We visited Chatsworth House to check out their latest exhibition Five Centuries of Fashion which features garments from the 16th century right up to the present day. The Vogue curated show focuses on the glamorous women of Devonshire, bringing to life a private collection of vintage fancy dress and lavish coronation robes, including unique pieces belonging to Stella Tennant; model and black sheep of the family. Explore a vast display of family heirlooms, including ornate christening gowns and wedding dresses, paired with personal photographs and detailed stories belonging to those who wore them.
The collection is integrated into the main house route which means you get double for your money when visiting between now and 22 October.
What is interesting about this exhibition is how it commits itself to not only the visual splendour of the outfits, but also the social history of the family who wore them. A 500 year timeline displays flirtatious love notes between Lord Harlington and Charlotte Boyle from 1750, and scrap book entries with portrait illustrations from younger members of the family add that key element of humanity to the collection. At times you feel like you’re reading someone’s diary…because you probably are.
This helps create a vital link with the visiting public who are so far removed from the world of splendour enjoyed by the Devonshire family.
Delve into 19th century photo albums of a young Victor Cavendish, the future 8th Duke, playing in fancy dress with light hearted annotations from his mother poking fun at him, and later, a heavily whitened converse shoe belonging to the 11th Duke in 1970 (albeit whitened by his valet servant). Amongst this memorabilia you’ll find a note from Mary Queen of Scots giving Duchess Evelyn etiquette dressing advise for an upcoming occasion.
It soon becomes clear that you should expect any fleeting moments of normality to be interspersed with powerful reminders signifying the affluence of the Chatsworth household.
Stella Tennant, niece the current Duke of Devonshire, features heavily within the exhibition and really ignites things with her androgynous, punked up style. Her short hair and loose clothing confront traditional Chatsworth splendour and win you round very quickly as you see her go up against the velvet robes and corset clamping shapes that have so uniformly punctuated her family’s dress through the centuries.
This is particularly satisfying in a hunting display, where Stella wears paint stained jeans and an unravelling polo neck jumper, standing out defiantly against her relatives who are all tailored in thick tweed. These contrasts are refreshing and keep you interested by transforming the exhibition from what would otherwise be a history lesson in a palace (or thereabouts) into an intriguing personal collection inside someone’s home.
The ornate chapel of the house is dedicated to ceremonial moments in the circle of life, and regally displays dramatic funeral attire alongside elaborate wedding dresses mounted on pedestals. There is great context to each display, which is increasingly engaging the deeper you delve and come to see how much personal family memorabilia has been revealed for the show. A series of chilling “death photos” stand out poignantly alongside smiling wedding shots plucked from photo albums.
All the rooms at Chatsworth are impressive in their own right but there’s something powerful about the grandeur of the chapel space that sets off the costumes and turns them into works of art.
The most impressive part of the exhibition would probably have to be “The Costume Ball of the Century” which was held at the house back in 1897. This was organised in aid of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, where guests had to dress as a character in history from 1815 or earlier. Each guest was photographed on the night and these fascinating images are on display, preparing you for the main spectacle in the next room: the actual costumes. These are costumes like no other; they’d be more appropriate for a Queen’s Coronation than a night of trick of treating and showcase the most incredible workmanship, quality, precious stones and luxurious materials money could buy. Prepare to be amazed.
Everything you’ll see during the exhibition is designer (think Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Tom Ford, Givenchy), if not designed by a member of the Devonshire family. One of the highlights to look out for is a series of knitted jumpers belonging to the 11th Duke, sporting a mix of offensive and comedy slogans which that will definitely make you feel like maybe you could enjoy a drink with him at the pub, after all.
Don’t forget to check out the short film about the life of celebrity dancer Adele Astaire (sister to Fred Astaire) and her ascent to Broadway, which was cut short when she met Lord Charles Cavendish in 1932. Adele brought lively theatricality to a straight laced, aristocratic British household, and is one of the most fascinating characters in the exhibition. You’ll love her within seconds.
The show runs until 22 October and is included in the entry price to the house. Buy tickets here.