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
Interview: Patrick Stewart
“I acted Macbeth for exactly 365 days,” says the actor, whose new memoir is “Making It So.” “The role got into me so deeply it dominated my life at the time and caused me to drink too much alcohol after the performance was over. No other role I have played has affected me so profoundly.”
Can You Connect These Memorable Characters With Their Novels?
Welcome to Lit Trivia, the Book Review’s multiple-choice quiz designed to test your knowledge of books and their authors. This week’s installment asks you to identify memorable characters from mid-20th-century novels. After the last question, you’ll find a list of books highlighted in the quiz.
The Book Review Quiz Bowl appears on the Books page every week with a new topic. Click here for the archive of past quizzes.
Modern Masculinity Is Broken. She Knows How to Fix It.
With the arrival of her part memoir, part manifesto “How to Be a Woman” in 2011, Caitlin Moran established herself as one of her generation’s funniest and most fearless feminist voices. Moran, who is 48 and who first made her mark in the early 1990s as a wunderkind music journalist for British publications, has published four ribald and emotionally honest books of nonfiction and two novels since then and has continued to work as a columnist at The Times of London. Now, with her new book, “What About Men?” Moran turns her eye to what she sees as the limited and limiting discussions around modern masculinity. It’s a book she felt duty-bound to write. “All the women that I know on similar platforms,” Moran says, speaking about fellow writers, “we’re out there mentoring young girls and signing petitions and looking after the younglings. The men of my generation with the same platforms have not done that. They are not having a conversation about young men. So given that none of them have written a book that addresses this, muggins here is going to do it.”
There’s a lot of generalizing in your book when it comes to men: They’re obsessed with band T-shirts and emotionally inarticulate and constantly talking about their balls. Is it possible that relying so heavily on those kinds of jokey stereotypes and clichés risks undercutting the deeper points you’re trying to make about the need to open up possibilities for how we think and talk about masculinity? I’m a mainstream writer. If I’m going to start talking about a difficult idea, I want to approach it in the most successful way possible. You need to start with a generalization that is going to get people to go either, “Yes, I recognize myself in that,” or, “No, I don’t agree.” Maybe a lot of people are going, “Men are emotionally literate, they can talk to each other,” but I sat down to watch “The Bear,” which has been lauded everywhere, and it’s about men who can’t talk about their emotions. I see that as a far more clichéd depiction than anything that I’ve done in this book.
Part of the framing of your book is that there’s not enough discussion about young men’s struggling to adapt to changing ideas about masculinity. I feel as if that’s a big topic of conversation these days. So what is the fresh thinking that you’re bringing to it? Feminism has a stated objective, which is the political, social, sexual and economic equality of women. With men, there isn’t an objective or an aim. Because there isn’t, what I have observed is that the stuff that is getting the most currency is on the conservative side. Men going: “Our lives have gotten materially worse since women started asking for equality. We need to reset the clock. We need to have power over women again.” We are talking about the problems of women and girls at a much higher level than we are about boys and men. We need to identify the problems and work out what we want the future to look like for men in a way that women have already done for themselves.
You used to write a lot of celebrity profiles. Can you tell me a good anecdote about a famous person that you’ve never told before? The New York Times would never publish it. Absolutely filthy.
Try me. [Moran tells an epically filthy story about a British one-hit wonder from the 1990s.] You’re not printing that, are you?
How do you think the public discussion of feminism has changed since “How to Be a Woman”? I think the younger generation of feminists are even more open-minded and openhearted and sincere in what they do. But the downside is that a lot of the humor and the lightheartedness and the ability to ask a question about an idea has gone. The thing that I observe in younger women and activists is that they’re scared of going online and using the wrong word or asking the wrong question. As a result, we’re not having the free flow of ideas and questions that makes a movement optimal. We appear to have reinvented religion to a certain extent: the idea that there is a sentient thing watching you and that if you do something wrong, it will punish you. God is very much there in social media. I feel that having been born in an era before social media, I grew up godless, and it made me a lot freer than my daughters’ generation.
What’s an idea that people are afraid to talk about more openly? Trans issues. In the U.K., you are seen to be on one of two sides. It’s the idea that you could be a centrist and talk about it in a relaxed, humorous, humane way that didn’t involve two groups of adults tearing each other to pieces on the internet.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.
David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and the columnist for Talk. He recently interviewed Alok Vaid-Menon about transgender ordinariness, Joyce Carol Oates about immortality and Robert Downey Jr. about life after Marvel.
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