One of the more recent entries to the Australian Dress Register website has been a typical 1930’s mans’ suit from the Powerhouse Museums’ own collection. The suit belonged to Ted Docker and was acquired in 1994 by donation from his son John Docker.
Ted left school at 16, and went into carpentry, learning the trade from his father Henry (the tools used by both father and son form part of the John Docker collection at the National Museum of Australia).
He was a member of the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) until this organisation was declared illegal in Australia in 1916. In October 1920 he became a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia, and served the party in a number of positions over the next forty years. He participated in a number of industrial struggles, including the timber workers’ strike of 1929, the miners’ lockout of 1929-30, and the miners’ strike of 1949.
He was also present during, although not involved in, the Kalgoorlie Riots of 1934. He encouraged the workers to demand better pay and working conditions, rather than demanding the expulsion of foreign workers. Ted Docker’s attempt to stop the riots against Yugoslav and Italian miners and their families is described in Katherine Susannah Prichard’s novel, ‘Winged Seeds’, published in 1950.
Ted Docker’s suit is a fine example of Australian working class wear from the 1930’s. The suit is said to have been made by the Communist party’s own tailor, Tim Stillman, this is further confirmed by the fact the suit is professionally made yet has no label. Within the context of the Powerhouse Museum’s own collection; it forms part of a small example of early 20th century men’s wear that is not ‘High Fashion’.
The significance of this suit lies in its completeness and excellent provenance as an example of menswear from the 1930s, also to its direct link with Australian politics of the time, the ferment of which was caught up with global political developments culminating in the outbreak of the Second World War. In Australia the Communist movement was perceived with suspicion by the government and as a real threat to democracy and national security. As a result Ted, along with other family members, was monitored and kept under surveillance by various Government agencies including the Commonwealth Investigation Branch, the Commonwealth Investigations Service and later the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
As a full-time delegate of the Communist Party of Australia, Ted travelled constantly attending rallies and conferences and meeting with people. His ideological thinking, reflecting the party’s anti-capitalist beliefs, meant that during this time he never owned a house or a car. Yet as an important representative within the party, he owned an individually crafted suit by the party’s own tailor. The suit was probably his most valuable possession. Incredibly, a description of Ted wearing such a suit survives from declassified documents of the Commonwealth Investigative Bureau from 1934, while he was under surveillance, during a trip to England, it reads:
‘In case you have not an up-to-date description of DOCKER the following was provided by the police officer at Tilbury Dock:- …dressed in a dark grey mixture suit with black stripes, light brown trilby hat with dark brown band, cream coloured shirt and collar, light blue tie, black shoes, carrying light grey overcoat.’ – from declassified ASIO documents, National Archives of Australia, Record no: A6119.
The onset of the Cold War after WWII triggered a decline in Communist Party membership in Australia. After the coal strike of 1949, Ted Docker ceased to be a party leader, though he remained a member till his death in 1983.
He was still wearing the suit in the 1970s, including to his son’s wedding in July 1971.
With the fall of the Iron Curtain and many former Communist countries declaring independence, the Party dissolved in 1991.<