While staying in Derbyshire for the Bank Holiday weekend I took the opportunity to visit House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth House curated by heiress apparent Lady Burlington and US Vogue editor Hamish Bowles for whom I did work experience at Harpers & Queen before the old King died.
The Ducal house of Devonshire has many fashion moments on which to call: the celebrated beauty Georgiana Duchess who rivalled her friend Marie Antoinette as a style leader, Louise Duchess’s Devonshire House fancy dress ball of 1897, the devastatingly chic dancer American Adele Astaire marrying into the Cavendish family in 1932, 11th Duchess Deborah and her couture-clad Mitford sisters Mrs Rodd (Nancy) and Lady Mosley (Diana) and Deborah Devonshire’s model granddaughter Stella Tennant.
First things first, I thoroughly enjoyed the groupings of surviving garments that compared and contrasted the centuries of style. Nowhere was this more successful than in the chapel where we saw two ’Circle of Life’ tableaux of Cavendish wedding dresses and mourning clothes as well as cabinets of Mitford and Cavendish christening gowns.
Lighting was always going to be an issue in a house of Chatsworth’s eminence but more problematic for me was an almost complete absence of captioning for free-standing garments. Instead numbers were attached to mannequin arms that most resembled a beauty contest or cattle auction. These women were some of the most celebrated and photographed of their age. Perhaps a well-placed portrait would have sufficed.
It might have been a curatorial decision to choose gloss mannequins with those Meccano ball-and-pin arms but boy do they let a garment down when exposed. I am thinking of the two sets of Coronation robes in the Painted Hall: Mary Duchess’s worn at the 1953 coronation where she was Mistress of the Robes to HM Queen Elizabeth II and the older off-the-shoulder robes that Deborah Duchess found in a tin trunk and had to have permission from HM to wear at the 53.
Ermine trimmed coronation robes for peeresses display like a dream and I was thrilled to see the two Devonshire tiaras replicated for the exhibition. Both Duchesses wore over-the-elbow white gloves to the coronation so why the bare Meccano arms? There was also a surfeit of bald mannequins for an exhibition that cried out for more tiaras and millinery.
I did adore a timeline of display cases that went beyond the creation of the 1st Duke and took us to the present in small objects. This I loved because each tableau was captioned in swirly burnt umber inked handwriting that told the stories. There was Evelyn Duchess’s evening bag with her cipher described in crystals, Deborah Duchess’s Turnbull & Asser shirts, miniatures of the 6th ‘Bachelor’ Duke’s beloved niece Lady Blanche and scads of scrapbooks and photographs.
House Style does take over huge swathes of the public rooms at Chatsworth so you are not short changed for treasures to see. In fact, perhaps there could have been less. I thoroughly enjoyed the Devonshire House Ball room in which life-size photographs of the extravagantly costumed royals and aristocrats rendered in Perspex were placed near to cabinets with their clearly identified miniatures. I felt the ghostliness of the ball and adored the projection of the staircase of London’s Devonshire House destroyed in the 1920s.
My favourite room bar none was the one containing original costumes from the Devonshire House Ball including Louise Duchess’s ‘Zenobia’ costume with its beautifully recreated ostrich plume headdress. This masterpiece of embroidery by Worth caught my gaze for a good fifteen minutes as did that of the Duchess of Portland (Marguerite de Valois?). Once again, what one wanted more than life itself was a picture of Deborah Duchess wearing Zenobia for her 80th birthday ball.
Inventive touches gave pause for thought throughout the Georgian staterooms: the 11th Duke’s embroidered Lobb slippers, Deborah Duchess’s insect brooches displayed on antique china plates and a remarkable room linking a portrait of Bess of Hardwick with a sequinned get-up Stella Tennant modelled at the 2012 Olympics. It was a privilege, having worked recently with antique jewellers Hancocks, to see their Devonshire Parure set in 1856 for Emperor Alexander II’s coronation together for the first time in a long time.
The hits for me in the rest of the exhibition was a John Galliano crinoline worn by Stella Tennant that was posed next to a portrait of Georgiana Duchess but for the Meccano mannequin. I loved seeing Georgiana’s many bills for diamonds, dressmaking and gambling stacked into a tableau of beautiful ruin. Evelyn Duchess’s shepherdess fancy dress was remarkable for the waist that must have rivalled Queen Alexandra’s.
Lord only knows why underwhelming modern garments were posed in front of the Chatsworth library – surely one of the prettiest rooms in the house – but the curators did go all-out on the couture exhibit in the State Dining Room that featured many of Deborah Duchess and Amanda Duchess’s finest that put some of the more modern pieces to shame.
The men had a bit of a bum’s rush in the State Dining Room. A white tie ensemble’s waistcoat was so far below the tailcoat it practically hit the mannequin’s knees: a cardinal sin on Savile Row. I am sure there was finer men’s tailoring belonging to the Dukes in the collection. But for those who are devoted to fashion and to the remarkable Cavendish women, House Style is a feast for the eyes and the mind.