Sponsored by Gucci and six years in planning, DAWN GIBSON walks through a unique exhibition at one of England’s most magnificent country estates, which showcases a swathe of leading British and international fashion designers.

When visiting a grand old house, have you ever found a quiet corner near a window and dreamed that you were among the gilded few to actually live there? That an opulent, silk canopied four poster-bed in an oak-panelled bedroom was yours alone, that you woke each day to look out over verdant landscaped gardens and trickling fountains, before dressing in a haute couture ensemble to descend gracefully down a majestic marble staircase and greet your guests? Such fantasies easily spring to mind at Chatsworth, the glorious honey-tinged palatial pile of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and home to the Cavendish family for sixteen generations.

Nestled in the tranquil Derbyshire Dales – in the heart of Britain’s Peak District National Park of moors, rolling hills, rivers and caverns – Chatsworth’s reputation as one of England’s most magnificent stately homes rests just as much on its fascinating and glamorous cast of characters (which is a veritable who’s who of fashionable society), as on its rich history dating back to the 16th century.

Along with prime ministers and parliamentarians, empire builders and philanthropists, the house’s residents have included the formidable founder Bess of Hardwick, a four times married Countess who became the second most powerful woman in Elizabethan England after the Queen; and the 18th century trendsetter, political campaigner and socialite, Duchess Georgiana, the wife of the Fifth Duke of Devonshire. Georgiana’s scandalous love life and fetish for extraordinarily elaborate hats was captured on film in The Duchess, starring British actress Keira Knightley. Since the days of Georgiana, the house has been linked to famous friends, the stylish set and countless leading designers.

Dancer and actress Adele Astaire, the dance partner and sister of Fred, added some American dash when she literally cartwheeled into Chatsworth in the 1930s. Engaged to marry Lord Charles Cavendish, she lightened the tone of the first meeting with her future in-laws by famously turning cartwheels as she entered the room, much to the delight of those present, and ensuring her place in the annals of family history.

Another American who married into the family was Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy, the sister of President JFK. Tragically, the marriage was to last just four months, as Kathleen’s husband, William, the son and heir of the 10th Duke, was killed in action in Belgium in 1944.

More recently, Deborah ‘Debo’ Cavendish, the late mother of the current Duke, flew the flag for Chatsworth flair. A friend of Hubert de Givenchy (who made many of her clothes) she was also a muse to Oscar de la Renta, and was photographed in 1995 feeding the chickens in a dashing red Balmain dress. Debo’s granddaughter, model Stella Tennant, clearly inherited her style DNA. Tennant’s piercing stare and cut-glass cheekbones were a regular sight on the pages of French, British and Italian Vogue in the 1990s. Taking into account such a family history, it was really only a case of when, not if, Chatsworth would host an extravagant international fashion retrospective. Happily, for cultured travellers, that exhibition has recently come to fruition, as part of a three-year collaboration with Gucci that has also seen the design house shooting a new ad campaign in the estate’s Capability Brown-designed grounds.

Taking six years to plan, ‘House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth’ is the most ambitious exhibition ever held at the house, featuring designs by the likes of Chanel, Dior, Tom Ford, Yves Saint Laurent, Balmain, Vivienne Westwood, Oscar de la Renta, Christopher Kane, and, of course, Gucci, all presented against the unique backdrop of the grand rooms of one of England’s most lavish stately homes.

Whilst the cosmopolitan collection of couture worn by the succession of Cavendish ladies, including wedding and evening gowns, is fascinating enough, there is also a plethora of garments and accessories that give viewers an insight into the lives of those who wore them and their eras, including tiaras and headdresses, robes and livery, and ostentatious, bejewelled fancy dress costumes. Some items are imbued with the heady waft of history, while others are simply decorative or sentimental: there’s the 19th century red silk velvet and ermine robe that Deborah Devonshire wore to the present Queen’s coronation; a gold dog collar worn by a favourite family hound; a pic of Kick Kennedy looking effortlessly glamorous on her wedding day; and magazine covers featuring Tennant.

The exhibition came about as a result of a family event: Lady Laura Burlington, former fashion editor and model, and daughter-in-law of the current Duke and Duchess, was searching the Chatsworth archives for a christening gown for her son, James. After exploring the treasure trove of clothing and textiles amassed over the centuries, she asked the Duke and Duchess if she could invite an expert to take a look. She called upon her friend Hamish Bowles, Editor-at-Large of American Vogue, who became curator of the exhibition, assisted by the creative direction and design skills of Patrick Kinmonth and Antonio Monfreda.

Among the highlights are two dresses designed personally by Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele for the Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Burlington. Michele – unabashedly smitten with the house’s allure – describes Chatsworth as “a piece of England, of Europe and the contemporary world, all at the same time.” He enthused “This exhibition proves how much historical objects are an incredible source of inspiration for creating the present. Thus far the house has been speaking, now House Style gives a voice to the wardrobes of its inhabitants and guests.”

The exhibition begins spectacularly in the Painted Hall, where a mannequin on a black and silver mirrored dais, clad in a punky black Alexander McQueen dress and dramatic gold Philip Treacy headdress, ushers in visitors, framed by an impressive collection of artwork. Visitors then wind their way through rooms over two floors, following the lure of ever more beautifully dressed figures.

In one of the state rooms are six dresses worn to the ‘party of the century’, a costume ball held at Devonshire House to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. These garments are the epitome of fancy dress for the elite, made of the finest silks and satins, beaded and embroidered, and painstakingly sewn by expert seamstresses for hours on end. Based on photographs, Derbyshire jewellers C W Sellors recreated the headdress worn by the 8th Duchess of Devonshire, Louise, completing the display of her elaborate costume.

The finale of the exhibition is set in the great dining room, arranged for a formal dinner, with figures seated and milling around the lengthy table, some having retreated to the edges of the room as if to indulge in private conversations. The rich red walls and curved white and gold ceiling frame an alternative catwalk, a veritable peacocking of classic couture and avant-garde showstoppers in hot pink, deep violet, vivid blue, shocking yellow, with embellished jackets, elaborate florals and prints, silks and velvets all vying to be noticed. Stand-outs include a delightfully simple Vivienne Westwood evening gown in deep green silk, and a dove grey Burberry dress with a long skirt of ostrich feathers, both courtesy of Stella Tennant, who wore the Burberry number to New York’s Met Gala in 2014. Also stunning is a classically sharp tuxedo by Stefano Pilati for Yves Saint Laurent, and Deborah Devonshire’s pearly pink silk satin evening dress from Dior’s 1953 spring/summer collection.

Drawing one’s eyes away from the visual feast is a hardship, since every glance yields another example of superb workmanship and delicate detail, of finery that whispers of glittering balls and candlelit suppers, famous faces and hushed conversations. It’s a master class in high fashion but also a story of people, place and time. Within this house of style, the apparel and the surroundings are forever interlinked in an ongoing narrative of family and dynasty, romance and marriage, birth and death. As Coco Chanel herself once said, whilst “fashion fades, only style remains the same.”

House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth
until 22nd October 2017 at Chatsworth House