Maki Teshima, "Musubi 結び // Connections" (detail)

SDA Book Club: The Dress Diary reviewed by Faith Hagenhofer

The Dress Diary: Secrets from a Woman’s Wardrobe by Kate Strasdin

Fashion historian Kate Strasdin was given a book, which appeared to be someone’s scrapbook (literally). It’s an old album of fabric swatches from the very middle of the 19th century—from 1838-1890—which the giver found at a flea market in 1960. 

Historians are drawn to collections. Textile artists are drawn to patterns and repeats. When a collection of historical textiles forms a pattern, it becomes of particular interest to textile historians, who work diligently to make sense of and connect the fragments, offering readers a story to give the collection visual, geographical and historical context. Strasdin researched the swatches in the album, and from them has written what amounts to a life and times analysis of its maker, Anne Sykes. In so doing she has broadly painted aspects of British empire expansion. Where she could find little personal information, knowledge of Anne’s social stratum, circle and family, and British industrial history have created the story surrounding this album, which is the heart of The Dress Diary. The point of this work seems to be imagining into being the wearers of the clothes for which Anne had small scraps; they are invented for us from much less than whole cloth, their lives creatively documented and “remembered” through material. 

Of Anne’s album the author says that it is both “ordinary and remarkable” (p. 268). Strasdin writes that “Using fabric as a means of memory keeping, and sharing those memories, with friends was not a new phenomenon” (p.141) Women were tapping similar urges in quilt making. Due to their fabric arrangements and production methods there are quilts that are snapshots of collective work brought to practical use, while Sykes’ album covers much time and is an individual work of remnant and memory. Sykes’ class privilege and family connections to the rapidly changing cotton industry are considered broadly, but both have much greater bearing on the clothes within reach, and therefore the swatches that comprise the diary.

Often a book will nudge toward others, not because they deal with similar topics, but because they are somehow related. For me several of these were: National Book award winner All That She Carried by Tiya Miles, The Dyer’s Handbook edited by Dominique Cardon, and finally the very contemporary work of Sasha Duerr, Natural Palettes: inspiration from plant-based color. From each of these, The Dress Diary, and countless others, we learn a little bit more about the labors and exchanges in our long human relationships with cloth.

–Faith Hagenhofer 

  • Publisher: Pegasus Books (buy it here)
  • Date: June 2023
  • ISBN: 9781639364213

If you’ve read this book, leave a comment and let us know what you think!

Do you have a recommendation for a recent fiber-related book you think should be included in SDA’s Book Club? Email SDA’s Managing Editor, Lauren Sinner, to let her know!

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