House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth House


IMG_1544As many of you will know by now I love to go to exhibitions which allow you to see beautiful garments up close and this newly opened event at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire is a new and original example of that.

We’d been away for a long weekend break to the Yorkshire Dales and because I’m such a tolerant and supportive wife during that time we looked at quite a few railways, trains and steam engines! Yes, really…although Mr Y is also generally very patient about fabric shops too so it’s a fair compromise. Anyways, my reward for all this train spotting was that we’d stop at Chatsworth on our way home to see this newly opened show.

I’m not going to lie, it’s quite pricey to get in (£19.90 for an adult to go into the house and gardens, plus car parking) but that said, there is a lot to see at this world-famous site because, as well as the house, the grounds are very extensive with many beautiful corners to discover, a very nice gift shop and several high-quality eating places so you can easily spend a whole day here if you want too.

The show is the brainchild of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire’s daughter in law, Laura Burlington with assistance from Hamish Bowles, European Editor-at-large for American Vogue and expert in couture and vintage clothing.

Right from the magnificent entrance onwards there are clothes, accessories and memorabilia to see in virtually every room that you pass through.

ermine-trimmed velvet gown worn by Deborah Devonshire for the Coronation in 1953, at the foot of the grand entrance staircase.
It is an original gown from the mid-19th century which she was given special dispensation to wear because it is off-the-shoulder


It’s not really possible for me to do justice either to the beautiful surroundings or the quality and quantity of clothing and memorabilia on display so I’ll merely use quite a few of the MANY pictures that I (and Mr Y) took to give you an idea.

The Devonshires have had so many interesting and notable people within the family over the centuries ranging from Bess of Hardwick in Tudor times, who could probably be regarded as having founded the dynasty, pieces of her jewellery are on display, and  Duchess Georgiana (subject of the film The Duchess and starring Keira Knightly, in turn based on the book of the same name by Amanda Foreman which I read about 3 years ago and is a fascinating read without the filmic ‘rearrangements’ of the story) She was a real trendsetter of her time, a fashion icon, and whilst little of her clothing is still in existence there are numerous fabulous portraits of her which show her as a very stylish, and politically active woman.

Duchess Georgiana (1757-1806) painted by Thomas Gainsborough

This fabulous 18th century-style dress is by John Galliano for Christian Dior from 1998 which was modelled by supermodel Stella Tennant, niece of the present Duke. It’s placed in front of a portrait depicting Georgiana as Diana the Huntress. Interestingly it’s painted by a female artist, Maria Cosway.

The exhibition isn’t in chronological order so all sorts of loveliness keeps appearing around every corner, and in every room or corridor. There are wedding dresses from more recent brides in the family including two worn by Laura Burlington herself, Stella Tennant (again) and Lady Celina Cavendish, daughter of the present Duke. Obviously these are my special interest and they are a beautiful, and diverse selection surrounded by a cabinet containing family photos and wedding memorabilia. In the same room are displayed a number of mourning ensembles, original 1947 Dior New Look and Alexander McQueen amongst them, and Christening robes including the Mitford family gown. IMG_1636IMG_0067IMG_0063IMG_1634IMG_0074IMG_0068

The Mitford family Christening gown
not a great photo but it’s McQueen!

As is so often the case, fancy dress parties were extremely popular with the gentry and the Ball to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee at Devonshire House (now demolished) in London in 1897 was described as the ‘Party of the Century’. A few of the splendid and imaginative costumes do survive, many now kept in the V&A archives. Those that no longer exist are cleverly realised with life-size laser etched figures alongside photos of the whole ensemble, and others are displayed in cabinets which I recognised as having come from Savage Beauty, the Alexander McQueen retrospective at the V&A two years ago!

Throughout the exhibition there are also numerous examples of the ‘insect’ brooches and jewellery that Deborah Devonshire, the previous Duchess and youngest of the famous Mitford sisters, collected. [I recommend reading The Mitford Sisters by Mary S Lovell which is a good read as well as informative if you want to learn more, or Wait for Me! by Deborah Devonshire herself. I’ve read several of her books and her style, whilst very upper class, is also very entertaining and funny]

As I’ve said, there is so much to see and enjoy I should leave you with just a few more pictures of some of the delights in store. There are lots of hats, many by Philip Treacy and Stephen Jones and worn by the present Duchess, there are shoes too including Debo’s Elvis slippers! she was a huge fan of Elvis Presley and his version of the hymn How Great Thou Art was played at her funeral in 2014.IMG_1645

The collection of jumpers with slogans worn by the previous Duke and his family are something worth seeing too.IMG_1528

Oscar de la Renta gown worn by Debo for an American Vogue photo shoot at Chatsworth in 2010
Debo and Stella
Debo and her granddaughter Stella Tennant taken by Mario Testino at Chatsworth, 2010

The final room, the Dining Room, contains a sublime collection of evening attire by many fabulous designers including Balmain, Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Helmut Lang, Armani….the list goes on…there’s even a dress by red-hot designer Vetements belonging to Laura Burlington. IMG_1558IMG_1559IMG_1560IMG_1561IMG_1563

Naturally my primary reason to go to Chatsworth was to see this exhibition [we were on our way home from Yorkshire remember so we didn’t make a special trip] but it’s a beautiful house without needing the embellishment of dresses. The exhibition has been 5 or 6 years in the planning and a huge amount of thought and imagination has clearly gone into it-the only tiny niggle I have is that it’s a bit difficult in some places to read the signage when it’s written on the display cases, or to find a list of the exhibits. The display cabinets with small items are well-labelled though with hand-written labels which give it a personal touch. It’s only a little thing though and when speaking to one or two of the room staff it was feedback that I’m sure will be looked into for the rest of the season. We were also able to go on a weekday so I couldn’t say how busy it might get at weekends. You might also recognise the house as Pemberley from the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

And I haven’t even mentioned other notable women who married into the family such as Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy, sister of JFK, or Adele Astaire, sister and dance partner of Fred! I treated myself to a copy of the accompanying book (a signed copy no less!) which contains many beautiful images and fascinating background facts, I shall enjoy leafing through that!

You have all summer to get to Derbyshire because the show doesn’t close until October 22nd. If you’re in the area it could be an excellent day out, there’s an adventure playground, farmyard and farm shop too if you’ve got ‘hangers-on’ to entertain!!IMG_1549IMG_1550

The Cascade
Mr Y sitting by the famous Emperor fountain

I can see this idea catching on with other notable families wanting to attract people through their stately doors, although whether it would have such intriguing family stories to back it up I don’t know, the Devonshires are probably out there on their own for fascinating women amongst their ranks! Make no mistake, this is an extensive and varied exhibition, a few dusty crinolines and a corset it ain’t!

As ever, I bought my own ticket for this event and all opinions are entirely my own.

Back to sewing next time probably,

until then…


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