Creative Director of Peau de Chagrin Sofie C Guerrero reflects on ‘House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion in England’ during its opening weekend.
Chatsworth House. A grand mid-16th Century estate nestled within the rolling Derbyshire hills, presents an ambitious survey of design and decadence that the house has played host to over the past 5 centuries. Being home to the noble Cavendish family, the exhibition ‘House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion in England’ is an expectedly lavish affair of fine jewels and jewellery, dresses, ornaments and objects from some of the illustrious past-inhabitants.
Perhaps unexpectedly for an otherwise bygone chapter of imperious past is the partnership with Gucci, who, along with Hamish Bowles - International Editor-at-Large for American Vogue - have worked to bring a contemporary focus to the treasures on display, through sponsorship and curatorial direction respectively. The result is an declarative pronouncement of greatly shifting tastes and cultural values over the centuries, from gestural English Baroque to mournful Victorian practice.
Of the previous inhabitants, Bess Hardwick; the most powerful woman in the land during the 16th Century after the Queen, Georgiana Cavendish; wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire in the 18th Century, the Mitford Sisters, and others, all appear to have shared a common fetish in insects and jewels. Such affection is captured in the extensive collection of bejewelled bugs, bees, butterflies and various arachnids scattered throughout the 30 room exhibition.
One of these rooms - a long, corridor-type wing of the house - is lined in luxurious almond-green taffeta. Across the length of the room are several fragile glass cabinets, containing a trove of rough precious stones and crystals. Three mannequins stand opposite, adorned in evening coats and a beautiful 18th Century dress with a very narrow waist, quite possibly belonging to Georgiana. The senses are saturated, yet wonderment is in the detail.
Elsewhere, a giant quartz and similar amethyst stone glisten, leading the way to the centre piece; John Galliano’s green ball gown produced in honour of the Duchess, and worn by Stella Tenant for a Mario Testino shoot for Vogue in 2006. Hung from the walls are a number of portraits of Georgiana, showing her as icon and heroine, the most prominent being Maria Cosway’s allegorical depiction of Georgiana as Cynthia from Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’, 1781-82. The painting, like the dress, is animated, billowing, as it remains suspended as both backdrop and centre stage, eluding to fancy, fantasy and the fantastical.
Moving on, and into the chapel. A silent choir of ghostly brides spiralling a marble memento mori is followed by a group of elegant widows and a cortège of hats. The white elliptic arena enclosing the brides takes the form of a resin display case, containing shoes, veils and orange blossom crowns. Rings passed on from one generation of Cavendish duchesses to future ones. Along the aisles are a Christening gown, lockets of hair as memento mori, mourning buttons and armbands.
Here, time’s eternal cycles of life, death and rebirth conduct the advancing procession eternally towards Exquisite Pain, Damien Hirst's flayed Saint Bartholomew, glorified under the red marble apsis in the baroque chapel. With a penchant for the sublime, Hirst’s depiction of martyrdom amplifies the brutality of iconographic devotion through the uncanny allure of precious material and craftsmanship.
Chatsworth House has a reputation for its grandiose balls. An infamous occasion in 1897 attracted royalty from all over Europe, reconstructed here and in the adjacent music room, both now transformed into the most magnificent of changing rooms hosting numerous extravagant costumes and jewels. Opulence reaches its climax in this ‘cabinet de curiosités’.
Back outside, the spacious surroundings continue to purport formal grandeur and aesthetic, as the eye is lead over the follies, fountains and ponds, to the horizon of giant glass houses, cascades, labyrinth and Modernist sculptures, all seamlessly integrating within the wilderness, encouraging the visitor to explore the rhythms of classical and contemporary Chatsworth.
‘House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion in England’ is open now until 22 October.