Classic couture: 500 years of Chatsworth fashion

Deborah Devonshire and Stella Tennant, Chatsworth, 2006. Picture: Mario Testino
Deborah Devonshire and Stella Tennant, Chatsworth, 2006. Picture: Mario Testino
  • Every room of Chatsworth House is being used to showcase 500 years of fashion in its latest exhibition. Sarah Freeman takes a look at the highlights.
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Chatsworth is the kind of place where they like to do things properly. So, when Laura Cavendish, Countess of Burlington, had the idea for an exhibition dedicated to fashion it was never going to just be a few mannequins dressed in half a dozen period costumes.

Instead, she drafted in Hamish Bowles, American Vogue’s international editor-at-large – who she knew from her former life as a model – as curator, the likes of Gucci and Wedgewood came on board as sponsors, and with every last closet and wardrobe thrown open, the entire property is about to become one giant catwalk.

Mistress of the Robes Coronation gown as worn by Duchess Evelyn at the 1937 Coronation and Duchess Mary in 1953.

Mistress of the Robes Coronation gown as worn by Duchess Evelyn at the 1937 Coronation and Duchess Mary in 1953.

“We knew this was going to be the biggest exhibition we’d ever staged, but it was only as we began unpacking the exhibits that the scale of what we were going to do really became clear,” says Denna Garratt, project co-ordinator of House Style, which opens next weekend. “What’s really lovely is that this isn’t an exhibition which is separate to the rest of the property. Instead we are displaying items in the relevant rooms, so it really tells a story of the estate and the people who have lived in it over the last five centuries.

“Hamish has an encyclopaedic knowledge of fashion and costume and he along with the rest of the team has created something really special and something which is unique to Chatsworth. In all we have ended up with more than 100 mannequins and and what’s nice is that every single item is really personal and has a story to tell about a chapter in the history of the estate.

“Every room is now looking absolutely stunning, but the chapel looks particularly special. In there we have a number of items from weddings and christenings over the years and the idea was to show the circle of life for somewhere like Chatsworth.”

While a timespan of 500 years meant Bowles had his pick of items, there were some figures from Chatsworth’s past that demanded inclusion. Characters like Bess of Hardwick, one of the most powerful women of the 16th century and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, who in the 18th century was a walking talking fashion statement. It was she who pioneered ostrich feathers as daywear and who stuffed her wigs with horsehair for more height.

The list doesn’t end there. With Chatsworth also having been home to two of the Mitford sisters, Nancy and Deborah, as well as the supermodel and designer Stella Tennant and with Fred Astaire’s big sister Adele and JFK’s sister ‘Kick’ Kennedy also having ties to the family, it’s an estate which has style running through its DNA.

“Honestly, to be let loose in the wardrobe rooms, the gold vaults and attics of Chatsworth was a dream come true for me,” says Bowles. “Right from the start, the idea was to reveal the personalities of the various characters who have peopled the rooms and gardens through their choice of clothing and I hope we have succeeded in doing just that.”

Organised by theme, different parts of the property will showcase the Coronation dress worn both in 1937 and 1953, the now legendary Devonshire House Fancy Dress Ball in 1897, the Tudor influence on fashion as well as the more down to earth side of country living, where a pair of riding boots takes centre stage. Highlights of the collection include items belonging to the current Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and a raft of garments from the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Christian Dior.

Alongside the clothing, important artworks will also be on display, including rare costume designs from the 1660s by Inigo Jones, Surveyor to the King’s Works and one of the most notable architects of 17th century England. Contemporary artist TJ Wilcox will be showing his intimate filmed portrait of Adele Astaire, which contains the only surviving film of the star, found at Chatsworth in 2015.

Alessandro Michele, creative director at Gucci says: “Chatsworth is unlike anywhere else in the world. It’s a place full of charm, history and rituals. You can see history everywhere and yet it’s also a place where things come alive. Up until now it has been the house which has been speaking, but through their wardrobes, House Style gives a voice to its inhabitants and guests.”

• House Style runs from March 25-October 22 and is included in the price of entry to Chatsworth. To coincide with the exhibition, Rizolli will publish House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth.