The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes

Kate Strasdin breathes new life into people and places with her exquisite new book
March 2, 2023

The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes - Secrets from a Victorian Woman’s Wardrobe by Kate Strasdin (Vintage) is a journey from the glorious North West of England to Singapore - and her return home again. Told through the medium of over 2000 swatches of material taken from garments worn by family and friends throughout her life, and collected in a precious and unique diary. The very first entry, and only entry made by another hand, is made by her husband, Adam Sykes. It is four snippets of material accompanied by notes, from dresses and waistcoats worn on their wedding day in 1838.

Strasdin, a fashion historian, curator, senior lecturer an avid stitcher, was given the diary by a dear friend and having never seen anything like it before, and with no reference to who this piece of Victorian history had belonged to, set about on a project of detection and research to understand who had painstakingly diarised their life, relationships and travel through beautiful and varied sized rectangular and oblong-shaped snippets of a myriad of material; all taken from clothes worn by treasured friends and family members.

Strasdin eventually had a breakthrough from clues in the notes within the diary to establish the keeper; Mrs Anne Sykes who was married in Tyldesley near Manchester, an industrial town entrenched in the textile industry of the mid-nineteenth century. Anne Sykes was the daughter of a prominent mill owner and grew up in and around the textile industry. Is this why she chose the medium of materials to tell her story? Always demonstrating her link with her family and home in the North West by using cloth and material as her anchor?

Throughout her life, Anne travelled to the far-flung port of Singapore where she continued the upkeep of her diary, having moved there with her husband to continue his career in the textile industry. The carefully annotated notebook holds records of wedding dresses, ribbons from bonnets and snippets of more unusual material fragments such as silk velvet in a bright-blue colour. The note accompanying these is “Mr Syke’s birthday slippers July 12 1846”. The fabric associated with the males around her doesn’t feature nearly as much as that from her female companions within the diary. Strasdin alludes to the fact that this demonstrates that the women in Syke’s life played an integral part to her being, again, anchoring her to her home and those she felt a sense of community with.

Through Anne Syke’s unusual form of diary-keeping, Kate Strasdin has written a book that tells of the highs and lows of the British textile industry throughout the Victorian era, explaining how a cottage industry in many parts of the UK, and in particular, the North West, evolved into a national powerhouse exporting globally, that gave what would have remained a provincial town, a key to open a door to the rest of the world. This is an interesting way of telling a history that a lot of us are familiar with from our school days but gives a new perspective of looking at it through beautifully coloured and patterned textiles that meant so much to the wearers and share some intimate moments of this particular time in history, the place and attitudes of a woman and the socio-economic situation Britain found itself in.

The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes is an interesting read which has piqued my interest in a subject I had never previously considered. Strasdin is thorough and engaging in her research and is expert at bringing moments in history alive.

The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes: Secrets from a Victorian Woman’s Wardrobe by Kate Strasdin is published by Chatto & Windus (£22)