Chatsworth: House of Style — A fashionable destination

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Chatsworth House on a rainy summer day seen from the top of the Cascade, built some 300 years ago. The Cascade is made up of 24 steps, each cut slightly differently, so that a different sound is emitted as the water passes each step.

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 VogueHouse 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.

Home to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Chatsworth has been passed down since 1549 through 16 generations of the Cavendish family. The Emperor Fountain on the south side of the house projects a quill of water – once the highest in the world – created to impress Tsar Nicholas I.
Chatsworth House sits on the banks of the River Derwent in Derbyshire located in central England.

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 history of Chatsworth begins with one formidable woman – Bess of Hardwick (1520 – 1608). Born into modest means, Bess married four times, eventually becoming the wealthiest woman in England after Queen Elizabeth I. The family line began with her second husband, the very prosperous Sir William Cavendish, 20 years her senior. During their ten years of marriage, Bess and William had eight children and began building the first house at Chatsworth, a building which would later imprison Mary Queen of Scots. Sir William died in 1557, leaving Bess a very wealthy thirty-year old widow. Throughout her life, Bess fought for her rights, managed her own finances, and invested her inheritances wisely. The homes she built, including Hardwick Hall, one of the greatest houses of the Elizabethan age, are still being admired today. Bess is the ancestor of many of the noble families of Britain. Indeed, Prince William and Prince Harry are descended from Bess on both sides.

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.

Hamish Bowles, Lady Laura Burlington and Patrick Kinmonth. The trio flanks a 2017 Gucci gown designed by Alessandro Michele for the Duchess of Devonshire. Photo: Chatsworth House Trust

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.”

Deborah (‘Debo’), the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire (1920 – 2014) and her granddaughter, supermodel, Stella Tennant, at Chatsworth, photographed in 2006 for British Vogue by Mario Testino. Married to Andrew Cavendish, 11th Duke of Devonshire, Debo was the youngest of six infamous Mitford sisters who dominated British high society in the 1930s and ’40s.

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.

The dress in the foreground was created by Vivienne Westwood as part of her A/W 97 collection. It is a copy of the dress Queen Elizabeth I is wearing in a portrait from Hardwick Hall, seen in the background. The portrait was commissioned by Bess of Hardwick, the second most powerful woman in England after the queen. She is said to have designed, and possibly even embroidered the motifs on the dress herself. Taking their inspiration from the natural world, they portray sea creatures and dragons alongside flowers and insects. The jeweled parure made up of gold, enamel, diamonds, onyx and lapis lazuli was commissioned by the 6th Duke for Countess Granville, the wife of his nephew, to wear to the coronation of Tsar Alexander in 1856.
The 12th Duke of Devonshire, Peregrine Cavendish and his wife, Amanda, Duchess of Devonshire, in the State Dining Room where haute couture pieces mix and mingle with more modern designs including pieces by Gucci, Helmut Lang, Margiela, Vivienne Westwood, Erdem, Alexander McQueen, Christopher Kane and Vêtements.
The centerpiece in the State Dining Room – Debo’s Christian Dior ice pink satin “Carmel” gown from 1953.
A livery outfit displayed in front of a portrait of Sir William Cavendish, begetter of the Cavendish line.
The uniform for a head coachman is displayed in a case in order to protect the silver embroidery because once the silver thread is tarnished, it is impossible to restore. The stick is for lifting ladies’ skirts so they don’t drag on the ground.
The mid-19th century, ermine-trimmed gown worn by Debo to the Queen’s coronation in 1953. The Duchess had to be given special dispensation to wear it because it is off-the-shoulder.
Taking center stage in the Painted Hall is the Mistress of the Robes coronation gown worn by the Duchesses of Devonshire in 1911, 1937 and 1953. The ceiling murals are by Louis Laguerre (1663–1721) and depict scenes from the life of Julius Caesar. They were commissioned by the 1st Duke (William Cavendish 1640 -1707).
The present duke wore this outfit to the coronation of the Queen when he was nine years old.
A child’s carriage on display.
Bess of Hardwick’s silver seal.
Sketchbooks and a gold dog collar belonging to the 6th Duke of Devonshire, William Spencer Cavendish (1790 – 1858).

Items belonging to Amanda, Duchess of Devonshire.
Debo’s beloved Elvis slippers and well-worn shoes by Hubert de Givenchy.
Debo with her close friends Annette de la Renta and Jayne Wrightsman in 2002. The trio poses in front of John Singer Sargent’s 1902 portrait of the Acheson sisters.
Adele Cavendish (1896 – 1981) was Fred Astaire’s sister and dance partner. She married Lord Charles Cavendish, the second son of the 9th Duke of Devonshire in 1932. Her first meeting with her fiancé’s family was unforgettable: instead of walking to greet her stone-faced future in-laws, she turned cartwheels, winning them over instantly.
The venerable Savile Row tailors, Huntsman, recreated a 1924 order for Adele Astaire for the exhibition. The mannequin’s foot rests on top of Adele’s own annotated copies of Vogue, found by Lady Burlington in the petite dancer’s former bedroom.
In 1897, Duchess Louise, the formidable wife of the 8th Duke (aka the Double Duchess on account of the fact that she had married two dukes) hosted the “ball of the century” – the Devonshire House Ball in London – to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Juilee. Adhering to the theme of pre-1815 allegorical costumes, Duchess Louise came dressed as Zenobia, warrior Queen of Palmyra, in a gowm made for her of diamonds, gold and semi-precious stones by the couturier, Jean-Philippe Worth. The ball’s fancy-dress code induced social hysteria. The British Library, overrun by young women seeking to research historical costume, had to turn them away. And the House of Worth in Paris, overwhelmed with requests, was forced to stop taking commissions months before the event.
Another lavish costume for the Jubilee Ball. Six of the dresses worn by the 400 guests have been brought together in this exhibition for the first time since the soirée.
Duchess Louise’s satin evening bag.
A succession of state apartments displays a variety of garments including military uniforms worn by previous dukes, silk pajamas and well-worn shoes. At left, the jacket with the rose on the lapel was worn by the current duke in the 1970s.
A military coat belonging to William Cavendish is also on display. In 1944, Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, a sister of John F. Kennedy, married William Cavendish, set to inherit the dukedom. The only Kennedy in attendance was her brother, Joe Jr, who was killed three months later when his airplane exploded while he was over France on a secret bombing mission. Tragedy struck again when William Cavendish was killed by a German sniper a mere four months after his wedding. Four years later, Kick too died in an airplane crash. She is buried on the grounds of Chatsworth. William is buried in Belgium where he was killed. His younger brother, Andrew Cavendish became the 11th Duke of Devonshire upon their father’s death in 1950.
Deborah Mitford and Lord Andrew Cavendish (1920 – 2004), 2nd Lieutenant of the Coldstream Guards, on their wedding day in 1941.
The 11th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire inherited Chatsworth House in 1950 but did not move the family in until 1957 after some extensive renovations that included the addition of 17 bathrooms. They then set about turning it into a successful business. This was born of necessity for when the Duke inherited Chatsworth and other properties, he also inherited a tax bill equivalent to 80% of their value. Photo: Chatsworth House Trust
Chatsworth opened to the public in 1949 and by the 1960s and 70, bus loads of visitors came to tour the house and gardens. The house’s popularity increased when a farm shop selling local produce, the first of its kind, was opened in 1977. Other stately homes, including those run by the National Trust soon began emulating the estate’s success. Today, the house receives some 650,000 visitors per year. There are between 800 – 1,000 employees at Chatsworth when the house is fully open (between the end of March and beginning of January), rendering the estate very important to the local economy.
Wedding dresses on display in the Chapel. Themed as the Circle of Life, the Chapel contains christening and mourning outfits alongside wedding dresses.
One of the 11th duke’s bespoke “slogan jumpers.” Pithy quotes include “Never Marry a Mitford” and “Far Better Not” knitted into dozens of sweaters.
Damien Hirst’s Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain, resides in the Chapel.
A silver gilt christening gift for the 9th Duke of Devonshire from Queen Victoria.
The library fittingly hosts some paper designs: Milliner, Stephen Jones’ fascinator made from the pages of a Robert Burns poetry book for Stella Tennant and Hussein Chalayan’s paint-splattered paper dress. Chatsworth has one of the largest and most significant collections of books still in private hands.
Books form the backdrop for this silk organza dress by Christopher Kane, Autumn 2014.
Two of a series of hats on display in an art-filled corridor.
Portraits of Cavendish family members by Lucian Freud. Chatsworth is home to one of Europe’s most significant art collections – the Devonshire Collection. Works include Roman antiquities, Old Master drawings, neo-classical sculptures, paintings, and masterpieces by Rembrandt, Reynolds, Freud, and Da Vinci.
Worn by Stella Tennant in a Vogue shoot, this ball gown was designed by John Galliano for his 1998 Marchesa Casati collection for Christian Dior Haute Couture. It is displayed in front of a 1782 portrait depicting Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire as Diana the Huntress, painted by Maria Cosway.
The beautiful and profligate Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, “Empress of Fashion,” in a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough, ca. 1785. She famously lived at Chatsworth in a ménage a trois with the 5th Duke and Lady Elizabeth Foster.
Denna Garrett, the exhibition’s project manager and my very knowledgeable and patient tour guide.

The House

Built during the tenure of William Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire (1790 – 1858), aka “the Bachelor Duke,” the Sculpture Gallery contains Europe’s most important surviving private collection of neo-classical sculpture. Works include several creations by the great Antonio Canova (1757 – 1852).
Antonio Canova’s tools are displayed in a wall of the Sculpture Gallery.

A few of the sumptuously appointed guest bedrooms:

The home has more than 120 rooms, only 30 of which are open to the public.
The Wellington bedroom.

A lady’s dressing table. Notice the curling tongs on the right. They would have been heated over an open flame. A lady’s maid had to be a knowledgeable hairdresser for an overheated curling iron could have disastrous consequences!
Exit through the gift shop, the former orangery.

The Grounds

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.

The yew maze, laid out in 1962, is located on the site of Joseph Paxton’s Great Conservatory — the largest glass building in England before the erection of the head gardener’s subsequent marvel, the Crystal Palace in London in 1851.
The Great Conservatory was demolished shortly after World War I on account of the huge costs of maintaining and heating it. The supporting walls which now enclose the maze, serve as a lasting memorial to this extraordinary building.
A whimsical bench.
The Cavendish family motto is cavendo tutus which translates as “safe through caution.” The family crest is the serpent: wise and slow, but quick to pounce when necessary.

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