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Bejewelled tiaras, coronation dresses, ball gowns... and the truth about the Never Marry a Mitford sweater...

Delving deep into the vaults of Chatsworth House, Lady Laura Burlington has unveiled a treasure trove of fashion artefacts to create one of this year's most hotly anticipated exhibitions, writes Katrina Israel

By Katrina Israel

In a London restaurant booth, with the help of pictures on her iPhone, Lady Laura Burlington - wife of William Cavendish, the Earl of Burlington, son and heir of the 12th Duke of Devonshire - is outlining her dream Chatsworth House dinner party guest. Contenders include: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (as played by Keira Knightley in The Duchess), Mitford sisters Deborah 'Debo' Devonshire and Nancy Mitford, Adele Astaire (sister and dance partner of Fred) and JFK's sister Kathleen 'Kick' Kennedy.

The images are courtesy of intimate scrapbooks belonging to the 6th Duke of Devonshire (1790-1858), who also sounds like a fascinating dining companion. "He's known as the Bachelor Duke," Burlington explains of Georgiana's son. "This is his coronation invitation (he carried the orb at George IV's crowning), some invitation designs for parties he was going to give: I mean the Soirée Dramatique sounds quite marvellous." She swipes to another picture. "This is a sketch by the head designer of the Paris Opera as a possible thing to wear… some designs for firework displays." Another flick - "This is Tsar Nicholas I," she continues, "who I suspect he had a little crush on because he features quite heavily in a very dashing way. You get the picture..."

The reason for the dinner party conversation? Burlington has recently come to the end of almost six years spent unearthing sartorial gems at her husband's ancestral pile in Derbyshire for the upcoming exhibition House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth House. Opening next month and running into October, the show will highlight the house's fashion legacy - as well as the antics of its most bold incumbents. "Chatsworth is kind of a treasure house," explains the 45-year-old mother of three, who married Burlington, a photographer, 10 years ago and now splits her time between their primary residence in west London and Lismore Castle in Ireland, which has been in the family since 1753. She casts off her checked Céline jacket, today teamed with "wipe-clean" Vetements trousers; sans jewellery and make-up-free. "Many [of the family's] houses have been sold along the away, like Hardwick, and the contents emptied into Chatsworth, so there are five times as many things as you would put in any normal house."

The idea for the exhibition came to light when Burlington - a board member of LFW's NEWGEN committee, who has previously worked in production for Roland Mouret, and as a fashion buyer - was rummaging around Chatsworth's textile rooms with the current Duchess of Devonshire, in search of a christening gown for her son James. Soon after she wrote to American Vogue's international editor-at-large, couture aficionado and author Hamish Bowles, who agreed to curate the project almost immediately. He and Burlington had met years previously on an "ill-fated" photo shoot. She was the model, he was the stylist. "I sort of passed out," she smirks, "but not because I met him." Rather, she says, her loss of consciousness was down to an overly snug Vivienne Westwood corset. "He was incredibly nice to me," she laughs.

The current project has proved to be a happy reunion. "I had a three-week-old baby and we did this trip to Chatsworth," Burlington continues. "We started to look at things and Hamish immediately said, 'We need Patrick (Kinmonth, the polymathic set designer and art director) with us'." Kinmonth oversees the creative direction and design of the exhibition with art director Antonio Monfreda, with whom he worked on Valentino: Master of Couture at Somerset House in 2012, among other exhibitions. "It's very interesting watching him," Burlington enthuses of Bowles. "He's really like a sleuth. He gets the dress and he's immediately inside it. He forensically went through William's grandmother's clothes (Debo, The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire); he had a hundred outfits." Presumably there would be even more were it not for the fact, says Burlington, that "people were so different about good clothes then - no one really kept them. [Author] Charlotte Mosley told me a story about the time William's grandmother was watching the town nativity performance, and suddenly went, 'Oh my goodness, the angel's in my Givenchy.'

The original title of the exhibition was set to be Dressing the Devonshires, until, Burlington says, "we realised no one knew who the Devonshires were." That will soon change, with some 150 mannequins on show, as well as hundreds of objects organised into themes ranging from Coronation Dress to the glittering 1897 Devonshire House Ball celebrating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee - of great importance because all 400 attendees were photographed. "They were all allegorical figures - and they went at it hammer and tongs." Serendipitously, Bowles was already in possession of the Devonshire House Ball album, which he bought at auction 20 years ago.

Spread throughout the baroque house's Painted Hall, Chapel and State Music Room, other highlights will include Jean-Philippe Worth and Christian Dior couture, as well as plenty of family jewels. "Oh, there's a big jewellery situation," Burlington beams, flicking through tiaras on her phone. "You can have the one object go back with one, two, three, four, five, six, seven generations, all wearing it." The Dowager's collection of bug and butterfly brooches will be another treat. "She would wear them up the sleeve and down the side of her dress to great effect," says Burlington of the style icon. Following the Dowager's death in 2014, her collection was split up between her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. "I've got two girls, so they've each got one. It's quite sweet."

There will be some modern pieces too. "Hamish wanted the show to be right up to date," she says, when I ask how a floral Vetements frock, one of Burlington's personal additions, made it into the mix. "[Although] Lotta Volkova (the brand's stylist) might have a breakdown if she sees Vetements at Chatsworth. Not the target audience is it?' A 1990s nose ring belonging to Stella Tennant, Debo's granddaughter, also made the contemporary edit. "Until recently it was black tie for dinner," Burlington says. "I remember going to stay with William's grandmother, [and it was] every night. Even when it was just her and her husband they changed for dinner."

Finally, Gucci, the exhibition's principal sponsor, is also submitting a dress that picks up where the Dowager left off on the insect front. The brand shot its SS17 cruise collection at Chatsworth and creative director Alessandro Michele is clearly rather enamoured with its soigné descendants, including surely, the 11th Duke (Debo's husband), who was rather ahead of the slogan jumper trend. "He was quite eccentric," she says of his bespoke sweaters. "William told me that some important person came and was wandering around in a Never Marry a Mitford jumper. There's 22 of them," she laughs. "Another reads: All Passion Spent - quite fun." Style, humour and historic spectacle - no wonder Chatsworth is this season's most fashionable destination.

  • House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth opens on March 25

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