House Style: 500 Years of Fashion at Chatsworth

Chatsworth House was insane. Or rather, their House Style exhibition was insane. I won’t even be able to do it justice in this post but I’ll try. It was one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in a long time, a massive highlight of my trip, and a way of doing things that not many historic houses are brave enough to tackle and pull off. 

I was up north staying in Sheffield with one of my best friends (the bride of a previous post) and we decided to go to Chatsworth for the day. She had been before, but when the house was taken over quite significantly by the Christmas spirit, so was looking forward to visiting again in a less festive season. I was mainly excited about the house’s Tudor history and links to powerful women from that era, the likes of Bess of Hardwick and Mary Queen of Scots. 

This exhibition had been mentioned several times by different curators that we spoke to during the Open Palace Programme. I particularly remember it coming up at Kensington Palace, a historic home with an incredible costume collection. We were told that the House Style exhibition had clothing on display in rooms of the house, but in huge cylindrical cases that allow you to view the costumes from all sides rather than traditional and sometimes alienating museum display cases. This was the only information I  had about the exhibit prior to stepping into Chatsworth House. 

House Style was curated by Hamish Bowles, international editor-at-large for American Vogue. Apparently the planning of the exhibition was spearheaded by Lady Burlington, the daughter-in-law of the current Duchess of Devonshire, when she was looking for a christening gown for her son and discovered the extent of the Chatsworth archive and collections. Notable women from history who are linked to Chatsworth and portrayed in the exhibition include Adele Astair, Kick Kennedy, two of the Mitford sisters, Stella Tennant and 18th century fashion icon Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. 

One of the reasons that House Style worked so well was due to the juxtaposition of contemporary with historic garments, objects and spaces throughout the exhibition. For example, the first major display was in the main hall, where an Alexander McQueen dress that Stella Tennant wore on her breakthrough modelling shoot in the early 90s was displayed opposite the coronation robes of the Duchess of Devonshire. 

Some of the highlights for me were the chapel, a look back at a Victorian ball, and the craziest bling-centric (yes I just invented that questionable word) display I’ve ever seen. Let me describe these for you while trying to keep the gushing to a minimum. 

The chapel display was dedicated to life and death. A combination of objects represented christenings, weddings and funerals, all ceremonies that the room would have seen its fair share of over the years. The main feature was a display of wedding dresses on a raised platform in the centre of the room. They were all facing the altar, as though walking up the aisle individually as the star of their respective wedding days. At the back of the room, almost blending into the shadows completely, were several black dresses representing mourning. Around the outside of the room, display cases exhibited other objects, such as the Mitford family christening gown, and the frock and little red shoes of a young Cavendish who died as a toddler. 

Upstairs, we walked into a dimly lit room dedicated to the ‘party of the century’: a ball that Chatsworth House hosted in 1897 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. The room was filled with black and white photographs of the guests in costume, either as small figures in display cases or printed onto life-size clear cut outs that could only be seen properly at certain angles, when the light caught them. The ‘ghosts’ of the ball. One wall also had a large black and white image projected onto it, a photograph of the main staircase, which you could easily imagine guests descending to enter the party. 

The next room was like being given a gift. Completely unexpectedly, we were in a room with actual costumes on display that had been worn at the ball. Costumes we had seen in photographs in the previous room, but only in black and white. This made their outrageously bright colours even more amazing. I thought this was so well done because the existence of these costumes could easily have been alluded to, or they could have even been displayed in the first room about the event. Holding them back as a surprise was brilliant. Something else I loved about the way the costumes were displayed was that the mannequins were covered in a fabric that matched the upholstery of furniture used at the ball that was only rediscovered recently. This pattern also covered one wall of the room, and the furniture itself was behind the display cases. 

It was the first time these costumes had been in the same room as one another since the ball, over 100 years ago. 

The third display that really stuck with me was one that exhibited contemporary fashion inspired by Tudor portraiture. It was completely nuts but it completely worked. It looked as though the curator had been given the key to the Chatsworth treasure vaults, which I guess is basically what happened. It was a display that I don’t think a museum professional would have done, and that’s what I liked about it. Rather than some key objects being highlighted,  it was like a surreal-orgy-dreamscape of riches. You were kind of assaulted by the whole shining sparkling mess of it all, then you had to start concentrating and peering into the display to pick out individual things. There were portraits of Elizabeth I, Bess of Hardwick and Henry VIII. The dress forms that wore the contemporary costumes had huge feathers shooting out of their necks instead of heads. Tables were laden with smaller treasures, gold and jewels. Rather than individual cases, this whole display was sectioned off from the visitor with a wave of perspex, meaning that when the barrier curved inwards it felt like you were walking into the display. 

These three displays were my highlights, but looking back at my photos reminds me of others that I loved: an 18th century dress near a strikingly similar and complimentary Gucci dress, the pale blue themed room about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (and the incredible centre piece dress looking historical but dating from the 1990s) and one of the final rooms, a large dining room filled with modern dresses on mannequins as though you’d accidentally walked into someone else’s party.

What I haven’t mentioned that definitely increased the stunning effect of the exhibition was that the rooms of Chatsworth House were obviously already incredible, and the curator used this to his advantage. One room was the first that I’ve seen where paintings were hung over top of tapestries, as they would’ve been originally, rather than the tapestries being displayed as art in their own right. My favourite elements of the rooms outside of the exhibition were the beds. The colours alone made these beautiful viewing, not to mention the rich fabrics, layers and design. What I would give to sleep in one of those! 

Ok, one final highlight: an object-based display. Early on, there was a case running the length of a long, narrow room. In it, objects were arranged in chronological order, a timeline that introduced members of the family, key events and items that belonged to them. I thought this was a really interesting way to display smaller objects like jewellery, letters and photographs. The labels were handwritten, which actually made them more accessible I felt, rather than a barrage of repetitive printed text. Also, some of the objects still had their museum ID labels on them or were wrapped in tissue, so the visitor felt as though they were getting to see things that were normally kept under wraps.

Obviously I was a huge fan of this exhibition, but I’m aware that it is a celebration of absurd wealth on a massive scale. Most of these palatial country houses are. However, exhibitions like this one mean that these collections and the incredible workmanship that has gone into them can now be seen by the public, a complete contrast to how accessible the house, it’s owners and their belongings would have been in the past. 

I can’t recommend this exhibition enough; I wish I could visit it for the first time all over again. 

Catch a glimpse of House Style in this footage from Gucci, the main sponsor of the exhibition:  https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=R0huqSerteQ

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