Azaria Chamberlain's dress
Azaria's black dress
The public comment that this small black outfit generated on its first outing was nothing compared to the interest taken in it after Azaria Chamberlain, aged nine weeks, disappeared at Uluru (then known as Ayers Rock) on the evening of 17 August 1980.
The Chamberlain case became one of the biggest legal and media events of the 1980s. An initial inquest agreed with the Chamberlains' statement that a dingo had entered the family tent and taken the baby, but a subsequent trial found Lindy Chamberlain guilty of the murder of her child. Mrs Chamberlain was imprisoned for three years before further investigations and legal proceedings eventually cleared her and her husband Michael of any connection with the disappearance of their daughter. The case took over 15 years to resolve and involved every level of the Australian legal system, from a coroner's court in Alice Springs to the High Court in Canberra.
Interest in the case was intense. During the 1980s, the subject of the guilt or innocence of Lindy Chamberlain obsessed the nation. Discussions rarely focused on the facts of the case. Speculation centred instead on other elements of the Chamberlains' lives in which the public developed a consuming interest. The fact that the Chamberlains were Seventh-Day Adventists led to a plethora of bizarre rumours and theories. For instance, it was said that Adventists believed in sacrificing a child to atone for sin and that Azaria's name actually meant 'sacrifice in the wilderness'. These ideas took hold of the public imagination and provided fodder for further debate and outrage.
Out of this frenzy of speculation the rumour emerged that Lindy Chamberlain always dressed her baby in black - an unnatural colour for a child. This small black outfit became yet another sign of apparent guilt to an insatiable public.
For Azaria's six week check-up, both of us were
dressed in our matching black and red outfits.
It was the first time I had ever taken her out publicly
in a little black cotton dress I had made for Reagan
and it caused quite a bit of comment.
People either loved or hated it.
Through My Eyes, 1990, p. 16
In 1992, Lindy Chamberlain began working with the National Library of Australia to document her archival collection. During the course of this work, it became apparent that she also possessed many important objects relating to her family's story. Recognising the importance of Azaria's story, the National Museum of Australia set about selectively acquiring this collection, eventually amassing over 250 items relating to the Chamberlains' ordeal. The collection includes courtroom sketches from the Chamberlain trial, camping equipment (including tent pegs that were submitted as evidence), the parka worn by Lindy at the camp site and part of the dashboard that was used as forensic evidence.
Controversy and interest surrounding the Chamberlain case continues to this day. Both the National Museum of Australia and the Chamberlain-Creighton family have faced criticism in putting the Chamberlain collection together. Many saw the collection to be in bad taste. The project was seen as another way in which Mrs Chamberlain was exploiting her experiences. A number of people expressed the opinion that the case was too recent, and the wounds too raw, for the Museum to become involved.
Lindy Chamberlain's experiences of public scrutiny and judgement have made her a perceptive collector and archivist. She has worked with the Museum to put together a fascinating collection of which this tiny black dress is a significant, evocative and moving part.
Conversation with Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton and Sophie Jensen - audio and transcript available