Five Centuries of Fashion?

· Reflecting on House Style: Five Centuries of Style at Chatsworth House ·

The regal scene that greets visitors to Chatsworth House

When Chatsworth House’s special exhibition House Style: Five Centuries of Style opened in March, I read several articles about it in British Vogue and The Telegraph. It painted the picture of a stately home with a strong connection to fashion; among its inhabitants there was everything from models to icons. It promised an exhibition showcasing garments from the depths of the family archive covering everything from Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire made famous by Keira Knightley in 2008, to Deborah “Debo” Mitford, and Stella Tennant, Debo’s granddaughter and a nineties model.

An ambitious project, the exhibition spanned the entire house. It covered ceremonial dress and sporting gear, formalwear, and accessories; it showcased children’s clothes and menswear, wedding dresses and christening gowns.

The exhibition started strongly with the ceremonial robe worn by two Duchesses of Devonshire as Mistress of the Robes in two coronations displayed at the footsteps of the main staircase. At the top of the stairs, another traditional gown gazed imperiously down on the visitors. Moving through, a timeline of objects traced the history of the house and the family that lived there from its inception by Bess of Hardwick in the 16th century.

A gown worn to the coronations of both Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II.

In the chapel, the theme was the cycle of life: christening, wedding, funeral. This is where the exhibition lost me. Wedding dresses on display in the chapel dominated the centre of the room, a display that was indeed beautiful. It was surrounded by pictures and stories of the different marriages of the Cavendish family – but confusingly, also the christenings even though those gowns were bordering the walls. This was contrasted with the sombre funeral clothes that greeted visitors as they walked in. Unfortunately, some of the garments were blocked from full view by the protective case around a New Look Dior suit from the forties.

Generations of Cavendish wedding dresses displayed in the Chapel

Most confusingly, however, as you progressed to the next room, the garments stayed all black. Naturally, this made you think it was a continuation of the funeral clothes. Upon reading the descriptions, you found that it was, in fact, completely unrelated.

A gorgeous fancy dress costume made by Worth for the Devonshire House Ball in 1897. Via British Vogue

From there, things continued to feel disjointed. The first room upstairs had a strange arrangement of life-size, semi-transparent photographs from a ball held by the Duchess of Devonshire (but not in the house) in 1897. They were supposed to be the “ghosts” of the Devonshire House Diamond Jubilee Costume Ball. Because these were difficult to make out, miniatures of the images were shown so you could see the detail. The next room held the costumes themselves – gorgeous, over the top creations fit for the aristocracy letting loose. A jewelled, colourful, trained creation by Worth is a highlight of the exhibition overall. However, it all felt a bit repetitive. Could the pictures not have been with the gowns instead of spreading it out over two rooms?

bess dress
Portrait of Elizabeth I wearing a dress made of fabric gifted to her by Bess of Hardwick. Via Grand Ladies

The next room contained one of the most intriguing stories of the exhibition. However, it was buried behind a curved glass wall and within the ornate setting of the Music Room. A large painting of Elizabeth I dominates the centre of the room. The portrait was commissioned by Bess of Hardwick who oversaw the building of Chatsworth House in the mid-1500s. It is speculated that she gifted the fabric used in the gown worn by Elizabeth I and may have even helped embroider the fish and wildlife seen on the material. A Vivienne Westwood creation in a similar material and silhouette (but with the typical Westwood-punk additions) stood next to it.

This display of the relationship between the 16th and 20th centuries is what I expected from the exhibition, but this is one of the only places where it successfully brought that relationship to light. Unfortunately, the story was lost among the information packets visitors have to actively seek out. The strong story of Bess of Hardwick and Elizabeth I was also overshadowed by opulent contemporary styles surrounding it and the arrangement made it difficult to get a good view of any of the styles or the incredible artwork on the walls that took a backseat to fashion. One of many Gucci dresses was included in this room. Though all beautiful, as a sponsor of the exhibition, the Gucci additions felt forced. It was not a surprise to learn it was a sponsor and the inclusion of so many dresses cheapened the experience.

The rest of the exhibition continued in much the same way. A room dedicated to the various Dukes’ menswear included the 11th Duke’s incredible jumper collection. All navy blue and bearing white slogans such as “Bollocks” and “Never marry a Mitford” (which he had).

Much like the rich story of Bess of Hardwick, Chatsworth House’s other fashion-famous Duchess, Georgiana, known contemporarily as the “Empress of Fashion,” had only a small corridor dedicated to her. On display were several portraits of her by Gainsborough and Reynolds, one 18th century gown, then several contemporary gowns worn by Stella Tennant. With such a rich fashion relationship, it was a disappointment that Georgiana’s section ended up being more about Stella.

But that was how the exhibition went. Despite being called “Five Centuries of Style,” it was more about the 20th and 21st centuries. It leaned towards Stella, her grandmother Debo and the current generation of Cavendish. It sprinkled tidbits of earlier generations, but the story centred firmly around the more recent ones. Even worse, many of the garments were difficult to see due to their presentation – whether too far away inside a room or blocked by other garments.

A Christopher Kane creation

Not only that, but the exhibition dominated the house. You came away feeling like you didn’t know anything about the renowned house itself or the artwork within. I had hoped for a rich experience in which I learned about Chatsworth House and got to see historic and contemporary clothing, all at once. What I got was a lot of Gucci gowns, a few historic garments, and a lot of Stella Tennant.

The final room of the tour is the dining room where, until 2004, everyone dressed in black tie, even when dining privately. The scene included gorgeous couture gowns and suits from the sixties onwards surrounding a lavish dinner table. An impressive display, it had the potential for a strong finish but, again, it staged some of the garments too far away and some were blocked by tables or other objects. A grand finale with all the potential of greatness not quite falling flat, but bordering on doing so, much like the rest. In the words of the 11th Duke’s jumper embroidery: Bollocks.

House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion is on at Chatsworth House until 22 October.

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