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Book Review: ‘The Dress Diary,’ by Kate Strasdin

Mar 14, 2024


“The Dress Diary” is an intimate record of one wardrobe — and its era.

Anne Sykes’s collection of fabric remnants, lovingly preserved in an album, documents not merely her life but the Victorian era. Credit...via Pegasus Books

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By Raissa Bretaña

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THE DRESS DIARY: Secrets From a Victorian Woman’s Wardrobe, by Kate Strasdin

The way we dress is a fundamental expression of identity: Garments function as indicators of aesthetic tastes, cultural values and social status. For Anne Sykes, an Englishwoman who documented her wardrobe nearly 200 years ago, her clothes are her legacy.

“The Dress Diary” paints a vivid portrait of 19th-century life through the lens of this personal sartorial history. Its entries are not composed of words, but rather, pieces of fabric — over 2,000 textile fragments in a bound album, which, after a stint in a Camden market stall and decades in storage, came into the possession of the fashion historian Kate Strasdin. Instantly, she knew she had found something extraordinary.

The keeping of collections of one kind or another was a popular hobby in the Victorian era, but Strasdin suggests that the reason this particular dress diary had gone overlooked (and perhaps why more like it don’t survive) is “the double ignominy of being about largely female experiences and about dress” — concerns that have been historically devalued. Unlike the few other known textile scrapbooks — all of which focus on a sole owner — this one includes contributions from over 100 subjects: friends, members of the household, acquaintances met while living abroad. Over the course of six years, Strasdin embarked on a detailed investigation to unlock the mysteries of this diary and its keeper — whom she identifies as one Mrs. Anne Sykes, the wife of a prosperous merchant.

The inaugural entry commemorates Sykes’s wedding day in 1838 with a neat rectangle of white-checked muslin and a piece of bobbin lace. Each that follows is carefully annotated, labeled with names, places and events; facsimiles of these diary pages are reproduced in a full-color insert.

Like an intrepid detective, Strasdin follows each thread and reconstructs Anne Sykes’s life — lifting her subject out of obscurity, while situating her story within a broader historical narrative.

Strasdin illuminates an era in fashion — the 1830s to the 1870s — characterized by dramatic change, the scraps of fabric witnesses to “the industrial maelstrom of the 19th century with all its noise, color and innovation.” The scrapbook chronicles influential developments like the invention of the sewing machine, the introduction of the cage crinoline and the rise of the department store.

Using a combination of highly illustrative prose and reproductions of fashion plates, the author details the evolution of fashionable silhouettes and helps us to envision how the small bits of fabric might have looked as complete garments. Still, it is the additional sociocultural context surrounding Victorian-era dress practices that brings these women’s wardrobes, and world, to life.

A selection of printed cottons from Sykes’s own wardrobe attests to the source of her family’s prosperity. As the daughter of a prominent Lancashire millowner, Anne enjoyed a comfortable upbringing — which Strasdin mindfully contextualizes within the global cotton trade. Swatches of pale-colored silks belonging to the “Misses Wrigley” conjure magnificent ball gowns, and speak to the elaborate social codes that governed apparel at a time when, thanks in part to a rising middle class, “dress had grown increasingly complex as an indicator of time of day and occasion.”

A trio of mostly black fabric samples donated by a Hannah Coubrough marks a period of bereavement following the death of Coubrough’s mother, allowing Strasdin to discuss the strict etiquette surrounding the Victorian “cult of mourning that grew ever more powerful as the century progressed.” Meanwhile, the bright purple hues on the dresses attributed to a lady with the apt name of “Bridget Anne Peacock” announce the arrival of synthetic dyes — and with it, an irresistible opportunity to discuss those laced with arsenic, leaving a trail of green-tinged victims in their wake.

The author is forthcoming about the limitations of her source material, and notes the paradox of the dress diary — which “offers such intimacy through the very fabrics that clothed their bodies, but in fact reveals very little.” And like the fabrics preserved in the diary’s pages, the stories that emerge are fragmentary. Strasdin manages to deftly flesh out her narrative by drawing upon newspaper articles, censuses, ship manifests, etiquette guides, surviving letters and contemporary literature. More impressive still is the fact that she conducted the bulk of her research remotely during the pandemic, which limited her to online sources. (If there were ever a case to be made for open-access digitized archives, this is it.)

Strasdin’s detailed explication of Victorian-era dress is sure to delight the fashion history enthusiast, but “The Dress Diary” has much wider appeal. It is a work of sociology, and a testament to fashion history as an inherently interdisciplinary field inextricably combining industry and aesthetics, technology and trade. This feat of research represents the apotheosis of dress scholarship — and from these findings, Kate Strasdin crafts a compelling narrative that challenges the “deep-seated perception of dress as superficial and inconsequential.”

For Anne Sykes and the other women in her book, her efforts are entirely consequential. This diary serves as a record of their very existence, and provides a glimpse into the ephemeral world inhabited by the unsung “participants in everyday life.”

Raissa Bretaña is a New York-based fashion historian and faculty member in the history of art department at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

THE DRESS DIARY: Secrets From a Victorian Woman’s Wardrobe | By Kate Strasdin | Illustrated | 303 pp. | Pegasus Books | $28.95


THE DRESS DIARY: Secrets From a Victorian Woman’s WardrobeTHE DRESS DIARY: Secrets From a Victorian Woman’s Wardrobe