Review of The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes by Kate Strasdin – the fabric of Victorian life

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In May 1848 the merchant’s wife Anne Sykes took to the dance floor in a dress made of pink and purple silk taffeta. Her husband, Adam, may have been in the velvet cream pile coat he had for his birthday. Or maybe he chose the bright silk tartan. Either way, the young couple must have sparkled as they waltzed, giving the lie to the belief that most early Victorians preferred to look as if they were going to a funeral.

Found on a market stall in the 1970s, an album kept by Sykes for much of her early adulthood contains 2,000 fabric swatches, all neatly spun and fitted. Instead of collecting autographs from her friends and family, she instead asked for a sample of their clothing, and then carefully transferred it to paper and annotated it, much as you would with seashells or foreign stamps. The result is an incredibly rich record of Victorian middle-class life, at home and abroad (the Sykeses spent seven years in Singapore, which is where the pink and purple silk taffeta made its spectacular debut).

Kate Strasdin does not present us with a facsimile of the album, although there are colored plates to give us an idea of ​​its riotous variety. Instead she uses it as a tool to untangle the dense web of economic, social and cultural threads interwoven in the examples. In the process she touches on everything from Britain’s continued importation of cotton from the slave states of America to the indulgent pleasure of going to a fancy party dressed as Dolly Varden, one of Charles Dickens’s saucier heroines. There’s even a fragment of a pirate flag donated by Admiral Cochrane, a reminder that life away from home wasn’t always about lace dressing and pearl buttons.

Some of Anne’s friends and family made multiple deposits in her collection, allowing Strasdin to piece together a sense of them as individuals. There is Mary, Anne’s older sister, who tends to the blowsy: bright rose motifs splattered over black silk, and plenty of ombre gauze to trick the eye. Even more notable is the aptly named Bridget Anne Peacock, who enthusiastically embraced the new bright palette that arrived after 1860 courtesy of aniline dyes. One of the highlights of Strasdin’s fascinating book is the extent to which men participated in this dynamic material culture. Adam Sykes was clearly involved in a fancy waistcoat, which at times made him look like a courting bird of paradise. Instead, men presented waistcoats to each other as signs of respect.

It was also Adam who gave “my charming Anne” the pink, silk-covered album shortly after their marriage in 1838. When Strasdin received it she had no idea who the Sykeses were. Careful sleuthing through census and parish records allowed her to refine them. Both were born into Lancashire manufacturing dynasties at a time when Britain produced more than half of all the world’s cotton. The move to Singapore allowed Adam to work his way up the merchant hierarchy. The couple, who had no children, returned to Lancashire in 1849 and settled into a life of genteel retirement in a country house outside Blackpool, far from the spinning machines and counting houses that occupied their home. luck depends.

To date, no photographs of the Sykeses have emerged, despite the fact that they are both living well in the age of the camera. But perhaps this is appropriate. It was portrait photography, after all, that displaced those pastimes of hair-pinning, autograph hunting and even frock sampling, with which the earlier Victorians tried to maintain links with their relatives that we find so strange now. It is said that as Anne Sykes moved into the 1870s, her interest in her sample book waned, and the final pages remain blank.

• The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes: Secrets from a Victorian Woman’s Wardrobe by Kate Strasdin is published by Chatto & Windus (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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