Fashioning Chatsworth With Personality and Grandeur
Laura Burlington looked down at the long sweep of intricate white lace laid out for display at Chatsworth, the grandest of English stately homes, and saw the baby christening gown as the start of it all.
When she married into the Cavendish family and had her first child, her mother-in-law, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, suggested she explore the box room. And there, among the elegant storage, was a parcel containing the christening gown, passed down the generations.
“From the cradle to the grave,” Lady Burlington said, showing me rooms at Chatsworth displaying family wedding dresses (including Helmut Lang’s silk slip from 1999 for Stella Tennant, one of the Cavendish/Devonshire brood, who made her career as a model). The next room had a drastic switch of mood and colour with entirely black dresses displayed against sombre, dark panels.
“House Style” is an exceptional exhibition, which lives up to its theme of “Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth”. It is also the subject of a new book by Laura Burlington and Hamish Bowles that showcases the ultra-grand, historic building and the colourful characters that lived there. At Chatsworth, it is all melded into a show of high style.
Hamish Bowles, Editor-at-Large of American Vogue, who curated the exhibition with Laura Burlington, explained his lifelong fascination with British historical grandeur.
“It’s a house of wonders and treasures,” said Hamish, explaining that his childhood family holidays in rain-swept Yorkshire introduced him to costume museums and stately homes.
“From that moment on, I realised the story-telling power of clothes and the potency of these objects that can tell us so much about the wearer, the times they lived in, and the spaces they inhabited,” he explained.
The world of interiors and fashion at Chatsworth is intimately related to the Devonshire family, past and present. The set-design duo of Patrick Kinmonth and Antonio Manfreda, who created the exhibition, chose to celebrate both the intimate world of an aristocratic family and how their lives – and clothes – fit into society over 500 years.
The grandeur was not hard to find. As the current Duke of Devonshire stood on the plush red entrance stairway to welcome guests, it was easy to imagine that nothing much had changed since the 18th-century, when the estate’s original house – built in the 1560s and whose ruins remain on the hills above Chatsworth – was redesigned. (Even if the roof is currently under tarpaulins for repairs.)
How do you present fashionable clothes – including 21st-century designs by Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane – in a historic building in a meaningful way?
“When I saw the costumes for the Duchess of Devonshire’s ball, I thought this show CAN be theatre,” Patrick Kinmonth said. “We can go there and we will have the resources to do it properly.”
“It is such a fabulous collection of things that we patched together,” he continued, “and it goes in both directions, from clothes through to the person who has worn them. But it also oscillates from a collection of books or paintings to the costumes. We were so lucky to be able to do things in both directions. It gave me the cue to do each room differently.”
The recreation of the Devonshire Fancy Dress Ball of 1897 reveals a vision of an entire society based on nobility. Weaving history through the rooms, Hamish explained the significance of a 2007 gown by Vivienne Westwood, with a floral pattern that is a precise remaking of a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Bess of Hardwick, a notable figure in Elizabethan society and part of the Chatsworth set.
With dimmed lighting to protect the clothes and some arcane commentary written by Kinmonth in flourishing pen and ink, there is a great deal to take in.
But even if you are not well versed in the intricacies of English aristocratic history, the famous Mitford Sisters, and Adele Astaire – Fred Astaire’s elder sister, the exhibition scores on visual impact alone. There is a change of pace in each room and Antonio Manfreda told me how much priceless furniture he had been allowed to move from other rooms in Chatsworth House to make a home for the exhibition. This was not meant to be disruptive, but rather the opposite. For example, a sofa in the perfect shade of pale green that happened to match a gown by John Galliano for Dior was placed in the adjoining corridor.
Hats, some of them theatrical pieces by milliner Stephen Jones, were used throughout, often co-ordinated with portraits of hat-wearing members of the family.
“The Duke was Chairman of Royal Ascot (the society horse-racing event) for decades so the Duchess was obliged to wear fabulous new hats each season,” Hamish explained. “All the ritualistic moments in the life of a family like this – weddings, christenings, funerals, and Ascot – need hats, and the ladies have really responded.”
The introduction of contemporary style – a Christopher Kane pleated dress that mirrors the library shelves behind – or outfits by Erdem or Gucci – the exhibition’s main sponsor – bring the exhibition up to date.
Yet, inevitably, it is also pitched as a romantic memory of a by-gone era. I envisage visitors shuffling through the vast dining room, where a sound installation reproduces the chit-chat of high society on loud speakers, transported by the lavish environment so far from the crowded, often violent and frightening world of today.
Ah, the stately homes of England! Designed for the high and mighty, and now powered by the people and the entry tickets they buy. “House Style” is a beautiful and fascinating re-imagining of a vanished world.
It has been created with such a delicate mix of drama and elegance that you can almost believe – while the two-hour tour lasts – that the fairy tale is real.
“House Style” is on display at Chatsworth from 25th March to 22nd October 2017 (www.chatsworth.org). House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth by Laura Burlington and Hamish Bowles is out now (published by Skira/Rizzoli)