Fragmented Stories: Cloth from the Colonies in a 19th-Century Dress Diary


KS DiaryDear Junto readers, Thank you for joining us for two weeks of all-new scholarship tracing the historical patterns of #ColonialCouture! Read the whole roundtable here.

Today’s #ColonialCouture finale post is by Kate Strasdin, senior lecturer in cultural studies at the Fashion & Textiles Institute, Falmouth University, whose research focus is on 19th- and 20th-century female dress and haute couture. Follow her @kateStrasdin.

A small industrial town in the North West of England in the middle of the 19th century might seem an unlikely place to start with a narrative concerning dress and the colonies. On September 20 1838, Anne Burton married Adam Sykes in Tyldesley, Lancashire. A small piece of their wedding day is captured on the very first page of a volume that Anne was to keep for almost forty years – a fragment of her wedding dress and the figured silk waistcoat worn by her groom carefully pasted into what was to become her dress diary.

Over the following years Anne fixed hundreds of fabric samples into the book – sometimes ten pieces on each page all cut into similar shapes and accompanied by a short caption indicating the year, the wearer and sometimes additional information concerning the occasion of wear. At first glance, the volume appears to be an exercise in domesticity, the albumisation of a provincial life and familial connections of one woman. However, on closer inspection the micro-history of material culture often informs on a much broader level and some of the inclusions in the book originate in unexpected places.

KS SykesLittle is known about Anne Sykes at this stage. It is likely that she had some connection with the manufacture or acquisition of textiles through her family. On her wedding certificate her father is described as a spinner and manufacturer whilst her husband’s father is listed as a designer. Given the geographical location of the couple, in the heart of Lancashire famed for its cotton and wool production, this could well have been a designer involved with textiles in some way. Certainly the variety of fabric samples in the book suggest a keen interest in the variety of cloth available.

In addition to the many swatches that detail the clothing of her friends and family, there are a number of examples that demonstrate an interest in travel and cloth from other cultures. The only caption that actually identifies Anne as the keeper of the volume is also one that illustrates she herself travelled. Above a delicately sprigged printed cotton, she has written: ‘Anne Sykes May 1840. The first dress I wore in Singapore Nov 1840.’ The status of Singapore as a British colony was cemented by the Anglo-Dutch treaty of 1824 and so it had been under British jurisdiction for 16 years when Anne was there in 1840. Since I am at a very early stage in the research of this volume and the story of Anne’s life, I have yet to discover exactly why Anne and presumably her husband had travelled to Singapore. It does underscore, however, an interest in textiles from other countries.

KS Arab SilksOne carefully arranged group of fabrics smaller than most of the other samples are described: ‘Syed Omar’s dresses all Arab silks’ alongside a collection of beautifully colourful woven samples. Others feature ‘China silk’ or ‘Madras silk’ that indicate a plurality of material taking the contents of the volume far from its Lancashire roots. One large swatch is described as a batik from Java, a cotton in shades of brown and gold. It is one of the only times that Anne actually describes a specific technique or type of fabric and this is one of the challenges of decoding this book, understanding both the variety of textiles included, the vocabulary then in use and the variations in cultural descriptors.

KS QueensOccasionally fabrics included in the volume may not originate from a colonial space in terms of production but are associated with a figure inhabiting that space, albeit temporarily. One striped silk example bears the caption: ‘Queen Dowager’s dress, Malta 1839’. The Dowager Queen Adelaide, former Queen Consort to King William IV, visited Malta for three months in 1838-39 in search of a warm climate that would benefit her health. Having placed Adelaide in Malta in 1839, the acquisition of this sample of cloth by Anne Sykes is intriguing. There is mention throughout the volume of a number of women having either worn or acquired dress in Malta and so for Anne and her circle of family and friends this was a colonial space that was familiar to them. Textiles may again have been associated with this relationship with the island. In the 19th century Malta was still a site for cotton production and it may be that this linked Anne’s family in Lancashire with the Mediterranean colony and perhaps brought her or an acquaintance into the orbit of the Dowager Queen.

KS PiratePerhaps the most intriguing piece of fabric in the volume is in many ways the most ordinary in terms of its materiality. A plain piece of red wool flannel bears a startling caption: ‘Part of the pirate’s flag taken in Borneo by the Admiral 1845.’ Early research has established that this relates to Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane and he was indeed in Borneo aboard HMS Agincourt in 1845. In his despatches to the Admiralty, published in the London Gazette, he writes on August 26 of action taken against a local chief: ‘I consider his influence to be entirely annihilated and his confederacy with various piratical chiefs in the Archipelago broken up’ Cochrane was an important figure in the Royal Navy and the presence of a piece of flag here is curious. At this stage it is unclear whether Anne sourced this through a third party or whether she had some connection to the Admiral himself. It serves to reinforce the conclusion that this is the book of a woman whose world view stretched well beyond her immediate locality and that she experienced a range of textiles from different colonial settings.

The story of Anne Sykes is currently fragmentary, not only in terms of the swatches she herself compiled but the research that has thus far been possible. The presence of fabrics from a number of 19th century British colonies indicates Anne’s interest in both travel and the textile heritage of different cultures.







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