I took the opportunity on a recent trip to London to make my way to the English countryside in order to visit Chatsworth House, seat of the Duke of Devonshire and one of England’s most revered historic homes. Current visitors to the manse are in for an additional treat, for not only will they gaze upon acres of gardens, sumptuously-appointed rooms and works of art spanning some 4,000 years, but they will also take in 500 years of decadent fashion. Curated by Hamish Bowles, editor-at-large at American Vogue, House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth, showcases Chatsworth’s rich sartorial heritage.
With the house’s majestic rooms serving as backdrop, coronation robes, livery uniforms, couture dresses, wedding gowns and tiaras are displayed in their resplendent best. But it’s not all grand. Wedding rings, oft-repaired shoes, children’s sailor suits and other intimate items belonging to the house’s past and present inhabitants add to the charm. Lady Laura Burlington, a former fashion editor and wife of the heir to Chatsworth, reveals why: “Charlotte Mosley [niece-by-marriage to Deborah, aka “Debo” the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire] took me to meet Hubert de Givenchy and during the course of lunch, he suggested that I look for the 11th Duke’s slippers and put them in a vitrine.
He described them very accurately, explaining how they were made of tapestry and had been repaired many times. It was very exciting when we found them in the archive. Hamish Bowles was always insistent on including unusual and personal items and not only high fashion and I think it makes the atmosphere of the show more intimate than it might otherwise be.” And so, a pair of well-worn Converse high tops which the duke liked to wear on holiday (and which were meticulously whitened by his valet) receive pride of place as do his wife’s embroidered Elvis slippers.
Juxtaposition is a theme that runs through the exhibit and just as cutting-edge art comfortably co-exists with old masters throughout the estate, so centuries-old regalia shares equal billing with the creations of contemporary fashion greats such as Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Christopher Kane, Helmut Lang and Gucci, the event’s sponsor.
The idea for the exhibition was conceived in 2010 when Laura went on the hunt for a christening robe in Chatsworth’s textile room. There, amidst the stacks of black trunks and hat boxes, she found not only dozens of perfectly preserved baptismal ensembles, but also hanging livery, evening gowns and fancy dress.
Indeed, fashion runs deep at Chatsworth. As a former model, Laura has amassed a clothing collection herself as has supermodel Stella Tennant, granddaughter of the 11th Duke, along with fashion icon, Daphne Guinness, Debo’sgreat-niece. Debo too was a fashion muse in her own right as her lifelong friendship with Givenchy and her Dior, Valentino and Oscar de la Renta creations attest to. But perhaps the most fashionable Cavendish of them all was Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), known in her lifetime as the Empress of Fashion. Her prodigious (and sometimes unpaid) clothing bills are on display in the exhibit.
It quickly became apparent that the magnitude of the project required some expert advice, so Laura called up her friend, connoisseur of couture, Hamish Bowles, who in due course enlisted the help of costume historian and exhibition curator Patrick Kinmonth and his creative partner, Antonio Monfreda. Seven years in the making, the exhibition opened in the spring of this year.
“It’s way more ambitious than anything we have ever done and I think than anyone thought it would be,” says Denna Garrett, the exhibition’s project manager. “The budget we originally put together was for 30 mannequins and we’ve got 110, plus masses of ephemera, archival material, photographs, things that aren’t seen very often from the gold safe, very personal things like wedding rings, miniatures and the like. It’s been wonderful to work on.”
Considering the great success of the exhibit as evidenced by the crowds streaming through the house and the fact that Laura is adding to the wardrobe collection, it is safe to say that Chatsworth will continue to be a fashionable destination for years to come. The exhibit runs until October 22.
A few of the sumptuously appointed guest bedrooms:
The agricultural estate of Chatsworth totals 35,000 acres, with a 105-acre garden that includes a maze and a Victorian rock garden. The grounds today are largely a product of world-renowned landscape designers Lancelot “Capability” Brown and Joseph Paxton, working in the 18th and 19thcenturies respectively. The estate employs a staff of approximately 20 full-time gardeners.