Pointy shoes and pith helmets: dress and identity construction in Ambon from 1850 to 1942



Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Faculty of Creative Arts


This dissertation explores identity construction through an analysis of clothing during the last century of Dutch colonial rule in the central Moluccan islands of Indonesia. It addresses a gap in knowledge about dress and adornment in the main island of Ambon. This interdisciplinary investigation crosses sociocultural studies and history. It outlines the presence of Europeans in the eastern corner of the Indonesian archipelago since the sixteenth century when they secured trading routes of the fabled spices nutmeg, pepper and mace. Initially the Portuguese, and during the seventeenth century the Dutch, managed to establish a monopoly on the growing and purchase of cloves. The central Moluccan islands, and in particular Ambon, became one of the main trading posts. Thanks to the longstanding involvement of the Dutch East India trading company (VOC) and the Dutch government there is an exceptionally large amount of resources such as government documentation and reports, photographs, ethnographic and scientific information available for researching the life in the central Moluccan islands. However, sustained investigation into material culture and outward expression is notably absent. The Ambonese people occupied a special place in Dutch colonial times, and their unique social, political and religious position was registered on their bodies through specific items of clothing and dress combinations. Western superiority over local Ambonese was emphasised through technological advancement, religious sobriety, social sophistication, economic dominance and superior technologies of dress and body maintenance. This enforced a visual separation in appearance between the Ambonese and Europeans. Colonialism fostered a strong desire among indigenous Ambonese to nurture ethnic ideals of identity and in doing so both Ambonese and colonists continuously redefined position and class through clothing and adornment. This research describes unique items of clothing and their particular usage that clearly indicated membership of various layers of indigenous, ethnic Christian and ethnic Muslim Ambonese society, as well as social order within Dutch colonial culture. In this research I argue that the identity of the colonised and the coloniser was mediated by embodied social and cultural experiences. Intricate fashions of dress emphasised the relationship that links the body with the dynamic interplay of various power structures in, and between, dominant and subordinate colonial societies. Contemporary thought has shown how bodies are socially constituted and situated in culture. In contrast to Foucauldian concepts of societal response I argue that identity formation via dress practice is an interactive social construction that helps shape society. Drawing on the work of Entwistle (2000) and Wilson (1985) who argue for dress as a ‘situated embodied practice’‚ I use Arthur Frank’s ‘Typology of Body Use in Action’ model (Frank 1991:54) as a conceptual framework to facilitate my approach. I demonstrate how this model provides an analytical theory as a basis of sociocultural enquiry into dress experience (embodiment) and intent (usage) in the context of space and time in order to define material identity construction in a colonial milieu.


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Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.