Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy
In May 1848, the merchant’s wife, Anne Sykes, stormed the dance floor in a gown of pink and purple silk taffeta. Her husband, Adam, was possibly wearing the cream velvet vest he had been given for her birthday. Or perhaps she had opted for the shiny silk tartan one. Either way, the young couple must have glowed as they waltzed, belying the idea that early Victorians mostly preferred to look like they were going to a funeral.
Found on a market stall in the 1970s, an album that Sykes kept for much of her early adult life contains 2,000 fabric swatches, all carefully cut and assembled. Instead of collecting autographs from her friends and family, she asked for a sample of her clothing, which she then carefully transferred to paper and annotated, as she would 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 pink-and-purple silk taffeta made its dazzling debut).
Kate Strasdin does not present us with a facsimile of the album, although there are colored plates to give us an idea of its unbridled diversity. Instead, she uses it as a tool to unravel the dense web of economic, social, and cultural threads woven into the shows. In the process, she tackles everything from Britain’s continued importation of cotton from American slave states to the indulgent delights of going to a costume party dressed as Dolly Varden, one of Charles Dickens’ raunchiest heroines. There’s even a fragment of a pirate flag donated by Admiral Cochrane, a reminder that life away from home wasn’t always a matter of lace trimmings and pearl buttons.
Some of Anne’s friends and family made multiple deposits into her collection, allowing Strasdin to piece together a sense of them as individuals. There’s Anne’s older sister Mary, whose taste tends toward the exaggerated: bright pink motifs splattered over black silk and lots of ombre chiffon to fool the eye. Even more distinctive is the aptly named Bridget Anne Peacock, who enthusiastically embraced the brilliant new palette that came to her after 1860 courtesy of aniline dyes. One of the great revelations of Strasdin’s fascinating book is the extent to which men participated in this dynamic material culture. Adam Sykes was clearly a fan of a fancy waistcoat, which must have made him look like a courting bird of paradise at times. Sweetly enough, the men presented each other with waistcoats as a token of esteem.
It was also Adam who had given “my lovely Anne” the pink silk-covered album shortly after their marriage in 1838. When Strasdin acquired it, he had no idea who the Sykeses were. Careful research into parish and census records has enabled him to develop them. 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 move up the business hierarchy. The childless couple returned to Lancashire in 1849 and settled into a life of gentrified retirement in a country house on the outskirts of Blackpool, far from the spinning machines and counting houses on which their fortunes depended. .
To date, no photographs of the Sykeses have surfaced, despite the fact that both lived well into the age of the camera. But maybe this is suitable. After all, it was portrait photography that displaced all those hobbies of cutting hair, seeking autographs, and even trying on dresses, with which earlier Victorians tried to maintain ties to their loved ones and which we now find so strange. Tellingly, when Anne Sykes moved to the 1870s, her interest in her collection waned and the final pages of hers were left 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 guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.