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Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth House

Lady Laura Burlington on House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion, the largest exhibition to come to Chatsworth House 

If the walls of Chatsworth House could tell stories, then the clothes of those who have resided there for more than four centuries would certainly have some good tales.

House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth will be the largest exhibition ever held at the Peak District manor. Opening on 25 March, historical and contemporary clothes will go on show in a survey of the life and times of the aristocratic Devonshire family. It has taken just over six years to put together, curated by Vogue’s international editor-at-large, Hamish Bowles.

One of the driving forces behind the project is Lady Laura Burlington, who is married to William Burlington, the son of the current Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. A former contributing editor for Harper’s Bazaar, fashion is in her veins. She also sits on the New Generation board of the British Fashion Council.

“I had a very small seed of an idea to invite Hamish to come and look at the collection, quietly in the hope that he might feel there would be an exhibition there,” says Burlington. But she credits the final product to her parents-in-law, Bowles and creative designer Patrick Kinmonth, who was responsible for Vogue 100: A Century of Style at the National Portrait Gallery last year.

House Style is not about fashionable fads, but “a way of life”. “It was really difficult to come up with a name,” says Burlington. “For a long time it was Dressing the Devonshires – but then we thought maybe no one would know who the Devonshires were. House Style is more than just dresses.

“Whenever Hamish finds a dress, he starts looking for a picture of the person who has worn it. That’s very important in this show: it’s a way of telling stories about the family and making people feel closer to the actual characters.” Indeed, some of its cast will be more familiar than others.

The exhibition stretches back to the 16th century and the formidable Bess of Hardwick, who persuaded her husband Sir William Cavendish to sell his lands and move to her home county, where they built the first house at Chatsworth. The estate has been home to the Cavendish family and the hereditary dukes ever since. Bess of Hardwick’s Elizabeth I badge – monogrammed ‘E S’ for Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury – will be on display, alongside an account book handwritten by her and her secretary.

House Style will then wend its way through the ages – displayed in Chatsworth’s grandest rooms, such as the Painted Hall – right up until the present day. Items belonging to the current Duke and Duchess of Devonshire will include a Givenchy bolero worn by the Duchess on their wedding day.

“When I first asked [my parents-in-law] to open their wardrobes, there was a sort of deep inhalation of breath,” Burlington describes. “They said ‘oh, we don’t have anything you’d be interested in’… but then it all came out. I hope they’ll be happy with the final result.”

Adele Astaire, Fred’s sister and dance partner, married Lord Charles Cavendish in 1932. As Duchess Mary recalled of the family’s 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.”

“Their marriage represented a great merging of British aristocracy and Hollywood royalty,” says Pierre Lagrange, chairman of Huntsman. The Savile Row tailor has recreated a pair of riding breeches originally made for the inimitably fashionable Adele, especially for the exhibition. The order was found in the shop’s archives – the dukes were frequent customers – and refashioned using the original model. “Huntsman is known for its menswear, but a lot of elegant women have worn our pieces,” says Lagrange.

There will of course be ballgowns, including an example designed by the House of Worth, but House Style will also include a lot of men’s clothes: livery, uniforms, garter robes and boots. Some pieces have been borrowed from museums, but much will be from the Devonshire Collection (pieces belonging to the family, looked after by the House Trust).

The Devonshires’ textile store was opened wide, as well as dressing-up cupboards and the family’s wardrobes. “There have been some really exciting discoveries – perhaps quite small to other people, but quite significant to us,” says Burlington. “Hamish found a 1953 Dior gown sort of hanging on the back of a door, with the label missing, which none of us had given a second thought.”

Other finds have been more emotional. “Stella Tennant had lost her wedding dress, an incredible Helmut Lang, and I don’t think he made too many. It was extraordinary and very conceptual. We were borrowing her mother’s dress – the current Duke’s sister – and tried it on a mannequin. As we were packing it away, at the bottom of that box, we found Stella’s packed in tissue. So there it was, 18 years after she last saw it.”

Tennant, the fashion model who was once the face of Chanel with the shortest of black haircuts, is among the exhibition’s most contemporary stars. She is the granddaughter of the 11th Duke and Deborah Mitford – one of the notorious six sisters, who are honoured in their own right.

“There’s definitely a humorous thread that runs throughout House Style,” explains Burlington, “with rubber chicken handbags and the 11th Duke’s slogan jumpers. He came up with in-joke designs like ‘Never Marry A Mitford’ or ‘Never Trust A Cadogan’.” Twenty-two will be on display.

Burlington’s other favourites include the current Duke’s Mr Fish and Blades suits. “They’re really avant-garde. He must have been very brave and forward-thinking in those days, as he is now, to dress in those clothes.”

As with any study of costume, much can be gleaned about life during different eras. “After the war, one of the Duke’s smoking jackets was repaired and repaired. There’s layers upon layers of tweed,” says Burlington. “It was a time when people were much more careful [with their clothes]. It was more ‘make do and mend’.”

Surveys of aristocratic fashion, couture and noble living have been undertaken many times before, but this exhibition – set in one of England’s grandest and most treasured houses – will be styled with a thoroughly personal touch. 

£21.90, entry to exhibition included in Chatsworth House ticket, 25 March – 22 October, www.chatsworth.org