Continuing our review of 2017
Autumn in the Peak District
Autumn in England can be a beautiful time. I say can be, because like any season here, it has its moments. Admittedly, it rains…. a lot, and then there’s the gales and the cold biting wind…. and some days you just want to stay indoors with a hot cup of tea, letting the world go by. But not every day. Indian Summers are not unknown and a crisp, dry day under a blue sky will blow away the cobwebs and warm the cockles of your heart. Hey, I’ve even been known to take my cardi off in October (totally living on the edge, that’s me).
The weather was especially kind to us during our weekend in the Peak District, a beautiful area of central England with breathtaking scenery. Green rolling hills and trees turn to gold and red as they prepare to end the year with a fiery swathe of colour, the cold blue/grey of the streams, white bubbling over the cobbles. We made a quick stopover in Bakewell; very quaint with a padlock bridge and very crowded with lots of dogs (nearly everyone seemed to have one) and yes, we might have had a pastry or two…. it would have been rude not to.
Then on to the highlight of our visit – The stately home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire – Chatsworth House and the Five Centuries of Fashion exhibition*. My middle daughter (a Fashion Historian and avid dressmaker) and I are both historical fashion addicts, it’s a real passion for us. To see how things were so beautifully made so long ago, without the benefits of the machinery/technology we have now, never ceases to amaze and fascinate me. So when we heard about this exhibition we just had to go along and feed our addiction – and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
When Laura Cavendish, Countess of Burlington wanted a christening gown for her newborn son, James, her mother-in-law, the Duchess of Devonshire suggested a look in the Chatsworth Textiles Dept (as you do). Of course, my own Textiles Dept is a cardboard box marked “baby clothes” in the attic, but then my humble abode is not quite the ancestral home of Mr Darcy from Pride & Prejudice (Colin still nails it imo). Anyway, back to the Chatsworth Textile Dept; not only did the Countess find several christening gowns, but also a wealth of other items all carefully packed and labelled, many of which hadn’t been seen for years. So the seeds for the exhibition were sown and 6 years later a lavish display of gowns, robes and tiaras were set to tell the story of this wonderful house and it’s occupants.
Every room was a sumptuous celebration of the fascinating characters who have graced the grand staircase, from Bess of Hardwick, the first Lady of Chatsworth, through to the fashion icon of the 18th Century, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire right up to Deborah “Debbo” Mitford, Adele Astaire, “Kick” Kennedy and Stella Tennant. Livery, Coronation robes, fancy dress costumes, wedding dresses, mourning wear, bags, hats and headdresses, even a solid gold dog collar made for the 6th Duke’s spaniel and Stella’s old nose ring, it was all there, along with letters, notes and photographs – an eclectic treasure trove displayed perfectly in its own environment.
The Centuries wove in and out through the collection, from a 16th Century buckle belonging to Bess to a ‘punk room’ and a ‘Georgiana corridor’ at the end of which was a magnificent Galliano gown worn by Tennant – cleverly placed in front of a portrait of Georgiana, the fashionista herself – she could have worn it for sure.
Some of the items were quirky, like the 11th Duke of Devonshire’s monogrammed jumpers declaring slogans such as: “Never marry a Mitford” (he did – Debo) and “Bollocks” (not sure what caused that particular one) and a pair of Debo’s ‘Elvis’ house slippers (apparently she was a huge fan).
However, most were simply outstanding in their workmanship and craft, such as the exquisite ‘Queen of Zenobia’ gown made by the House of Worth for Louise, Duchess of Devonshire to wear to the Diamond Jubilee Ball in 1897.
The final display in the Great Dining Room was a curator’s dream. Thirty mannequins posed around the room, as though in conversation over cocktails at the end of the day – each wearing an outfit by top Design Houses: Chanel, Westwood, Dior and Balmain. We became immersed in this tableaux, marvelling at the elegance yet almost disbelieving the extravagant decadence.
Curated by the talented designers Patrick Kinmonth and Antonio Monfredo, along with Hamish Bowles (Editor-at-large from Vogue) – this was one of the best exhibitions I had seen in a long while. The setting and material helped of course, but their imagination and insight had made it an experience to remember long after you had left the gilded halls of the Cavendish Family.
*Five Centuries of Fashion Exhibition at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire has now closed