Chatsworth House hosts fashion exhibition sponsored by Gucci
Derbyshire estate stakes its claim to be the most fashionable house in England with a show spanning five centuries of design and decadence
Eggs from Chatsworth House’s famed chickens were immortalised in oils by Lucian Freud. (Four Eggs on a Plate sold at Sothebys for £989,000 in 2015.) Now a new exhibition, which opens at the house on Saturday, lays claim to another title for Chatsworth: that of the most fashionable house in England.
“This is the most rock’n’roll place I have ever been,” said Alessandro Michele, designer of Gucci, taking his place as guest of honour at a lunch in the Chatsworth sculpture gallery.
House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion in England celebrates the heritage of the house in design and in decadence through the wardrobes of its occupants. These include Bess of Hardwick, the most powerful woman in 16th-century England after the queen; 18th-century It girl Georgiana Cavendish, wife of the 5th duke, who was immortalised by Keira Knightley in the film The Duchess; the Mitford sisters; and the supermodel Stella Tennant, granddaughter of the 11th duchess.
A house is an unusual protagonist for a fashion exhibition, but Chatsworth has always loved to dress up. A costumed ball held in 1897 attracted royalty from all over Europe, and enthusiasm among the guests for the dress code of “pre-1815 costume” was such that the great couture house of Worth, overwhelmed with requests, was forced to close its order books months before the event. Lavish costumes from the party include a replica outfit of Jean de Dinteville from Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors, which was worn by Victor Cavendish, later the 9th duke.
Debo, the late Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and one of the Mitford sisters, who died in 2014, was photographed by Bruce Weber in 1995 feeding her beloved chickens in a red satin Balmain gown. Also on display are personalised baskets made for Debo by her friend Hubert de Givenchy for shopping expeditions in nearby Bakewell.
“I certainly tidy up a bit when I come here, and I suspect I’m not the only person to do so,” said Laura Burlington, a former fashion editor and the wife of the heir to Chatsworth. Included in the exhibition are a pair of well-worn Converse high-top trainers which the 11th duke liked to wear on holiday, painstakingly whitened after each outing by his valet.
Debo was an inspiration to Oscar de la Renta, Burlington was a stylist for Roland Mouret, and Chatsworth is now muse to Gucci. An unlikely romance between the Italian fashion powerhouse and Derbyshire’s picture-postcard stately home began when Michele chose Chatsworth as the location for a Gucci campaign starring Vanessa Redgrave, and was hosted overnight in the bedroom where Queen Victoria once stayed.
“The room has the most beautiful view of the park, and is decorated in cherry-red velvet,” Michele recalled. “I came downstairs for breakfast in my slippers, and everywhere around me were images of flowers and of animals, the same symbols that I love. I felt at home here.”
Gucci sponsorship has amplified what began as a passion project forBurlington and curator Hamish Bowles into “the most ambitious exhibition ever seen at Chatsworth”, said Stoker Cavendish, the 12th duke.
The ultra-modern gender-fluid aesthetic of Gucci might seem an odd fit with Chatsworth, where the 30 state rooms are a symbol of a bygone age, but the house has always encouraged unconventionality. When Adele Astaire, the sister and dance partner of Fred, came to Chatsworth to meet her in-laws-to-be and found the family lined up formally to greet her, she broke the ice with a series of cartwheels. (“They loved her after that,” said Bowles.)
Chatsworth has always had “an inability to think small”, he added. A cabinet of Georgiana’s bills are evidence of astonishing extravagance: one month’s worth of invoices from her jeweller include a diamond necklace for £525 and another in topaz for £25, sums which in 1799 represented a vast outlay. A huge number of Georgiana’s bills remained unpaid on her death.
The exhibition mines seams of unexpected synergy between the dressing-up box treasures of Chatsworth and the contemporary aesthetic of Gucci. Snakes, a Gucci emblem, are a recurring theme, emblazoned on 19th-century gold jewellery and 20th-century cricket caps. “I think serpents and beautiful animals represent ultimate power in nature,” said Michele, “and the power of symbols is something this family has always understood very well.”
Burlington hoped that visitors to the exhibition “will appreciate the exceptional work of so many tailors, milliners, jewellers, liverymakers and lacemakers and they will enjoy the stories that these clothes tell about this family”. Meanwhile, her father-in-law, the 12th duke, welcomed his guests to a lunch at which local Bakewell tart took pride of place.
He said: “The pieces in this exhibition could be in the Met, or the V&A, but they are here in Derbyshire. One thing I’m hoping you’ll all learn today is that Derbyshire is really quite easy to get to, and terribly beautiful when you get here, so please come again.”