When we look at family snapshots or portraits:
- the first details we notice are the facial features: the noses, eyes, ears, and expressions that can appear astonishingly similar (or different), one generation to the next. (It can be a revelation to discover where one’s nose comes from.)
- Next, we take stock of “what they were wearing.” We rely on fashion trends and small matters of style to help us place an image in time, offering clues to period, personalities, occupations, and adventures. The tilt of a hat, the width of a necktie, a uniform button, or custom monogram on a cuff can seem especially telling in retrospect. Without a word of explanation, the sight of a pantsuit, party dress, bikini, or christening gown has the power to trigger a movie reel’s worth of memories, fantasies, and genealogical footnotes.
- Finally, we examine the setting—the plain and fancy spaces, indoors and out, and all the colors, textures, and ornaments they contain. These provide the details that put lives in context.
“House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth,” the current exhibition at Chatsworth House, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire since 1549, offers visitors an extensive survey of five centuries of fashion worn by 16 generations of the Cavendish family and their guests.
Curated by style historian/icon/ambassador-of-all-things-beautiful Hamish Bowles, International Editor-at-Large at American Vogue, with creative direction and design by Patrick Kinmonth and Antonio Manfreda, the seven-month-long exhibition includes historic, vintage, and contemporary garments as well as jewelry and other embellishments artfully displayed in Chatsworth’s art- and antiques-filled halls, bed chambers, and sculpture galleries.
Selected pieces from the Devonshire collection include vintage and contemporary couture by some of the fashion world’s most admired designers, including Jean-Phillipe Worth, Christian Dior, Gucci (a principal sponsor of the exhibition), Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood—even early-17th-century costume drawings by the architect Inigo Jones, who also designed for theater.
There are 150-year-old coachman uniforms, couture ball gowns, and monogrammed pajamas. A monumental tiara, a christening gown, and a nose ring. Embroidered slippers, bow ties, and a beloved spaniel’s solid-gold dog collar.
Suffice to say, my fellow Americans: These are not your grandmothers’ “house dresses” we’re talking about here.
Perhaps you’ve seen Chatsworth’s handsome façade somewhere before?
Even if you’ve never set foot in Derbyshire, chances are good you’ve caught a glimpse of Chatsworth. The stately home’s limestone façade renewed its multiple claims to fame when it was featured as Pemberley, the home of Mr. Darcy, in the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley and David Matthew Macfadyen.
Jane Austen herself referenced Chatsworth in the 1813 novel. Scholars believe that Mr. Darcy’s estate took shape in the author’s imagination following a visit to the real Chatsworth during a tour through Derbyshire, in England’s pastoral Peak District.
Janeites everywhere will remember Elizabeth Bennett making the same carriage journey with her aunt and uncle, the Gardiners, when she finds herself surprisingly drawn to Pemberley, the very personification of its owner: “a large handsome stone building,” “its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned.”
In a less romantic footnote, Mary Queen of Scots languished in the tower at Chatsworth on and off from 1569 to 1584, imprisoned here under the watchful eye of the Duchess of Devonshire, by order of Queen Elizabeth I.
If you can’t get to Chatsworth between now and Saturday, October 22nd, escape to the exhibition via the companion book, by Laura Burlington, the Countess of Burlington, and Hamish Bowles (with an introduction by the current Duke of Devonshire) and published by Skira/Rizzoli.
You’ll want to dress appropriately.