Sunday, May 21, 2023

Weekend Review: The Dress Diary of Mrs. Anne Sykes


The Dress Diary of Mrs. Ane Sykes / Kate Strasdin
London: Chatto & Windus, c2023.
303 p.

This is a new book I've been eagerly awaiting! I've heard so many interviews with the author on many stitching and sewing podcasts, and first saw a mention of this upcoming book in Threads magazine last year. It's finally out, and my library got a copy :)

If you are interested in history, clothing, textiles, and material culture, you'll love this one. The author was given an unusual scrapbook, which was full of snippets of fabrics from across the lifetime of Mrs. Anne Sykes, stretching from her wedding day in 1838 onwards. These snippets had little annotations, but because Anne Sykes referred to herself in the third person, Strasdin had difficulty finding out who had created this book and the context for it. But in one entry only, Anne Sykes referred to herself in first person, and that helped Strasdin crack the code. 

The book is then made up of chapters describing the scrapbook itself, or sharing the history of some of the textiles included (like the cottons that made Anne Sykes' family's fortunes), and also an explanation of Singapore's colonial society (where Anne and her husband lived for a few years after their marriage). Then, some of the chapters explore the other people who Anne included in her book, especially the ones who show up repeatedly with many swatches. 

Thankfully for a book of this kind, there is also a central section with many colour plates of various fabrics from the original. It was fascinating to see them all, and I found some of them quite striking and not what you'd expect from the mid-1800s -- one in particular looked so art deco I was shocked to see it there. My favourite was the green and red checkerboard on the bottom row below -- striking indeed! I'd buy that fabric today if I saw it out there :) 

This is more of a social history inspired by Mrs. Anne Sykes' diary, than a straightforward story of the scrapbook and Anne Sykes herself. Strasdin takes us on many side journeys into textile and social history while also explaining and outlining how she did her research and found more about the people mentioned in the scrapbook. That was quite a feat as she had just begun when Covid hit and she had to do most of the research online and via email/phone calls to libraries and archives. 

But if you are a history fan, or a dressmaker yourself -- or both -- I think that you'll enjoy this approach. It's very readable and has both the colour plates in the middle and some other images throughout. It's a fascinating way to explore this era in history, through a physical artifact that survived for nearly 200 years somehow, and made its way to the author. Definitely one to look for!

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