The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes: new book details the life, times, and clothes of 19th century Lancastrian socialite

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In 1838, a young woman born in Clitheroe was given a diary on her wedding day. Ann Sykes decided to fill it with swatches, snippets of clothing from a vast range of garments, each with its own brief annotation, creating a unique record of her life and times.

The album grew more and more plump with each passing year as the menagerie of swatches grew, featuring entries of ball-gowns, her husband Adam’s waistcoats, christening outfits, childhood frocks, wedding dresses, adorning ribbons, everyday-wear, merchants’ waistcoats, decorative lace, psychedelic zig-zag printed gauze, and floral room prints.

Both Ann and Adam were Lancastrian industrial royalty, born into powerful cotton-spinning dynasties during an era when Great Britain was responsible for over half the world’s cotton. They lived a luxurious life in Tyldesley and moved to Singapore soon after their marriage, eventually returning to Lancashire and settling first in Pendleton near Salford, then in Colthurst Hall near Bashall Eaves.

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Content with their plush retirement a world away from the fury of the spinning and swirling machines which fed their fortune, they whiled away their remaining years. As the 1870s dawned, Ann’s early interest in her swatch album slowly dwindled, her collector’s fervour from decades past diminished. At the time of her death, the final pages remained blank.

Anne Sykes' dress diaryAnne Sykes' dress diary
Anne Sykes' dress diary

History brought to life

In 2016, nearly 200 years after Ann had made her first entry, the diary - wrapped in magenta silk - fell into the hands of Kate Strasdin, a fashion historian, lecturer in Cultural Studies at Falmouth University, and museum curator. It had been found on a market stall in the 1970s, its ancient provenance unknown and its story untold. Kate spent the next six years picking at its narrative threads.

“When I first came across the album, I didn’t know where it had come from and, because it was bought in London on a junk stall, the true provenance was unclear,” says Kate. “It was only when I came across this one swatch from a dress which had been worn to the Preston Guild that I had my first mention of a place, so that was what led me to Lancashire.

“Eventually, when I found out Sykes was the maker of the album, I was able to find out more details about her because the Lancashire Archives have been digitised,” she adds. “And, once I had all that information, I could start to map out a network of people surrounding her and her husband Adam. It was amazing to actually unravel everything. The whole process was incredible.”

Anne Sykes' dress diaryAnne Sykes' dress diary
Anne Sykes' dress diary

Unpicking the seams of something special

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Unravelling its secrets and painstakingly trawling through over 2,000 swatches of fabric, a kaleidoscope of colour, Kate was able to slowly chart Ann’s life from the mills of Lancashire to the port of Singapore via a breadcrumb trail of fabric clues. She found that each swatch and annotation became its own window into Victorian life.

The entries reflected the etiquette of mourning, the popularity of poisonous dyes, the leviathan shadow of the British Empire, working class riots over working conditions, and the terrible human cost of Britain’s cotton industry. It was a unique glimpse back into history through a relatively ordinary person’s lens. Kate knew she had something special on her hands.

“Ann was born in Clitheroe and her father was a man called James Burton, who was the owner of four mills in Tyldesley, which is where she moved to as a young child,” she explains. “They were a pretty wealthy family - he was a cotton-spinner and had lots of factory hands working for him, so he was right in the thick of the cotton revolution.

Anne Sykes dress diary swatchesAnne Sykes dress diary swatches
Anne Sykes dress diary swatches

“It was right at the cutting edge technologically, and she grew up in the heart of it all,” Kate continues. “They were a very prominent family - James became a Justice of the Peace, sat on the Corn Law Board, and was quite a well-known figure in the area as she was growing up in the 1820s and ‘30s. It was a hotbed of industry and technological marvels.”

Sharing Anne’s story and the power of fashion

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Inspired, Kate set about compiling a book titled The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes to lay bare the whole of human experience in the most intimate of mediums: the clothes we choose to wear. Fusing expert research, forensic detection, and biography, the book maps the decades that came to represent the Victorian Age through fabric.

“There are over 2,000 swatches, each with a handwritten caption mentioning over 100 different names of people, most of whom are connected to Lancashire, so putting everything together and working out how they were all connected on was amazing,” says Kate of the research process. “But Ann only refers to herself once. Other than that, it’s all third person.

Kate Strasdin (credit Sophie Davidson)Kate Strasdin (credit Sophie Davidson)
Kate Strasdin (credit Sophie Davidson)

“As soon as I was able to establish who Ann was and had 20-odd identifiable names who I could write about, I could break things down along themes for a book,” she adds. “That’s when it started to take shape. And I loved taking this source material and placing it into a wider historical and cultural context.

“Often, as a dress historian, you get the comment that fashion isn’t a serious avenue of investigation because it’s still traditionally associated with the female, so it’s written off as superficial,” Kate says. “All my career, I’ve had that bias of ‘it’s only fashion’, so to be able to use fashion as a lens to show how central it is to so many other things was fantastic.

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“Industry, economy, society, friendships, work - fashion was and is at the heart of everything, and you don’t necessarily have to be interested in your clothes for them to say something about you. That spurred me on to demonstrate how cloth is crucial to so many things and it took me to so many unexpected places - one swatch is a pirate flag, so suddenly I’m reading about pirates in the Strait of Malacca in the 1840s.”

History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes

Despite being almost two centuries old, one thing which jumped out at Kate is how relevant the themes denoted by the book are, even today.

“It’s great to be able to share those stories more widely and it’s really resonated with people so far,” she says. “It’s getting a great reception because so many of the themes are still relevant: things like working conditions in cotton mills which are echoed in modern issues like fast fashion. There’s a lot that is still relevant despite the clothes looking a bit different.

Anne Sykes' dress diary swatchesAnne Sykes' dress diary swatches
Anne Sykes' dress diary swatches

“It bears emphasising how rare an object this diary is,” Kate adds. “The only other of its type is in the V&A in London, which was by another lady who did a similar thing, only with far fewer swatches. The whole journey was brilliant and there are still more threads to follow: someone emailed only yesterday with background info on two of the names mentioned in the album which I had no details for.

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“It’s living history which is still all being uncovered, even now.”

The Dress Diary of Mrs Anne Sykes: Secrets from a Victorian Woman’s Wardrobe by Kate Strasdin is published by Chatto & Windus. Follow Kate on Instagram and Twitter

Ann and Adam Sykes didn’t have children, so no direct descendants exist. After their deaths, their estate went to her brothers, who were both Burtons. Kate is appealing for anyone with links either family to contact her via email on [email protected]