A look at the House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion exhibition at Chatsworth

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

Mistress of the Robes coronation gown, worn by Duchess Evelyn at 1937 Coronation and Duchess Mary at 1953 Coronation Photo: Devonshire Collection - Credit: Archant

Derbyshire Life talks to Laura Cavendish, Countess of Burlington about this season’s innovative exhibition at the magnificent stately home

Chatsworth House Photo: Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth

Chatsworth House Photo: Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth - Credit: Archant

CHATSWORTH has just opened its biggest and most ambitious exhibition to date. Six years in the planning, ‘House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth’, tells the story of the house through the styles and fashions of the people who lived and visited there – from historical figures like Bess of Hardwick and Duchess Georgiana to contemporary style icons like Stella Tennant.

This is a multi-layered exhibition, woven throughout the grand rooms of the house and incorporating art history, jewellery, archival material, design and textiles as well as the clothes themselves. It is imaginatively organised by theme: Coronation Dress; The Devonshire House Ball; Bess of Hardwick and the Tudor Influence; The Georgiana Effect; Ducal Style; Country Living; The Circle of Life; Entertaining at Chatsworth.

The exhibition is very much the brainchild of Laura Cavendish, Countess of Burlington, a former model and fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, and married to the Duke and Duchess’s elder son, William. She remembers the series of events that led to the making of it and marvels how the whole thing has come to fruition. ‘None of us thought, “Let’s have this great big enormous show all the way through Chatsworth…”,’ she says.

‘But I remember visiting one of the storerooms here with my mother-in-law and being so amazed by the boxes and the packing paper and the incredible tins the hats are kept in… seeing all this stuff and wanting to get it all out and have a look at it. And asking my parents-in-law if we could ask a specialist to come and look at it. They hadn’t lived here very long at that point. We were all in a period of discovery which I know will never stop, and I don’t think any of us really knew what was there.’

Lady Burlington at Chatsworth Photo: Ben Murphy

Lady Burlington at Chatsworth Photo: Ben Murphy - Credit: Archant

The name, Hamish Bowles, immediately sprang to her mind as a possible curator. International Editor-at-Large of American Vogue, and the curator of many noted international exhibitions, he is a man highly respected in the fashion industry. ‘I was lucky enough to be on speaking terms with him, so I sent an email and was a little nervous about whether he would reply,’ she remembers. But the message ‘pinged back within seconds and with a torrent of enthusiastic questions like “do Georgiana’s muslin gowns exist?”’

They don’t, as it happens: as she observes with regret, people didn’t keep clothes in the same way in those days. But when Hamish Bowles arrived at Chatsworth a short time later, totally energised after just finishing a show, preliminary explorations threw up a host of things, including the discovery that ‘someone had very cleverly archived all the clothes of the late Duke and Duchess.’

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Bowles was in raptures. ‘To be let loose in the wardrobe rooms, the gold vaults, the muniment room, and the closets, cupboards and attics of Chatsworth has been a dream come true for me,’ he says. ‘Chatsworth is a real treasure house and the characters of generations of the Cavendish family members who have peopled its rooms and gardens and landscapes is revealed as vividly through their choice of clothing and adornments as through the canvases and lenses of the great artists and photographers who have memorialised them through the centuries.’

The ideas gathered pace. Two notable names from the world of fashion, Patrick Kinmonth and Antonio Monfreda, came on board as creative directors and designers. The team started reaching out to museums to find out what they had in their collections, researching where other things might be and building the story of how all of it related to the house. ‘And we are incredibly lucky to have people like Stella Tennant who have never thrown anything away,’ Lady Burlington says in gratitude of Stella, daughter of the botanical artist, Emma Tennant, and granddaughter of the late Duke and Duchess.

Duchess Louise's silk and lace bag with gold work embriodery, 1980s Photo: Thomas Loof, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth

Duchess Louise's silk and lace bag with gold work embriodery, 1980s Photo: Thomas Loof, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth - Credit: Archant

She was a British model, the face of Chanel and famous for Vogue’s most expensive photo shoot ever, the cover picture, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (better known as London Girls). In the exhibition will be one of the first dresses that Alexander McQueen made, for Stella’s first fashion shoot – ‘She was an art student at the time, with a nose ring… That was the dress he made on the kitchen table… and that’s the underskirt!’ says Lady Burlington, leafing through the giant file of pictures on the table.

‘I went to Scotland to see her and we had this incredible day re-living the Nineties – “Do you remember this?” and “Do you remember that?” These clothes are the history of her career as well as her life in fashion. And suddenly when you amass all these things together, you realise the richness and diversity of the collections.’

Bowles and Kinmonth were inspired to display the clothes thematically so that the exhibits responded to the rooms they were in. So a coronation robe, for example, isn’t simply a mannequin in a room: also on display are such things as invitations to dinner and to the cathedral, and letters exchanged between invited family members about what they were going to wear for the occasion. ‘The ephemera is almost as interesting as the clothes themselves, and that’s why having the archive here at Chatsworth is so dreamy. You can build the stories,’ Lady Burlington says with pleasure.

Duchess Evelyn (Evie), for example, writes to the Queen to ask what she should wear at the Coronation – ‘and of course she loved wearing fur. And the Queen is writing back to her saying, “well, you can wear lappets if you like, unless you think it is rather old-fashioned”,’ she says in delight, finding a picture of the Duchess in her famous lappets and adding, ‘There’s another letter in 1952 when they’re all worried and writing to each other about fur and robes and she says she believes Victor’s [the Duke’s] fur was missing – “You would know that if this was so, it would be dreadfully expensive,” she writes. “It struck me that if Debo got busy at once, she could breed some white rabbits which, when young, look very like ermine. The tails are easily faked.”’

Fred Astaire and Adele Astaire Photo: Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth

Fred Astaire and Adele Astaire Photo: Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth - Credit: Archant

The stories, she says, capture the moment: in the Chapel, for instance, the location for the christenings, weddings and funerals that make up the Circle of Life. Here are seven wedding dresses, including Deborah Mitford’s; here are the Gothic-inspired black coats and jackets of mourners; here are beautiful christening gowns, including the Cavendish gown, of which Lady Burlington notes with regret, ‘Only one of my children was small enough to wear it.’

On show are a host of historical treasures: everything from Georgiana’s state livery – in yellow, with silver lace, silver buttons, purple velvet and ‘frankly amazing’ knickerbockers – to the Sixth Duke’s travelling dress and travel journals. Everything that is gold and silver and jewelled is stunningly displayed together in the gold and silver State Room. Discovered gloves and brooches have been identified from portraits. Elvis memorabilia and a Chanel muff are among the fascinating objects in a 23-metre display case that stretches right down the Chapel Corridor. There is another corridor simply full of hats. There are the Eighth Duke’s crocodile shoes and his walking shoes – ‘I love those,’ she says.

There are rooms that will exude grandeur – not least the Dining Room, which is lavishly set up for a multi-generational dinner with 35 family and guests. But there are more homely things too, like the late Duke’s much patched and re-patched tweed jacket, his ducal pyjamas – and his jumpers. He had 22 of them, all with different slogans: one sported the words, Never Marry A Mitford. ‘William said he normally wore them in private but that he would occasionally forget that he had a meeting or an interview with someone and would turn up wearing one of these,’ Lady Burlington says with delight. Her father-in-law’s suits by Blades and Mr Fish also mark a particular period of fashion.

The Devonshire House Ball is one of the highlights of the exhibition. The Ball was held on 2nd July 1897 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, and Duchess Louise commanded her 700 guests – who included the Prince of Wales – to dress as characters from mythical or temporal courts. She herself was dressed as Queen Zenobia, the third-century Queen of Palmyra, a woman said to be more beautiful than Cleopatra.

Hat, Madame Vernier, 1965, owned by the Duchess of Devonshire Photo: Thomas Loof, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth

Hat, Madame Vernier, 1965, owned by the Duchess of Devonshire Photo: Thomas Loof, Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth - Credit: Archant

The remarkable aspect of this remarkable Ball was that the London photographic firm of Lafayette was invited to set up a tent studio in the Devonshire House gardens, complete with backdrops. One was a painted canvas depicting the gardens themselves; others were backdrops of a baronial hall, a country estate, the classic balustrade, a section of wall and a Turkish carpet. Every guest was invited to be photographed and 400 of those sepia pictures are extant.

The photo of Duchess Louise is stunning. She is wearing a magnificent silver and gold headdress with over 450 gemstones, including Blue John. Multiple strands of pearls are suspended from the crown and the headdress is completed with a 5-string pearl choker and topped with two flamboyant ostrich feathers. ‘We have the gown but the headdress had been lost completely. C W Sellors have re-made this for us and the work is absolutely incredible,’ says Lady Burlington. ‘I love that a Derbyshire company has got so enthused about this and has gone to such pains. It’s a wonderful thing, amazing.’

Sellors have also re-made some of the late Duchess’s famous insect brooches, designed to be shown on her evening gowns in the way that she wore them. And they have also made replicas of two other tiaras, the Palmette and Lotus diamond tiara worn by Duchess Mary to the Coronation and the Honeysuckle tiara worn by Duchess Deborah.

It is the many layers of this exhibition that Lady Burlington marvels at. There is the art – drawings of costume designs by Inigo Jones, for example. An intimate filmed portrait and accompanying collages of Adele Astaire, sister and dance partner of Fred Astaire, rounds off the tour, a contemporary work by the American artist, T J Wilcox. Adele Astaire spent her short married life at Lismore Castle in Ireland, the Devonshire family seat.

The making of a headdress Photo: Michael Hope-Smith @ThreeSixSevenNine.co.uk

The making of a headdress Photo: Michael Hope-Smith @ThreeSixSevenNine.co.uk - Credit: Archant

Gucci is the principal sponsor of the exhibition, along with C W Sellors, Investec, Sotheby’s and Wedgwood. ‘We are so lucky to have them. With the support of these and other partners, I hope that Chatsworth can have a dialogue with an audience that isn’t our traditional audience or traditional visitor to this kind of house,’ reflects Lady Burlington. ‘I really hope that even people who can take or leave fashion, or don’t think they’re interested, will come because it will tell stories about history and the family and particular times and ways of life.’

For the Countess, the six years of work on House Style has helped familiarise her with the generations of the Devonshire family. ‘It’s amazing what I didn’t know,’ she acknowledges. ‘In a way, I suppose, it’s rather overwhelming. One has to find a point of access to the history and that is what it has been for me.

‘I’ve learned all kinds of things in the process of doing it – the jewellery, the people – and now I’m a bit braver, I nip to the archive and they will get things out for me and I look through them. I can even find my way around now without getting hopelessly lost! Amazing people work here. I feel very connected to the place and those seeds of interest will grow for years to come.’

The Making of the Headdress

C W Sellors, based in Ashbourne, worked from a single sepia photograph to recreate this stunning piece of jewellery. It contains 164 simulated diamonds, 33 amethysts, 118 peridots, 119 pearls and 19 hand-crafted pieces of Blue John. The jewellers sketched out the initial design, sourced the gemstones from as far afield as Brazil and the Far East, and handcrafted every piece to fit within the detailed silver gold vermeil frame.

‘The techniques used have been traditional, time-learned, handcrafted jewellery techniques, requiring great competence and artistic skill,’ said Paul Barker, workshop manager. ‘The jewellers who undertook the work on the headdress each had around 25 years’ experience at the bench and the headdress took over 12 months to complete.’

Hand tools have changed little over the centuries, he observes, though hydrogen instead of normal gas is now burned for soldering. Basic jewellery making tools were the most appropriate here. There was no call for the high technology pieces of equipment the company uses in other instances, such as laser welders, computer controlled milling machines and computer-aided design software. Modern diamond-coated lapidary cutting, grinding and polishing wheels on variable speed electric machines were used for the stonework, so the shaping and cutting of the gems was a lot quicker and more straightforward than it would have been in the 1890s.

‘It’s always a great experience and privilege to bring to life a concept for a client. The historical reference of this piece allowed us to indulge our own interests and passions for historical jewellery pieces and traditional jewellery techniques,’ said Mr Barker.

Re-envisaging the design from the photograph required painstaking work. ‘There were other issues to resolve from an aesthetic point of view – balancing the choice of colours and stones, for instance,’ said Rebecca Sellors, jewellery designer and product developer. ‘There were also practical considerations, such as getting the balance of the headdress right so that the pearls hang evenly when worn.’

She concluded, ‘Working closely with the project team at Chatsworth we were able to provide a very accurate recreation, which includes a wonderful piece of Blue John as one of its key features. We hope people will enjoy our finished creation.’

C W Sellors, established in 1979, is one of the UK’s foremost independent jewellers, a Derbyshire success story in every respect. The company now has over 90 employees and will move to a purpose-built base at Carsington Water in 2018. It has brought out a retail jewellery collection to complement the exhibition which will be available to buy at Chatsworth House when the exhibition opens on 25th March and at all C W Sellors’ stores and online at www.cwsellors.co.uk.