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20th Century Design

Centuries of Style at Chatsworth

Chatsworth House, the Derbyshire seat of the Dukes of Devonshire and home to the Cavendish family for five centuries, has long been celebrated as one of the great treasure houses of England. Its stupendous holdings of Old Master drawings, paintings and sculpture, among many other categories, contain superlative works by such artists as da Vinci, Canova, Rembrandt, Reynolds and Veronese. Until quite recently, however, another significant collection under its roof remained virtually unrecognised: a trove of costume and fashion. 

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MISTRESS OF THE ROBES CORONATION GOWN, WORN BY DUCHESS EVELYN AT THE 1911 AND 1937 CORONATIONS AND BY DUCHESS MARY AT THE 1953 CORONATION. THOMAS LOOF © CHATSWORTH HOUSE TRUST.

This collection is soon to be revealed with the exhibition House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth, on view 25 March through 22 October. And in April, a lavishly illustrated companion book, which includes a foreword by the current Duke as well as essays and rarely seen archival photos, is being published by Rizzoli.

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EQUESTRIAN PORTRAIT OF THE 1ST DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE, ATTRIBUTED TO ADAM FRANS VAN DER MEULEN, CIRCA 1670. COLLECTION OF THE DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE, CHATSWORTH HOUSE, UK © DEVONSHIRE COLLECTION, CHATSWORTH / REPRODUCED BY
PERMISSION OF CHATSWORTH SETTLEMENT TRUSTEES / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES.

Both the exhibition and the book focus on the extraordinary Cavendish women, beginning with Bess of Hardwick, one of the most powerful nobles of the 16th century, and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the 18th-century “Empress of Fashion.” In the 20th century, Chatsworth’s legacy of style continued with such figures as Adele Astaire, sister and dance partner of Fred Astaire and wife of Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish; Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, a sister of John F Kennedy and wife of the Marquess of Hartington, heir apparent to the 10th Duke of Devonshire; and of course, Deborah Devonshire, Chatsworth’s chatelaine for a half-century, and her sister Nancy Mitford. More recently, the Devonshire glamour has been upheld by a generation that includes models Stella Tennant and Laura Burlington, who in 2007 married William Burlington, Earl of Burlington and heir to the present Duke.

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THOMAS GAINSBOROUGH’S PORTRAIT OF DUCHESS GEORGIANA, 1785–87. THE DEVONSHIRE COLLECTION © CHATSWORTH HOUSE TRUST.

It was Laura, Countess of Burlington, a former stylist for Harper’s Bazaar UK, who conceived the exhibition. During weekend visits to Chatsworth, she became dazzled by the garments and accessories of every sort that she found hidden in cupboards and attics. Her suggestion to organise a fashion exhibition at Chatsworth was met with ready approval by her father-in-law. “I hadn’t properly realised how much ‘fashion’ there is at Chatsworth,” he writes in the book’s foreword. 

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LAFAYETTE LTD’S LADY WOLVERTON AS BRITANNIA, 1897. © VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON. 

Following the Duke’s green light, Lady Burlington conscripted an array of talent to produce House Style, beginning with Hamish Bowles, international editor-at-large of American Vogue, who served as curator. Visual and performing arts polymath Patrick Kinmonth, meanwhile, took on the role of creative director and designer, along with Antonio Monfreda, with whom Kinmonth has worked on some memorable fashion exhibitions in recent years, including 2006’s AngloMania: Tradition and Transgression in British Fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York. “No one could have been better placed than Laura to mastermind this project: she is extremely interested in contemporary art, she has been a significant model, and she loves clothes, design and art,” Kinmonth said recently. “The genesis of the show was a conversation between Laura and Hamish, when he was staying for a weekend at Chatsworth. They began kicking the ball around, talking about finding a way into this collection, which is just so varied and extraordinary.” But unlike many conversations, this one wasn’t just talk. “She didn’t let Hamish off the hook,” Kinmonth continues. “And, then, Hamish put me on the hook.” 

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LORD CHARLES CAVENDISH AND ADELE ASTAIRE ON THEIR WEDDING DAY, 1932. COLLECTION OF THE DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE, CHATSWORTH HOUSE, UK © DEVONSHIRE COLLECTION, CHATSWORTH / REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION OF CHATSWORTH SETTLEMENT TRUSTEES / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES.

As he commenced work on House Style, the Anglo-Irish Kinmonth – who has had a protean career as a writer, architect, set- and costume-designer, director and, most recently, as a designer of interiors and landmark exhibitions – was both challenged and delighted by the embarrassment of riches he confronted. “When we began going through Chatsworth, we started opening boxes, opening wardrobes, opening trunks, lifting lids – objects just kept appearing and we kept finding more and more things. Robes of state that family members had worn at coronations, couture gowns, liveries, military uniforms, clothing for riding, hunting and shooting. With so many objects, it became a gargantuan project,” he recalls. “Clearly, there has been a constant interest in fashion in the family throughout the 500 years the show covers,” Kinmonth continues. “I started to make connections between the clothes and the incredible collections of art, prints, drawings and books in the house. I started to conceive of dialogues between the people who have lived in the house and these objects.”

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A CECIL BEATON PORTRAIT OF THE DUCHESS OF DEVONSHIRE, 1960. © THE CECIL BEATON STUDIO ARCHIVE AT SOTHEBY’S.

As a result, House Style – which is made possible with the support of principal sponsor Gucci, together with Sotheby’s – is on display throughout the 297-room Baroque house, including in its most magnificent interiors. The show opens in the portrait-lined Painted Hall with “a big statement,” says Kinmonth: an oversize photograph of Stella Tennant dressed as a punk, confronting her forebears in their state regalia. Many of the rooms suggested subjects, he adds. “The chapel has a piece by Damien Hirst that has an almost pagan quality. That drew me to the idea of the circle of life. So we have clothes from christenings and funerals.” 

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THE 1969 CHRISTENING OF THE EARL OF BURLINGTON, WHO WEARS THE CAVENDISH FAMILY CHRISTENING GOWN. COLLECTION OF THE DUKE OF DEVONSHIRE, CHATSWORTH HOUSE, UK © DEVONSHIRE COLLECTION, CHATSWORTH / REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION OF CHATSWORTH SETTLEMENT TRUSTEES / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES.

Another section is devoted to the Devonshire House Ball, a grand 1897 affair thrown by the 8th Duke and Duchess at Devonshire House, their London residence, which was originally designed for the 3rd Duke by eminent architect and landscape designer William Kent and built between 1734 and 1740. While spectacular entertainments here were customary, the milestone of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee offered the family “the perfect opportunity to give the ball of the century,” Lady Sophia Topley, a sister of the present Duke, writes in her essay for Rizzoli’s House Style

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MARIO TESTINO’S PHOTOGRAPH OF DEBORAH DEVONSHIRE AND STELLA TENNANT IN FRONT OF CHATSWORTH HOUSE, 2006.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN AMERICAN VOGUE, NOVEMBER 2010. © MARIO TESTINO / ART PARTNER.

The fancy-dress ball – the invitation stipulated that attire should be “allegorical or historical before 1815” – drew the crème de la crème of British and European royalty and aristocracy. While the Prince of Wales came as a Grand Prior of the Order of St John, it was Louise, the Duchess of Devonshire, who stole the show. Portraying Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, she had her gown designed by the House of Worth, which fashioned a skirt of gold gauze appliquéd with tinsel medallions and peacock plumes spangled with sequins, worn over an ivory satin underskirt wrought with silver thread and diamonds. 

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A FANCY DRESS COSTUME BY THE HOUSE OF WORTH WORN BY DUCHESS LOUISE, 1897. THOMAS LOOF © CHATSWORTH HOUSE TRUST.

Kinmonth’s approach to exhibition design is similar to his opera direction – he is currently preparing productions of Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito and Wagner’s Tannhäuser for the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe and the Cologne Opera, respectively. “It is always about telling a story, setting up reverberations,” he explains. “The way you arrange objects can suggest connections to the viewer. But I try to do that without rubbing it in.” 

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A DIAMOND TIARA CREATED FOR DUCHESS LOUISE, AE SKINNER, 1893–97; A TIARA CREATED FOR LADY LOUISA EGERTON, 1870; AND PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE CURRENT DUKE AND DUCHESS OF DEVONSHIRE ON THEIR WEDDING DAY, 1967, AND DEBORAH DEVONSHIRE WEARING THE 1870 TIARA AS A NECKLACE, 1951. THOMAS LOOF © CHATSWORTH HOUSE TRUST.

Although House Style covers half a millennium of history, the mood of the show is anything but fusty. Nothing ever is at Chatsworth anyway, Kinmonth says. “The current Duke is absolutely fascinated by the present and the future,” he notes. “The wonders of today are as welcome as the splendours of the past in the house. So I tried not to be nostalgic. I designed the show in a super avant-garde way.” Indeed, even though Kinmonth and his cohorts have masterfully conjured the spirits of past generations of Devonshires, visitors looking for ghostly figures will be disappointed. “Ghosts need a bit of damp, the odd leaky roof, but Chatsworth is so un-dusty: there is not much room for ghosts,” he says. “It is just so beautifully looked after. It’s the most pulled-together establishment on the planet.” The perfect backdrop for a presentation of the great house’s fashionable riches. 
 

James Reginato is writer-at-large of Vanity Fair and author of Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats (Rizzoli, $60).
House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth is on view at Chatsworth, in Derbyshire, 25 March–22 October, and the accompanying book will be published in April (Rizzoli, $60).

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