Widow's cap from New South Wales

A widow's (or mourning) cap

Widow's cap (or mourning cap)

Widow's cap (or mourning cap)
Photographer:  © Australian Museum


This is a widow's cap (or mourning cap) from the Yandilla area in north-western New South Wales. It is made from a cast of woven cordage with 2 cm spaces. The cord net is covered with a layer of kopi, a white gypsum clay, which ranges from 2.5 to 3.0 cm in thickness. The deep imprint of the cord net can be seen inside the cap. It is the size of an average woman's head and is 27 cm long, 24 cm wide and 17 cm high.

Educational value

Widow's caps, a sign of mourning worn by many Indigenous women after the death of their husbands, had great religious and social significance and were worn throughout the mourning period. When mourning was deemed to be over the cap was placed at the burial site as a grave marker. In some communities this was done when the hair grew to a length at which the cap fell off. Some caps were also made to be placed on the grave.

Widow's caps, also known as 'kopis', 'korn', 'mulya', 'mungwarro', 'pa-ta' and 'yugarda' are always white, as it is the colour associated with mourning in Aboriginal communities, and the caps are given the same respect as human remains. There are regional variations in the style of cap, ranging from thick caps of up to 10 cm to thin layers of clay smeared on the widow's hair.

The widow's cap was made by women who first cropped the widow's hair, placed a net on her head, mixed gypsum to the consistency of a fine paste and applied multiple layers of the plaster. When completed the cap could be up to 10 cm thick, and some have been recorded as weighing from 2 to 7 kg. It was frequently necessary for the woman's head to be supported with sticks during the construction of the cap.

This cap is made from gypsum clay over a net of cordage made from twisted plant fibre. The plant fibres were rolled on the thigh to produce the length of string from which the net is made. In some communities the net was made from emu sinew. The white gypseous clay, commonly available around Australia, is mixed with water to make a type of plaster that solidifies when it dries.

The cap was collected by the Australian Museum in 1903 in Yandilla on the Darling River near Louth in north-west NSW. Burial sites have been found with many mourning caps; one in the Simpson Desert was found with forty in place, which may represent the burial site of a person highly respected by the local people.

Ms Helen Wheeler , Learning Services Operations Manager
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