Hats Off to Five Centuries of Fashion in Chatsworth House
This summer one of the England’s most visited national treasures just got even more fashionable. Chatsworth House, always a rich and luxurious experience, is showing off some of society’s most luxurious frocks. Hats are a thing too. While teens can revel in Galiano and McQueen, the toddlers can play at being soldiers and sailors. We tried on the hats when we visited Derbyshire on our sponsored Days Inn Days Out Road Trip. Here’s what we made of this most fashionable of Great British days out…
Five centuries of fashion
You may already associate Chatsworth House with plush outfits. After all, 16 generations of the wealthy Cavendish family have made this Derbyshire stately home their residence and the current incumbents have a passion for collecting and showing beautiful things. You might also remember it as the setting for Mr Darcy’s Pemberley in the Kiera Knightly movie of Pride and Prejudice. But this summer there are more beautiful dresses at Chatsworth House than a Jane Austen novel. And they aren’t confined to an evening event or ballroom but lining the whole visitor route.
House Style adds weight
For purists of stately homes, the costumes must undoubtedly get in the way. But for visitors like me, the special exhibition House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth adds so much to a day out. The rooms and the collections complement each other in a simple, visual way and give a humanity to the historic, sometimes slightly stuffy environment.
The wedding and christening gowns remind you that the alabaster altarpiece of the chapel built in the late 1800’s was intimately tied up with life and death. The mourning clothes give an already dark panelled Oak room an even darker edge. In the Great Dining Room it’s so much easier to picture the 11th Duke and Duchess eating dinner in formal dress, even when alone, when there are human representations present in all their finery. (It was apparently only in 2004, when the current Duke and Duchess of Devonshire moved in, that the tradition of black tie dinners every night was relaxed.)
In some of the rooms you barely even notice the walls, as your eyes are drawn to the mannequins with feather heads and the gold opulence of the dresses. In the room tracing the romantic style of Georgiana, wife of the 5th Duke, the 1998 dress by John Galiano for Christian Dior (which was worn by Stella Tennant in American Vogue) keeps me fixated for a while.
The old is in Vogue
You might imagine fashion editors going crazy for the display, especially since so many designers like McQueen and Gucci are showcased. In fact one leading magazine was instrumental in the House Style project from the beginning. The March edition of Vogue takes up the story. “Six years ago the Cavendishes, a family of historic collectors, were not aware of the full extent of the fashion that they owned. Laura only guessed at it when she went looking for a christening gown for her eldest son, a search that began with a knock on the door of the house’s textile department – if anything is a barometer of grandeur it is this.”
Calling in the fashionistas
On gradually realising the scale of the Devonshire collection Laura called up Hamish Bowles, American Vogue’s Editor at Large. He brought in a team of people and they got to work. The result is an exhibition spread across more than 25 rooms. From jewels to gloves to extraordinary gowns; the whole collection of garments owned, inspired by or borrowed by the family is exhibited in the best way possible in the house where it belongs.
I particularly like the book inspired dress in the library, its pages seem to flutter in the still air surrounded by 17,000 books. Or is that my imagination? Many of the hundred or so mannequins are placed in huge curved glass cabinets that dominate the room – if ever rooms this size can be dominated by anything.
As we make our way around the house, a pianist takes up residence in the library. He’s about the same age as the current Duke. “Is that the Duke of Devonshire?” I whisper to the guide. “No it’s a guy called Stuart but the Duke would be very flattered by your question” he grins.
The original Christmas jumper?
This is a family that clearly had an eye for a nice frock. But I’m most surprised to see that the 11th Duke, Andrew Devonshire, may even have invented the Christmas jumper as far back as wartime. In total he commissioned 22 navy jumpers, each of them bearing a slightly cheesy slogan. 16 of them are exhibited in the collection, perhaps the most personal being “Never marry a Mitford.” He failed to follow his own hand knitted advice.
The hats are the most fun
The family aren’t afraid to show the personal and real – like the repatched slippers from a time when they had a bit of a tax bill to pay. But for our kids, the triumph of this exhibition doesn’t lie in thousand pound dresses but a pile of Duchess hats. There are loads of them, plus hats for soldiers sailors, burglars and bears, along with gilt frames and mock walls to set them off. It’s selfie heaven and we have a lot of fun; even the teens who have no interest either fashion or stately homes. Check out our style in this short video of our #Hatsworth experience.
Try on a new hat this summer
If you are near Derbyshire this summer, I thoroughly recommend you try on a new hat and visit Chatsworth and the House Style exhibition. You may come out better dressed, or at the very least knowing more about the history of British style and fashion. Hopefully you won’t end up with a portrait like this for your wall.
Opening times and prices
Chatsworth is open seven days a week. Check out this page for opening hours, which vary with the season.
2017 prices are £60.90 for a family ticket for the whole attraction (house, farmyard, gardens and playground) or £54.90 to visit just the house and garden. There are cheaper tickets available if you just want to enjoy the gardens or farmyard and not see the house or exhibition. Leave at least two hours to visit the house itself. For an uncrowded experience go early in the day or later in the afternoon, or simply keep an eye on the coach parties and slip in between them. Car parking is £4 per car but if you book tickets online in advance (by midnight the day before) you get free parking.
Tours and guides
Guides are friendly and full of insight on the collections or you can sign up on arrival for a free introductory talk that runs four times a day. For the House Style exhibition, children are given a free passport with stamps to collect and fun questions to answer. A longer taster tour of the house costs £4 for an adult and £2 for a child.
There are also small group tours of the gardens by electric buggy and a larger hop on hop off tractor bus also runs around the gardens. Both require tickets at a small additional cost. Electric buggy tours of the garden are best reserved early on arrival as they can be popular and get booked up. Watch out for the gardening staff. We were lucky enough to meet Sir Joseph Paxton, the garden designer.
Where we stayed
Days Inn has nearly 1,800 hotels worldwide with more than 40 spread around the UK. We stayed at the Days Inn Sheffield South, which is southbound on the M1, about 25 miles from Chatsworth. It took us about 45 minutes to drive there in normal traffic. This Days Inn is convenient for exploring Derbyshire and the Peak District. We also spent an afternoon cycling the Monsal Trail while based here.
Days Inn Sheffield South is part of the Welcome Break services and you can have a cooked breakfast in Harry Ramsden’s restaurant with a deal only available to Days Inn Guests, or you can order a continental breakfast for your room. All rooms have tea and coffee, and flat-screen TV. There is 24 hour reception, complimentary wi-fi and free parking. Families can request an extra bed for a child. Well behaved dogs are welcome.
Disclosure: This post is part of our #DaysInn #DaysOut Road Trip, a collaboration sponsored by Days Inn to promote great days out within easy reach of Days Inn hotels. We visited four Days Inns for four great British Days Out. The choice of days out, views, experience, opinions, photography and videography produced are all our own. Our entry to Chatsworth was provided by Chatsworth House for the purpose of this review. The hat wearing was entirely our own. The fashion we can take absolutely no credit for.