In Depth

Hamish Bowles: House Style at Chatsworth House

American Vogue's International editor-at-large on curating the landmark exhibition tracing five centuries of fashion

How did the idea for the House Style exhibition come about?

It began when Lady Burlington called me up about five years ago. I had known her since her modelling days, and she got in touch and said, 'Hello, would you like to come to Chatsworth for the weekend?' She explained that she was starting to look at the costume collection here and she wanted a second set of eyes, as it were, to help her through that process. Anyway, she didn't really have to qualify an invitation to spend the weekend at Chatsworth.

So, it was Lady Burlington's idea?

I'm not sure if at that early stage she even had the idea of an exhibition in mind. I think she had started to look at what was here – her son James was being christened and her mother-in-law the Duchess had said that there were some christening dresses upstairs and why didn't she take a look? What she discovered was that there were boxes upon boxes of clothes and accessories in mounds of tissue paper – including a Mitford christening robe, a Devonshire christening robe and so much more.

So you were called upon to give an objective opinion?

Exactly. At that point I believe that Laura – Lady Burlington – had an inkling that this could form the basis of a fascinating exhibition, giving an insight into the people who have lived at Chatsworth over the centuries. As she wanted to explore the collections more, I suppose she wanted a qualified person to come and have a look, and that's where I came in. I came up and we started going through all of the pieces they already knew about; and then we started peeling back the layers, going into the family's wardrobes and amplifying the idea.

When did you realise that the family's collection could make a meaningful display?

After about the third visit when I had seen Deborah Devonshire's clothes [known as Debo, she was the youngest Mitford sister and became Duchess in 1950], the late Duke's things and the current Duke and Duchess's things. We then approached Debo's granddaughter Stella Tennant, and discovered that she had many, many iconic contemporary fashion pieces too. At that point we realised that there really was a lot more material than people had thought and that we probably did have the potential for a large-scale exhibition on our hands – one we could actually thread through all the public rooms, with interventions in every space.

So, the clothing on display is not just what Chatsworth had in its storerooms?

No, and to move things to the next level there were only two people I could imagine bringing this ambitious project to life; and luckily for us, they agreed to take part. So, we brought opera director, set designer and art director Patrick [Kinmonth] on board to oversee the creative direction and design of the exhibition, together with his associate Antonio [Monfreda] who also has immense taste and wonderful ideas. With Patrick and Antonio on the team we took things further by adding strategic loans. The eighth Duke and Duchess hosted a magnificent costume ball in 1897 at Devonshire House, their London home, and it was the highlight of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee social season. The guests all came dressed as allegorical figures or in pre-1815 period costume. We managed to get several costumes that were worn that night, including the Duchess's own.

Did the loans come from private collections or museums?

Both – we researched and discovered additional costumes from the Devonshire House Ball at the V&A and the Museum of London and borrowed them, and agreed a number of historic loans from overseas collections too. From the Fashion Museum in Bath we discovered a suit from Christian Dior's first collection for the spring of 1947 that had been ordered by Debo's fashion-mad sister, the writer Nancy Mitford. Of course, Stella's amazing archive of late 20th and early 21st-century fashion led me to think bigger still. As well as pieces from her personal collection – like the McQueen pieces on show here – we also brought in some runway pieces that she had worn by John Galliano for Christian Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Burberry and Christopher Kane.

You've also dressed the spaces with other things. What was the thinking behind that?

What visitors will see is that we've thought dramatically about the exhibition, mixing clothes and objects. We have re-hung and added pictures and placed furniture to complement the outfits and the very different spirit of each of the rooms and picture galleries, and even opened up the Sabine Room, which isn't traditionally on the visitor's route. The Duke and Duchess have been very magnanimous and generous, letting us loose at Chatsworth with their extraordinary collection of art, furniture, works on paper and memorabilia. One of my favourite things here is at the start of the exhibition in the chapel corridor – a timeline display made up of objects, jewellery, scrapbooks and photographs that give an insight into the Dukes, their wives and celebrated sons and daughters, their nephews and nieces, and friends such as Duchess Georgiana’s intimate, Queen Marie-Antoinette. It sets the scene for what follows and introduces you to the characters who you continue to encounter as you walk through the exhibition.

What do you hope people will get out of the exhibition?

I hope that what we have done is to show one family's very idiosyncratic responses to the idea of clothes, style, fashion and ceremony – and even transgression – down the generations. It's a story that encompasses such contradictory impulses as thrift and extravagance. It is fascinating to me how the different generations do have these swings of extravagance and frugality, of embracing high fashion and style – or disdaining it. We wanted to bring the house to life and to animate it in this unique way. I personally think that clothing is such a potent way to do that, as it shows so much about the characters of the people who lived here. I'm hoping that people will find it intriguing, and that it will prompt a new way to think about this extraordinary place, even if they are not that interested in fashion.

Hamish Bowles is an author and expert on couture, and American Vogue’s International Editor-at-Large. House Style, sponsored by Gucci, runs until 22 October 2017 at Chatsworth House, Bakewell, Derbyshire, DE45 1PN; chatsworth.org

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