IN THE HOUSE
CHATSWORTH, ONE OF BRITAIN’S MOST POPULAR STATELY HOMES, IS THE SITE AND AND SUBJECT OF A GLORIOUS EXHIBITION OF FASHION, ART AND HIGH SOCIETY OVER MORE THAN FIVE CENTURIES.
It’s hard to imagine anything making the extraordinary rooms at Chatsworth House, home to the Cavendish family and seat of the dukes of Devonshire since 1549, any more beautiful – but a new exhibition has done just that. In House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth, room after room has been brought to life with collections of ready-to-wear, couture and family memorabilia, much of which had been gathering dust in the coffers of Chatsworth’s in-house textile department.
One room’s ceiling and walls are painted with Louis Laguerre’s scenes from Julius Caesar’s life; another is lined entirely in stamped and gilded leather; another is hung with 17th-century Mortlake tapestries. When clothing and jewellery, art and old letters, family portraits and humorous heirlooms are set against these lavish interiors, visitors are immersed in another world from the moment they step into the Painted Hall.
“More than anything, we wanted to bring together the great characters of the past and present who have inhabited and animated these rooms through the potency of clothing and accoutrements,” says curator Hamish Bowles, international editor-at-large at American Vogue. “Since childhood I’ve been mesmerised by the idea of historic costume and what it can tell about the way people lived.”
It feels as if many of Chatsworth’s most notable characters might be standing right beside you, from the strikingly beautiful 18th-century “Empress of Fashion” Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, to the late Dowager Duchess, Deborah “Debo” Cavendish, the youngest of the famous Mitford sisters, who passed away in 2014.
The sponsorship of Gucci has “enabled us to think bigger, much bigger than we’ve dared to think before”, says the 12th Duke of Devonshire (born Peregrine, known as Stoker), standing with his wife Amanda on the Great Stairs. WISH is being given an exclusive sneak preview a few days before the exhibition’s opening in the last week of March (it will run until October 22). It’s just the beginning of a three-year collaboration with the Italian fashion house to support cultural activities on the estate. Already creative director Alessandro Michele, a confessed Anglophile, has shot the campaign film for Gucci’s Cruise 2017 collection with Vanessa Redgrave in Chatsworth’s famous 14,000 hectares of grounds, landscaped by Capability Brown.
“Chatsworth has a way of drawing in talented, creative people,” says Laura Cavendish, Countess of Burlington, former model and now wife of the Duke’s son and heir William, Earl of Burlington. Indeed Chatsworth is one of Britain’s best loved historical homes, attracting more than 600,000 visitors each year to see the house and its magnificent collection of around 4000 artworks. Each year Sotheby’s holds its Beyond Limits sculpture exhibition in the gardens.
The idea of exploring Chatsworth’s fashion heritage came six years ago when Lady Burlington went in search for a christening robe for her eldest son, James. The countess had been friends with Bowles since he styled her for a shoot for Harper’s & Queen many years ago, and he was the first person she thought to call.
“It’s been the beginning of a wonderful journey for me and I’m so lucky to have found an ally in Hamish,” says Lady Burlington. “He is an exceptional person who understands the secrets that clothes can tell, he’s like a sleuth, going inside them to look at the zips and seams.”
“Of course, she had me at ‘come to Chatsworth for the weekend’,” Bowles says. Rummaging through Chatsworth’s wardrobe and muniment rooms, gold vaults, closets, cupboards and attics was “a dream come true for me”. Through racks and racks, and boxes and boxes, of christening and coronation robes, immaculate liveries and marshal uniforms, ballgowns and jewels, “in every instance we were thinking about pieces that would amplify the visitor’s experience and animate these rooms”, he says.
The Devonshires have long been arts patrons and the current Duke and Duchess are renowned for their love of contemporary art and sculpture. But it’s Chatsworth’s history of beguiling, intelligent and dynamic women that makes this exhibition so intriguing.
Elizabeth Hardwick, “Bess of Hardwick”, patron to Elizabeth I, became head of the Cavendish family when she married Sir William Cavendish, Treasurer of the King’s Chamber, in 1547. With him, she built Hardwick Hall (gifted by the family to the National Trust in 1959) and Chatsworth in the then untamed Derbyshire hills. Later additions to the family included Fred Astaire’s sister Adele, who married Lord Charles Cavendish, and JFK’s sister Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, whose marriage to the Marquess of Hartington lasted only four months – he was killed on active duty in 1944.
Bowles is particularly effusive about Debo Cavendish’s wardrobe at the old vicarage, where the Dowager Duchess lived after her husband Andrew, the 11th Duke, died in 2004. It was full of “the wonders of mid-century Parisian haute couture jostling with pieces found at Marks & Spencer and agricultural fairs, because as Debo maintained ‘nothing in between counted’,” Bowles says. One of their greatest finds was a crumpled pale pink dress crammed into the back of a drawer. “My heart missed a beat as I knew instantly it was a Christian Dior dress from haute couture spring/ summer 1953.” Debo had ordered the “Carmel” satin ball gown that year to wear during a stay at Windsor Castle for Royal Ascot.
This mix of extravagance and thrift is everywhere. Alongside Debo’s Stubbs & Wootton velvet slippers printed with Elvis’s face, and Norman Parkinson’s portrait of Stoker and his sister Emma wearing matching sailor suits in 1952, there is an extravagant Christian Dior haute couture dress from 1998 (which Emma’s supermodel daughter Stella Tennant wore on the catwalk) next to Maria Cosway’s painting of Duchess Georgiana as Diana (circa 1781-1782). Subscription tokens to the theatre, a gold dog collar and cameos backed with plaited human hair are at home with an elaborately detailed Vivienne Westwood dress, inspired by the shape and heavy embroidery of a dress immortalised in a portrait of Elizabeth I – which, of course, is also here.
There are copies of Georgiana’s eye-popping unpaid bills for jewellery and a collection of the late Duke Andrew’s famed motto jumpers, embroidered by Lords of Burlington Arcade, with witticisms such as “Never Marry a Mitford” and “Far Better Not” (the 8th Duke’s response to anyone proposing a scheme or plan he didn’t like). Evidence of upcycling is here too: in a panic over what to wear to Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, Debo rummaged through Chatsworth’s store rooms with her mother-in-law Duchess Mary, and
“He understands the secrets that clothes can tell, he’s like a sleuth, going inside them to look at the zips and seams.”
repurposed a peeress robe in crimson silk velvet, miniver and ermine fur edging first worn by Queen Adelaide at William IV’s coronation in 1831 (this stands at the head of the stairs of the Painted Hall in the exhibition). The 6th Duke’s Garter Star is shown bereft of its diamonds, which were plundered to help make a sparkling crown with no fewer than 1041 stones for Countess Louise von Alten, formerly Duchess of Manchester, who married the 8th Duke in 1892.
Alongside the stately dresses and regal headwear are contemporary pieces such as Lady Burlington’s dresses by Christopher Kane, Roland Mouret and Vetements, as well as the current Duchess’s impressive collection of hats (accumulated over 25 years from her long association with Royal Ascot), a Givenchy bolero she wore on her wedding day, and her collection of Andrew Grima vintage jewels.
Exclusive to the exhibition are also two magnificent gowns designed by Gucci’s Michele for the ladies of Chatsworth House: for the Duchess, an elegant satin intricately embroidered with floral motifs inspired by the work of 17th-century German entomologist and illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian, teamed with the Dowager Duchess’s collection of whimsical insect brooches; for Lady Burlington, a chic floor-length velvet gown embellished with pearls, silk and diamantés.
Completing the fashion picture is Stella Tennant’s “dressing-up box” – overflowing with McQueen, Martin Margiela, Anna Molinari, Prada and Helmut Lang, it also includes her mother Emma’s late-60s Mary Quant dress. Loans from contacts in the fashion world include a 1996 haute couture Chanel evening coat with 1200 hours’ worth of hand embroidery by Maison Lessage, and the Christopher Kane gold lamé evening jacket and trousers Tennant wore to the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony.
With creative direction from opera director and designer Patrick Kinmonth and art director Antonio Monfreda, the exhibition’s storytelling has great theatrical flair. The current Duke and Duchess’s love of all things contemporary “freed them up to do something quite radical”, says Lady Burlington of Kinmonth’s modern Lucite display cases and the recreation of scenes from “The Party of the Century”, the famous 1897 Chatsworth House Ball – in attendance were the who’s who of British aristocracy and the courts of Europe and Russia in “allegorical or historical pre-1815” dress. Duchess Louise went as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, and her bejewelled, intricately detailed gown stands vibrant against the brocade-lined walls.
Kinmonth and Monfreda have used each room to great effect. In the chapel, the Circle of Life plays out with a mix of christening, wedding and funeral garb, overlooked by Antonio Verrio’s 17th-century painting The Incredulity of St. Thomas and Damien Hirst’s sculpture Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain 2008. In the Oak Room next door, the 17th-century dark ecclesiastical oak panelling installed by the 6th Duke has inspired a collection of black dresses that echo Bess of Hardwick’s dramatic 16th-century style, including a 2006 Nicolas Ghesquière voluminous-sleeved coat for Balenciaga worn by the Dowager Duchess in a Bruce Weber shoot with Tennant in Love Magazine in 2010.
“Patrick and Antonio understood immediately that despite its treasures, Chatsworth is not a museum, it’s a living, breathing thing populated and animated by a fascinating cast of characters, some of them ghostly, others very real and vital,” says Bowles.
Lady Burlington hopes House Style will inspire “Chatsworth to become a part of a wider conversation with a new audience that revolves around all the arts, not just fashion, bringing visitors closer to some of the wonderful characters who have lived here, as it has certainly brought them closer to me,” she says. “It’s certainly made me realise that at Chatsworth, the more you look, the more there is to see.” chatsworth.org
“Chatsworth is not a museum, it’s a living, breathing thing populated and animated by a fascinating cast of characters.”
Left, Devonshire tweed outfits displayed in the Sabine Room, whose walls depict the abduction of the Sabine women; this page, a silk organza dress from Christopher Kane’s autumn-winter 2014 collection
The Painted Hall displays, in the centre, the Mistress of the Robes gown worn to the 1911, 1937 and 1953 coronations and, in the distance, the peeress robe worn by Deborah Mitford, Duchess of Devonshire, in 1953.
The present Duchess’s 1970s Rumak and Sample evening dress in silk, cotton, satin, lace and lurex; behind, left, Debo’s Dior dress from 1953, and right, a Burberry silk and ostrich feather dress worn by Stella Tennant