This year’s must-see exhibition celebrates five centuries of high fashion at Chatsworth House. With Gucci as its main sponsor, this glittering spectacle promises to blow apart the traditional image of the stately home. Chris Yeo just had to find out more.
As regular readers will know, there’s nothing the blog enjoys more than getting away for a few days and with the Easter break providing the perfect excuse for a quick getaway, we packed our bags and headed north. Our destination was that stateliest of stately homes, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire.
Chatsworth is perhaps the most celebrated of all English country houses. The ancestral home and principal seat of the Dukes of Devonshire (who, not so long ago, owned seven of England’s greatest houses, staying in each one for just a few weeks of the year), it sits majestically in one of ‘Capability’ Brown’s finest landscapes. A palace in all but name, its 240 rooms – which include a private theatre – contain some of the finest art and antiques in the country: works by Rubens, Van Dyke, Frans Hals, Gainsborough and Landseer, sculpture by Canova and a silver collection that would turn a Russian oligarch several shades of Pantone green with envy.
This year Chatsworth is hosting an exhibition like no other, one which looks set to raise the bar for all country house exhibitions to come. House Style, Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth celebrates the heritage of the house through the wardrobes of its past and present occupants. The sheer range on display is remarkable: couture designer dresses; tiaras and headdresses; christening and wedding gowns; coronation robes and 19th century fancy dress; servants livery and uniforms, all are on show, the historic artworks and interiors acting as a backdrop for what has to be one of the most extravagant fashion shows in history. Many of the exhibits bring to life the colourful personalities of Chatsworth’s past, beginning with the formidable Bess of Hardwick, originator of the family fortune, who oversaw the building of the house and who, through a series of judicious marriages, became the most powerful woman in 16th-century England after Elizabeth I. Then there’s the celebrated Georgiana, wife of the 5th duke and queen of the 18th century fashion scene who was immortalised by Keira Knightley in the film The Duchess; not to mention the Mitford sisters; and the supermodel Stella Tennant, granddaughter of the 11th Duchess. Fans of Stella can admire her wedding dress and nose ring.
Six years in the making, this is the most ambitious event Chatsworth has ever staged. It was the brainchild of Laura Roundell – a former model and fashion buyer and now wife of the Earl of Burlington, heir to the estate. Back in 2010, on a casual hunt through the house’s textile archives in search of a christening gown for the couple’s first born, she uncovered everything from coronation robes to Jean-Philippe Worth couture. Inspired by what she found she invited Hamish Bowles, the International Editor-at-Large of American Vogue, to curate the best pieces into a show. As if to rubber stamp the exhibition’s impressive style credentials, it’s sponsored by Gucci. In fact, Gucci director Alessandro Michele has agreed to partner with the stately home until 2019, a collaboration which has seen Capability Brown’s historic landscape used as a backdrop for the launch of Gucci’s Cruise collection. Michele himself described Chatsworth as “the most rock’n’roll place I have ever been”. It’s a far cry from the tearoom and gift shop experience which tends to be synonymous with country house visiting but at no point does the high octane glamour feel ill at ease with its surroundings. Chatsworth has, after all, always been the jewel in the Cavendish family crown, a place for them to advertise their wealth and taste, through art, interior decoration and, as this exhibition shows, fashion.
That the exhibition works so well visually is in large part due to the involvement of Patrick Kinmonth and Antonio Monfreda, the creative duo behind the 2012 Valentino retrospective at Somerset House who inject a sense of the theatrical into proceedings. Stunning silk ball gowns – including an outrageous giant green Galliano creation worn by Stella Tennant for a Mario Testino shoot for Vogue in 2006 – rub shoulders with servant’s liveries, equally jaw dropping in their sumptuousness. Among the whole retinue of staff employed by great houses like Chatsworth it was the footmen, the underlings of the mighty Butler, who were the most highly prized for their ‘decorative’ qualities – the taller and better looking they were, the better their prospects – and their uniform reflected this. At Chatsworth, right up until 1938, footmen serving in the Great Dining Room were expected to powder their hair and wear ceremonial uniform unchanged since the 18th century – buckled patent leather shoes, white silk stockings, knee breeches and jackets in mustard yellow, embroidered with silver thread. That’s quite a look for a young man to carry off but, if Gosford Park is to be believed, there were perks to the job.
Six dresses from ‘the party of the century’ have also been reunited for the first time since they were worn to the Devonshire House Ball in 1897. Every season, the 8th Duke of Devonshire and his wife Duchess Louise hosted parties that were the talk of London society. For Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, they staged the costume ball of the century. The London photographic firm of Lafayette was invited by the Duke of Devonshire to set up a tent in the garden behind the house to photograph the guests in costume during the ball, and many of these wonderfully evocative photographs are on display.
The exhibition culminates in the Great Dining Room with an impossibly glamorous costume finale evoking the end of the evening with more than 30 guests attired in a host of designer names from Chanel, Balmain and Vivienne Westwood to Dior, Tom Ford and Erdem. One last footnote in the New Gallery is the film featuring rare moving footage of Adele Astaire dancing in Ireland, discovered in the Chatsworth archive in 2015, now made into a film by artist TJ Wilcox and shown for the first time. Adele, sister and dance partner of Fred, married into the family in 1932. Duchess Mary recalled the family’s unforgettable first meeting with her son’s fiancé. ‘All gathered, like stone pillars, in the library: the heavy doors opened and there stood this tiny girl, beautifully dressed. We waited for her to approach us, but instead of walking she suddenly began turning cartwheels. Everyone loved it.’
Glamorous, theatrical, stylish and at times a little eccentric, House Style embodies all the qualities of Chatsworth itself. It really is absolutely fabulous.
House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth runs to October 22. Tickets are on sale now: chatsworth.org
Images courtesy of Chatsworth House.
Chris Yeo has a lifelong passion for antiques. He is a curator, lecturer and an expert on the Antiques Roadshow.