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

<span>Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

In May 1848 merchant’s wife Anne Sykes rustled on to the dancefloor in a dress made of pink and purple silk taffeta. Her husband, Adam, was quite possibly in the cream velvet pile waistcoat that he had got for his birthday. Or perhaps he had opted for the bright silk tartan one. Either way, the young couple must have shimmered as they waltzed, giving the lie to the idea that the early Victorians mostly preferred to look as if they were off to a funeral.

Found on a market stall in the 1970s, an album that Sykes kept throughout much of her early adult life contains 2,000 swatches of fabric, all neatly snipped and mounted. Rather than collect her friends’ and family’s autographs, she asked instead for a sample of their clothes, which she then carefully transferred on to paper and annotated, much as you might do with seashells or foreign stamps. The result is an extraordinarily rich record of middle-class Victorian life, both at home and abroad (the Sykeses spent seven years in Singapore, which is where the pink and purple silk taffeta made its dazzling debut).

Kate Strasdin does not present us with a facsimile of the album, although there are coloured plates to give us a sense of its riotous diversity. Instead she uses it as a tool to unpick the dense network of economic, social and cultural threads woven into the samples. In the process she touches on everything from Britain’s continued importation of cotton from the American slave states to the permissive delights of going to a fancy dress party dressed as Dolly Varden, one of Charles Dickens’s saucier heroines. There is even a snippet from a pirate flag donated by Admiral Cochrane, a reminder that life a long way from home was not always a matter of lace trimmings and pearl buttons.

Some of Anne’s friends and family made multiple deposits in her collection, which allows Strasdin to stitch together a sense of them as individuals. There is Mary, Anne’s elder sister, whose taste tends to the blowsy: bright rose motifs splattered over black silk, and plenty of ombre gauze to trick the eye. Even more distinct is the aptly named Bridget Anne Peacock, who enthusiastically embraced the bright new palette that arrived after 1860 courtesy of aniline dyes. One of the big revelations of Strasdin’s fascinating book is the extent to which men participated in this dynamic material culture. Adam Sykes was clearly partial to a fancy waistcoat, which on occasions must have made him look like a courting bird of paradise. Rather sweetly, men presented each other with waistcoats as tokens of esteem.

It was Adam too who had given “my charming Anne” the pink, silk-covered album shortly after their marriage in 1838. When Strasdin acquired it she had no idea who the Sykeses were. Careful sleuthing through census and parish records has allowed her to flesh them out. 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 make his way up the merchant hierarchy. The couple, who had no children, returned to Lancashire in 1849 and settled into a life of gentrified retirement in a country house outside Blackpool, far from the spinning machines and the counting houses on which their fortune depended.

To date, no photographs of the Sykeses have emerged, despite them both living well into the age of the camera. But perhaps this is apt. It was portrait photography, after all, that displaced all those pastimes of hair snipping, autograph hunting and even frock sampling, with which the earlier Victorians tried to maintain bonds with their loved ones and which we now find so strange. It is telling that as Anne Sykes moved into the 1870s her interest in her sample book dwindled, 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.