Earlier this month, I headed to Chatsworth House with Cat for an afternoon of fashion in the most fabulous of settings. Now, although I’d read a few articles about this exhibition before we decided to make the trip, I had never been to Chatsworth before. I knew that the exterior was used as Pemberley in the 2005 film version of Pride & Prejudice, but I had no idea what to expect from the inside. I could have Googled it, of course, but I was only really going for the clothes so there didn’t seem much point. In my head, it was just going to look like Kensington Palace – grand, but a teeny bit underwhelming.
How wrong I was! Chatsworth has the type of interiors that put other stately homes to shame – the painted ceilings in some rooms actually took my breath away – and the House Style exhibition at Chatsworth House really is something else indeed. Many of the images I’d seen in magazines were promo shots and not actually of the exhibition itself, so I was surprised and utterly blown away by what I saw when we walked inside.
The interior of the house is used to dramatic effect by the curator, American Vogue’s international editor-at-large Hamish Bowles, with objects carefully matched to the room in which they are displayed. The stunning chapel had wedding dresses, christening robes and mourning dress, plus assorted photographs and ephemera relating to these life events. Robes worn to royal coronations were displayed around a grand staircase. Photographs of costumes from a 19th century fancy dress ball were displayed in an atmospheric room adjoining another featuring some of the costumes themselves.
Sometimes the selected clothing will show historic and contemporary examples of techniques such as embroidery, or maybe it will cleverly coordinate with the colour scheme of a room. In other spaces, accessories are paired with ornaments from the house which compliment each other perfectly. In one room, mannequins have afternoon tea, while in another, they mingle as if at a dinner party. Guest bedrooms have silk pyjamas laid out on the bed, a dress reminiscent of the pages of a book is displayed in the library. You feel like you’re about to bump into the owners and their guests at any time.
This exhibition really is an experience… a journey of discovery. Sound is cleverly used throughout, and visitors will often feel like they have discovered new objects and/or connections between them. Cat and I were thrilled when we realised that one of the gowns in the room next to the chapel was indeed the sumptuous black velvet dress that we had been admiring in a 1950s copy of British Vogue. Another thing that helps with this feeling of discovery is that the route through the house is not stringently signposted, but staff are on hand at all times if you’re feeling lost.
At one point we were approached by a lovely lady who chatted briefly before casually dropping in some information on how they close up the house at the end of the day. It turned out that we had been browsing the exhibition for hours and hadn’t realised, but at no point were we made to feel like we had to rush the rest of our visit. This is just as well because it would have been a shame to have missed out on the hat dressing up area at the end, which was a lovely fun way to end the exhibition.
After a quick visit to the gift shop (so that I could buy the exhibition book) we sat outside in the late afternoon sunshine and reflected on everything that we had seen, wishing we’d planned to arrive earlier so that we could have spent the day and explored the gardens too. If you get a chance to go, I’d highly recommend this beautiful and eccentric collection of objects from five centuries of fashion at Chatsworth. I’m already wondering whether I can get a second visit planned before it closes!
House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth runs until 22 October 2017 at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. (N.B. All images in this post were snapped by lipsticklori on her phone, hence the slightly poor quality!)