What to wear in Australia? A trendy beanie, of course

Central Australian Aborigines keep everything from car keys to photos of the grandkids under their beloved beanies.

The sunburnt, red landscape of central Australia is usually celebrated for its unrelenting heat. But at this time of year – winter in the Southern Hemisphere – it's the cold that rules.

And for many people that means one thing: beanie season.

If you use the definition of the organizers of Alice Springs' just-concluded annual Beanie Festival, a beanie is "any head gear whose primary function is warmth."

But that doesn't mean people here settle for austere wool noggin warmers that you'd wear through a New England winter.

A good beanie is handmade, colorful, bound to inspire giggles and rivalries and, occasionally, even a good debate.

Like many things in this part of the world, it's in Aboriginal culture that the cult of the beanie has many of its roots.

All over central Australia – in summer as well as winter – Aboriginal women young and old sport beanies. In many cases, beanies are for them what a purse is to their counterparts in the developed world, a fashionable yet handy keep-all.

"You'll say 'have you got the keys to the car?' And they'll rip off their beanies and the keys will be right there on top of their head," says Adi Dunlop, a crafts teacher who heads the Beanie Festival's organizing committee. "I've even met one old Aboriginal lady who keeps pictures of her grandchildren in her beanie."

For a traditionally nomadic people who have wandered the outback for some 60,000 years – making Aboriginal culture the oldest still enduring – the beanie is considered a relatively recent arrival, according to Ms. Dunlop.

But is it really?

For years, the consensus has been that beanies were born on Christian missions set up in the outback in the 1930s and at sheep stations in South Australia, where Aborigines were taught to work with wool.

But that isn't necessarily the Aboriginal version. Many people now say they brought their own weaving tradition to the missions and, as Dunlop says, "Aboriginal people can't imagine a time when they didn't have beanies."

The answer may lie in a beanie that for years has been locked up in a museum in Leipzig, Germany, according to Dunlop. A beanie from what Aborigines call the Dreamtime, or creation. A beanie now revered in beanie culture as the possible ancestor of all beanies.

"It's like the missing link," Dunlop says. "Everyone says that beanie was pre-contact [with Australia's European settlers]."

Of course these days there are more immediate debates too.

At this year's Beanie Festival, a tussle broke out for top prizes between the more colorful, wacky old guard, and the new guard of more sedate, plainly fashionable beaniemakers. A battle between the court jesters and the fashionistas, if you will.

And evolving out of beanie culture are whole subgroups that don't always see eye to eye.

There are "thug boy beanies" (think Aboriginal equivalent of African- Americans "do rag"); "footie beanies" (for Australian Rules football fans); and even "quite smart beanies" (beanies that, in Dunlop's words "you'd be quite happy to wear to the races.")

That diversity is what makes beanie culture interesting for Kevin Murray, director of Craft Victoria, an organization for craftspeople in the state of Victoria, and head judge at this year's Beanie Festival. "It doesn't feel as though it's owned by one culture."

But not all is well in beanie land, he adds. There are places where the beanie has been experiencing a slow death.

With TV undermining attendance at live Australian Rules football matches, the once vibrant, homemade "footie beanie" isn't quite what it used to be.

"People who used to need a beanie to go to the football [matches] and face the elements just don't need them anymore," Murray says forlornly.

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