If the decadent walls of Chatsworth House could talk—with their gilded Painted Hall, Sculpture Gallery and staterooms—they would surely have some juicy stories to tell.
Regarded as one of the greatest “houses” in England—an understatement, with the estate’s massive size of around 1,800 acres, 126 rooms and 4,000 years worth of artwork—Chatsworth House has been home to some of Britain’s most fascinating and infamous women, including Bess of Hardwick; Mary, Queen of Scots; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy (sister to John F. Kennedy); Deborah “Debo” Mitford (of the famous Mitford sisters); and her granddaughter, the supermodel Stella Tennant.
Their stories, and that of 16 generations of the Devonshire, are revealed as part of an ongoing exhibition, “House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth.”
Though Chatsworth House is a famous tourist destination and filming location for films such as “The Duchess,” “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Wolfman,” the idea for a fashion exhibition at Chatsworth came about after a simple search. A few years ago, Laura Cavendish—former model, stylist, a muse of designer Roland Mouret, fashion buyer and wife to William, Earl of Burlington (and heir to the estate)—was looking for a christening robe for her son with her mother-in-law (the current Duchess of Devonshire).
An exploration of the house’s textile department produced not only one but several christening robes, and she soon realized the potential of the vast treasures in the family archive to tell the story of the members of the Cavendish family.
After unpacking dusty boxes and containers filled with everything from livery and coronation robes to Jean-Philippe Worth (credited as the first designer of haute couture), she invited her friend Hamish Bowles, the international editor at large of American Vogue, to curate the best pieces into a show.
Six years and many closets, cupboards and attics later, the exhibition became a reality. The result is the grandest exhibition Chatsworth has ever held, taking over almost every room in the house.
It’s sponsored by Gucci, as part of a three-year collaboration that has also seen the design house shooting a new ad campaign on grounds designed by Capability Brown.
Along with creative direction by Patrick Kinmonth and Antonio Monfreda, the creative duo behind the 2012 Valentino retrospective at Somerset House, the exhibition delves into Chatsworth’s rich heritage, using the lives of its well-known inhabitants and their glamorous guests as mannequins on which to hang stories of the wider history of the house.
The various spaces are organized by themes (Coronation Dress; Bess of Hardwick and the Tudor Influence; The Devonshire House Ball; The Georgiana Effect; and Country Living and Entertaining at Chatsworth) as the story starts in the 16th century with the house’s founder, Bess of Hardwick, continuing with the 18th-century “Empress of Fashion” Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a fashion leader and the equivalent of today’s “influencers” and “It” girls, since her taste for romantic style was also celebrated at the French court of her friend Queen Marie Antoinette.
The first few rooms mainly feature archival material from the family collections, among them livery, uniforms, rare costume designs from the early 17th century by Iñigo Jones (Surveyor to the King’s Works and one of the most notable architects of 17th-century England) and coronation robes, while the christening robe that originally inspired this event became part of a display about the circle of life, alongside wedding and mourning attire.
Among the most extravagant pieces on display are the fancy dress costumes like the ones from the 1897 Devonshire House Ball that featured 400 guests, and was inspired by the theme “allegorical or historical costume before 1815.”
Showcased in the State Drawing Room and set amongst original furniture, the display includes an ostrich, amethyst and pearl feathered headdress remade by jeweler CW Sellors, and originally worn by Duchess Louise for the 1897 ball that was matched with a dress made for her by Jean-Philippe Worth to impersonate Zenobia, the warrior Queen of Palmyra.
The story continues through letters, photos and scrapbooks, showing Adele Astaire, the sister and dance partner of Fred Astaire, who married Charles Cavendish, younger brother of the tentth Duke of Devonshire, in 1932 (her portraits and a short film of her dancing are included); Debo and Nancy Mitford, two of the Mitford sisters (the slippers emblazoned with pictures of Elvis belonged to Debo, a big fan of the singer); and John F. Kennedy’s sister Kathleen (“Kick”), who married Billy Cavendish in 1944 (killed in action shortly afterward, while she died in a plane crash a few years later).
In some of the displays, history is combined with art, fashion, jewelry and interior design, while haute couture pieces, such as Debo’s Christian Dior ice pink satin 1953 Carmel gown, the centerpiece of the State Dining Room, are mixed with more modern designs from Stella Tennant and Laura’s own wardrobe, including contemporary fashion by Gucci, Helmut Lang, Martin Margiela, Vivienne Westwood, Erdem, Alexander McQueen, Christopher Kane and Vêtements.
Traditions are juxtaposed with the unconventional: the house’s chapel includes Antonio Verrio’s 17th-century ceiling painting “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” but also Damien Hirst’s sculpture “Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain.”
A house may be an unusual setting for an exhibition, but if clothes are the most vivid entry point into seeing how people of the past lived, then Chatsworth has always loved to dress up.
“House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth” will run until October 2017; e-mail the author at [email protected]