“Derbyshire” and “Style” seem like uneasy bedfellows – and popping to the Peak District for a fashion exhibition seems like a hop too far for most Londoners. But if you can make it to Paris or New York, you can certainly get to the tiny village of Bakewell, and the splendours of the scenery and the charm of local shops quite rival (for me, at least) the lure of the metropolis. And believe me, when you get there, House Style at Chatsworth House is absolutely worth it.
Chatsworth House is a magnificent building, and a great draw for visitors in its own right. It’s huge – probably bigger than Kensington Palace, which is, you know, a palace. And very handsomely kept up, as are the grounds, full of giant rockeries, ingenious water features, glass houses and sweeping views. There were also a great deal of gambolling baby lambs adding the final touch to the Capability Brown designed landscape when I visited.
A visit to House Style also includes full entry to the house and grounds – or vice versa, as you can’t visit the house without seeing the exhibition as it fully inhabits the space.
Chatsworth – home of fashionistas
This is not an exhibition of a few mannequins dressed as footmen tucked into corners, or ladies in evening dress seated at a dinner table in a room recreating the grand old days. Actually, there are a couple of servants in splendid buttercup yellow and blue velvet standing around, and an imperious Mistress of the Robes stands at the top of the grand sweep of the main staircase, her cloak swirled around her. And as for being dressed for dinner, there is not one lady and her husband enjoying the feast, but a chattering multitude, and they aren’t wearing stiff Victorian crinolines but a variety of evening wear from about the 1960s upwards – Jaques Fath, Dior and even Vetements and Christopher Kane are represented.
In between this imposing beginning and the grand finale of the dining room are many other displays and set pieces. The exhibition took me around three hours to view – and that was moving at quite a pace and not lingering too much over the details.
The Cavendish family archive
The exhibition aims to show clothing that is related to the Cavendish family, who have owned and lived in Chatsworth since it was built in the 1560s. Some of the more famous family members include the supermodel Stella Tennant, Georgian fashion leader Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, and you might also know Deborah Cavendish, known as Debo, one of the Mitford sisters.
A lot of the clothing comes from Chatsworth’s own archives. Some of it is garments inspired by Chatsworth, such as the Vivienne Westwood dresses made after portraits Queen Elizabeth I in a dress presented to her by Cavendish ancestors. Most tenuous is clothing modelled by the Cavendish family for fashion shoots – primarily Stella Tennant and sometimes Deborah Cavendish, too.
After entering past that ceremonial Mistress of the Robes costume, which has been worn by the Duchesses of the house for many royal coronations and in its scarlet velvet and ermine looks like she’s about to be crowned herself, visitors are oriented via a timeline of the house’s inhabitants, told in fashion ephemera and cleverly sited in one of the long galleries. The vitrine contains all sort of bits and bobs, including letters and sketches,Converse trainers that were whitened by the butler, Vogue magazines, portraits, photographs, handbags, handbags and jewellery.
Birth and Death
Then into the chapel for a dramatic display. Appropriately, this covers christening, marriages and funerals. It’s very dark, with flickering “candles”, but a Dior bar suit in perfect condition, plus several sculptural hats stand out. A group of Chatsworth brides stand in a circle, with accompanying photographs. The only criticism I have here is that the photos don’t always match up to the dresses standing next to them, so do find one of the separate laminated room guides if you want it all to make sense. Some christening gowns and accessories and small children’s dresses are also in vitrines. Disconcertingly, a Damien Hirst sculpture of a golden life-sized man, flayed of his skin and holding it whilst wielding dressmaker’s scissors stands watching it all. This is probably not a comment on the “skin” we put on for different occasions, but who knows.
Similarly dark is the Oak Room next door. A circle of black dressed mannequins show their backs to you and you have to peer across the room to see their fronts, whilst the information displayed refers to the outfit across the circle, not the one it stands next to. Confusing, but a chance to get well acquainted with the back of a lovely Schiaparelli coat and observe the timeless design and unusual fabric from very close quarters.
The Fanciest of Dress
Then upstairs to one of the most imaginative displays. A fancy dress ball was held at Chatsworth in 1897, with the instructions that outfits must be drawn from 1815 or before. This resulted in surely the most corseted Cleopatra you’ll ever see, a Valkyrie in impressive winged helmet (also corseted) some Elizabethans in slashed velvet and impressive ruffs, the Queen of Carthage, and Zenobia, Warrior Queen of Palmyra. The illustrious guests were captured at the time in photographs, life sized and slightly ghostly copies of which stand dotted about the room.
However, splendid though the photographs are, nothing of their grainy greys compares to the real thing, and a few of the original costumes belonging to the family are displayed next door. It is impossible to believe these vivid velvets and sparkling gold and silver embroidery could possibly be over a hundred years old. Zenobia, embodied at the time by Louise Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, wore a white silk dress with a gold lamé overdress embroidered with peacock feathers, a grass green velvet cape and a tall headdress draped in pearls and featuring an ostrich plume. It was made by the couturier Worth, as were many of the guest’s outfits – no going down to the fancy dress shop for the nobility.
Onwards to the next display, a fascinating example of outfits inspired by the riches of Chatsworth – Vivienne Westwood’s opulent dress and high collared velvet jacket stands here with the original Elizabethan portrait which inspired it. Victor & Rolf produced a sumptuous embroidered velvet overdress, Karl Lagerfeld made a chinoiserie inspired sequin number for Chanel. Christopher Kane opted just for gold in a trouser suit that resembled a gilded pillar, and other outfits flashed and twinkled, set among the gilding and diamonds of some of Chatsworth’s treasures.
The Chatsworth inspiration continued into the next room, where a beautifully embroidered original 18th century dress was shown alongside a more modern counterpart. There was a vogue in Queen Elizabeth’s court for floral and insect motifs, and one of the more contemporary duchesses, Deborah (Debo) had a fondness for insects too with a priceless collection of insect themed jewellery set with precious gems.
Georgiana the Scandalous
Following this is a video featuring Debo herself and a little dress up and Instagram opportunity, and then the next room – themed on Georgiana. Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire from 1744, was a noted fashionista and scandalous profligate. Although her husband was the richest man in England, she ran up gambling debts that amounted to thousands of pounds (that would be millions of pounds today) and asked her parents to pay them off – which they agreed to. Georgiana also excited gossips by living with her best friend at Chatsworth, who also happened to be her husband’s mistress. She did have the consolation of lovers of her own.
Georgiana was a much painted society beauty, and the exhibition contains some of the famous portraits of her by Thomas Gainsborough amongst others. However, little is made of her actual fashion. The cases in the room contain some outfits vaguely inspired by her, but none of her own gowns. Instead there is a show stopping John Galliano for Dior gown, worn by Stella Tennant. It is beautiful and huge, and matches perfectly the turquoise silk wallhangings.
A little tucked away room shows a family group dressed more realistically, in their headscarves and regular hunting and fishing tweeds. The final room is the dinner party, populated by well dressed mannequins who have their own “dinner party babble” soundtrack.
As well as the fashion displays, there is also the opportunity to see some bedrooms with the original silk hangings and hand painted chinoiserie wallpaper, and galleries decorated by more modern members of the family. I wonder if visitors to Chatsworth who don’t give a fig for frocks might be disappointed, since although there are still plenty of imposing portraits, sweeping staircases and silk-swagged beds to admire, quite a lot of the more traditional room sets must have been removed for the fashion displays. However, lovers of fashion will be very happy, and this experience is highly recommended.
The exhibition runs until 22 October 2017.