often fully equipped for bush faring with satchels and belt pouches within which were carried items like clasp knives, powder horns and bullet molds. With Harry Power’s capture in 1870 the golden era closed and with this cessation the archetype of the bushranger was firmly entrenched in Australian culture.
The last hurrah (1870 – 1900)
The last period of major bushranging is at the tail end of the 19th century wherein we got bushrangers like the Kelly Gang, Captain Moonlite and the Kenniffs. Fashion in this time had changed wildly from the first era of bushrangers bearing closer resemblance to modern styling. Moleskin and corduroy trousers were still usual as were cabbage tree hats and Crimean shirts, with some slight variations in the mix too. Collarless shirts were the new thing as paper collars could be added in formal settings (in this case the courtroom) and often worn without a tie. High crowned felt hats were also very popular, often with the brim upturned in front. Boots and bluchers with undercut heels were popular and the Kellys took a fancy to “larrikin” heels that were extremely tapered to obscure the foot size in any footprints left behind. Serge jackets, dust coats, strapped riding trousers and oilskins were also introduced to the style adding environmental protection that previous generations of outlaws didn’t have. The Kelly gang in particular enjoyed wearing clothing pilfered from New South Wales police that were well suited to riding such as police boots and skin tight riding trousers. The evolution of fashion enabled bushrangers at this time to have very individualised style rather than a typical look that helped confuse terrified civilians and hard worked police. Many bushrangers cultivated an image to make them stand out and none more so than Ned Kelly who fashioned home made armour to both protect and terrify.
Later bushrangers followed the trend of highly individualised style. The Kenniffs, Jessie Hickman, the Governor gang and so on did not fit the traditional mold of the bushranger in terms of style, merely dressing in common clothes giving them a rather unremarkable appearance that worked to their advantage. The boy bushrangers of the 1920s would just as likely dress like paperboys as shearers, recognisable as bushrangers only by their actions rather than their look. These diminutive delinquents had grand plans to be the next Ned Kelly but very few of them lasted longer than a week.
Bushrangers on film
By the time film came about bushrangers had developed a very specific image in the public consciousness that was translated into the costumes used in the various productions. Typically bushrangers would wear a floppy felt hat, shirt with rolled up sleeves, tall boots and white trousers with a thick belt around the waist, presumably inspired by many of the illustrations in books and newspapers of the time rather than actual descriptions and photographs.
Later films went for more of a cowboy aesthetic in an attempt to cash in on the success of the Western genre. The most conspicuous instance of this is the film Captain Thunderbolt. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Australian period films sought to replicate more accurately the clothes of the period, which we saw in Ben Hall, Ned Kelly and Mad Dog Morgan to varying degrees of fidelity. The Last Outlaw excepted, more recent forays into depicting the bushranging era on screen have fallen into the trap of either looking vaguely right or looking cool such as in the 2003 Ned Kelly with it’s disdain for hats and predilection for cowboy boots.
2016’s The Legend of Ben Hall prided itself on accuracy in all areas and this is demonstrably true in the costumes. Duck coats, tall boots, grubby outfits and more all match the era perfectly and nothing sums this up better than this image of actor Jack Martin as Ben Hall replicating the famous portrait of the bushranger.
The fashion of the bushrangers was as varied and ever changing as the bushrangers themselves. Although popular media has typically shown them as looking little more than stockmen with pistols, renewed interest is opening people up to these dramatically unique looking individuals and helping to shine a light on the true lifestyles of these bushranging banditti. The styling of bushrangers always reflects society of the time whether it’s a mocking emulation of the “respectable” classes or hard worn work clothes of the lower classes. In the modern world fashion is so unique and ever changing that from one season to the next you never know how people will dress so how could you hope to spot a bushranger on your travels?