Chatsworth House Style - Part 2 - Corsets, Christian Dior & the Cavendishes May 25 2019, 0 Comments

I visited Chatsworth 'House Style' exhibition, taking the opportunity to gather together some interesting (and quirky) facts, and photos of luscious antique lace, dresses and embroideries in order to share it with like-minded Ava customers on our blog...

As it turned out there was quite a lot to cover so I've decided to split the post into two parts - Part 1 covers: lace, embroidery and detail from other selected fineries, along with the interesting and romantic history of some famous American women who made Chatsworth their is Part 2, covering the bridal display and stays, corsets and some influential women featured in the exhibition... 


Eerie Chapel Bridal display

I thought that the highly impactive standout display of family bridal gowns in the Chapel was an outstanding curatorial triumph, credit where credit is due here to whomsoever designed this display, brilliantly placed and arranged in their setting.  The way they were positioned and lit made them appear ghost-like and other-worldly as you can see below...


Bridal Wedding Dresses Vintage Style Chatsworth 

Display of Cavendish family bridal gowns through generations


To give you some context, the Chapel is housed in a room in Chatsworth House itself, it isn’t a separate building - Chatsworth House is just that immense that a Chapel/room this size fits into it easily!  The gowns themselves were those worn by various members of the Devonshire family. They were mostly relatively modern (early 1900's - 2007) and generally in isolation were less interesting than the overall effect of them grouped in the room.  My personal favourite was the fabulous large asymmetric headdress with faux silk roses (see image on the bottom left) - I think it is really bold and effective, well balanced design.

One older piece was to be found in a dimly lit cabinet around the side of the room, dated 1829, this can be seen in the bottom right photo shown above; it shows a pretty Orange Blossom headdress made of pigskin and wire, which was worn by Lady Blanche on her wedding day  when she married William Cavendish (later the 7th Duke of Devonshire and not to be confused with the William Cavendish whom is mentioned later in this post.


Vivienne Westwood, Mythical Beasts and Bess of Hardwick

First up is this amazing dress by Vivienne Westwood, this is her take on the original dress as shown in the portrait at the back (behind the mannequin’s left shoulder in the image below). 


Queen Elizabeth I Bess Hardwick Vivienne Westwood Sack Dress Sea Monsters Pansies Elizabethan

Vivienne Westwood Dress, from the A/W 1997 collection 'Five Centuries Ago'


The original dress (c. 1599) was given to Queen Elizabeth I by Bess of Hardwick, Bess was a powerful woman of the Elizabethan era (in a time when there weren’t many women with power….I could easily write a whole blog post on her alone, she was a really interesting character!).  It doesn't surprise me that Vivienne would be influenced by or take an interest in Bess as the two women share a creativity, boldness, independence and strength of character than makes them stand out in some broadly similar ways. 

Bess was married four times, amassed a great wealth in her lifetime, she had three houses, she was known for her building projects (Chatsworth House - which she actually had built, Chelsea and Hardwick Halls), but she was also a skilled needlewoman and it is said that Bess herself may have designed and worked on parts of the dress.  

What is so fascinating about the hand embroidered motifs on the original dress is that they depict sea monsters, dragons, flowers such as pansies and insects, snakes and birds - it seems very modern in design relative to its age in some regards, the riot of imagination and colours on the contrast grey ground particularly.  The embroidery technique used was Jacobean work, which is similar to crewel work except that crewel work uses wool, whereas Jacobean work generally uses silk and/or metallic threads.


Vivienne Westwood Bess Hardwick Queen Elizabeth I Dress Sea Monster Pansies

Detail from Vivienne Westwood Dress showing Pansies and Sea Monsters


Vivienne Westwood’s more recent version of the dress features a separate black  almost biker-style jacket, regally adorned with golden chains and brooches.  It is printed rather than embroidered and follows a form more similar to the 18th Century (which she tends to favour as an influence in her designs) than late 16th Century silhouette.  You could be forgiven for thinking that both are conical bodice dresses with conical underpinnings. But actually in Queen Elizabeth’s day the women wore ‘a pair of bodies’ which were a precursor to Stays, in turn in themselves being a precursor to the Corset.  The shape is not the same and also the skirt on the 16th Century dress is more drum shaped.


17th Century Botanical Sack Dress

Secondly, of interest to us corset-lovers there was an original mid 1700's silk sack dress.  Instead of sea monsters this one is more tamely adorned with embroidered floral motifs by Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717).  Maria was a German artist, embroiderer and entomologist (so another surprisingly multi-talented woman considering her era!), the information on the case containing the dress stated that: '...(her) influential printed works are kept in Chatsworth's Library.  Merian's motifs recur in a contemporary Gucci 2017 dress for Duchess Amanda...' 


Sack Dress 1700s Antique Costume Embroidery Stays Chatsworth

Sack Dress with botanical embroidered motifs [c. 1750's]


The embroidered flowers are created using silk thread with techniques such as silk shading and opus plumarium being employed.  The sack dress - aka the sack-back-dress or robe à la française, was comprised of fitted bodice pieces, 3/4 sleeves (usually with separate lace frills called engageantes - what a delightful word that is!) and a stomacher panel covering the stays at the front, with wide panniers (a hoop or basket like structure) underneath the skirts, making the hips unnaturally wide, and a large piece of fabric with box pleats extending from the back neckline to the floor. 

The wider the panniers and therefore the less practical the skirts were to manoeuvre in, the greater the wealth and position in society of the wearer.  Wealthy women would be sewn into these pieces to create the dress every morning.  Flowers were a common motif for embroidery on sack dresses, and the V&A Museum in London holds several more extant examples.


Contemporary Corset - Chloe, McCartney

Thirdly, there was a more contemporary corset intended to be worn as outerwear as part of a tailored ensemble by Stella McCartney for Chloe.  The link to the Cavendish family here is that this is an outfit loaned by the Countess of Burlington. 


Chloe Corset Stella McCartney 1990s Style

Jacket, Corset and Trousers, Stella McCartney's 1st collection for Chloe S/S 1998  Materials: silk and nylon. 


It shows corsets being re-imagined as outerwear in the 1990's, which wasn't anything new, it's something which stems from Vivienne Westwood's early 90's collections featuring stays with stretch side panels as outerwear (her work was what inspired me to study fashion at college back then actually!).  Westwood's take on it was more ostentatious, tongue in cheek and about British eccentricity, whereas McCartney has come up with an outfit which is more sleek and understated.  The corset itself bears a striking similarity to a classic Agent Provocateur corset style - 'the Diva corset', which  also originated in the 1990's and I personally worked on in the early 2000's.


Christian Dior Dress, Georgiana and the Chemise a la Reine

Finally, the spectacular finale to the Chatsworth House Style exhibition - comprising a stunning haute couture dress, designed by John Galliano for Christian Dior, displayed together with an original period portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, the gold, mint, pistachio and aqua pastel colours, offset with a shimmering grand chandelier, and a row of gilt famed paintings it was quite a sight to behold! 


Georgiana Duchess Devonshire Cavendish Chastworth Christian Dior John Galliano Corset Gaulle Chemise a la Reine

Dress by John Galliano for Christian Dior [Haute Couture S/S 1998]


It's a feast for the eyes for sure, the point or narrative behind this display is not inherently clear though.  Perhaps it is intended to highlight the cyclical nature of fashion, how inspiration tends to loop back around time and time again.  The linkage is perhaps how ethereal both Georgiana and the beautiful dress both look.  It remains unclear, but what can be agreed upon is how aesthetically pleasing and pleasant the two pieces look shown together.

The dress is heavily influenced by 18th Century sack dresses, in terms of both the use of colour, silk and taffeta fabrics, the wide panniers on the hips, large bows adorning the centre of it's structured bodice and the ruched trim detailing all of which were common features of court dresses during the 1700's.


Dior Georgiana Sack Dress Silk 1700s Corset

 Close up - showing more detail of the Portrait as Cynthia from Spenser's 'The Faerie Queen' [painted by Maria Cosway 1783]


Whilst Georgiana certainly would have worn elaborate sack dresses of a style similar to this (though hers would have covered her shoulders and had 3/4 length sleeves also, as per the example above), the portrait of her they chose to display with it shows her is a wholly different kind of dress altogether.  What she is wearing in her mythical, almost angelic or goddess-like pose is an unstructured finely pleated cotton muslin dress - it would be understandable to make the assumption that this is a nightdress.  However, it was in fact a type of day dress popularised by Marie Antoinette in the 1780's, known as a Chemise a la Reine (which means Chemise of the Queen) or la Reine da Gaulle.  

It is also interesting to note that this ethereal portrait was painted by a woman, Maria Cosway, at a time when women painters were rare and women were still barred from access to any formal art training.


Marie Antoinette Chemise a la Reine Gaulle Dress Muslin

 Marie Antoinette wearing a Chemise a la Reine [painted by by Louise Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, 1783]


This garment is quite interesting as it was quite controversial in that it was loose, translucent (so a bit risque and shocking - as it literally resembled an undergarment, the chemise - so underwear as outerwear is nothing new!) and represented a reaction against the repressive nature of court life and the physical restrictions on women's bodies with structured sack dresses and wide panniers and voluminous skirts.  That said it is likely that women still wore stays underneath them (portraits of the time generally seem indicative of this), though perhaps that was not always the case. 

However, they were loose, more lightweight and just tied with a sash at the waist so it must have felt wonderful to wear one of these and be less physically restricted and encumbered, even if stays were still worn underneath.  Moreover, Marie Antoinette liked to wear hers when pretending to be a shepherdess at Le Petit Trianon - which was a play farm in the grounds at Versailles, the wealthy Queen playing at being a poor commoner did not go down well with the genuinely French impoverished people, who were outraged by her behaviour.  Furthermore, these dresses were made from English cotton muslin and this caused some serious hardships for the French silk industry, which added to the unrest within the country.


Georgiana Duchess Devonshire Cavendish Gaulle

 Georgiana, wearing another Chemise a la Reine style dress, however this one is has more structure than the version shown above [painting by Thomas Gainsborough, 1787].


Georgiana's life is too epic a story to do justice within confines of this short blog post.  Suffice to say however that she was another strong female character - although she had a difficult marriage, she was known and admired in her own right for her charisma, wit, style, writing, love affairs, gambling and political influence.


A couple of other gems I spotted…

Regency Fashion Drawing Illustration Dresses Costume Sketchbook


If you have any questions regarding the items, places or people in this blog post, then please drop me some comments below, feel free to ask and if you found this interesting and would like me to write more in future about either Chatsworth, Derbyshire, Kick, Adele, the Duchess of Devonshire, Bess of Hardwick (I could easily write enough to fill a whole blog post on each remarkable lady alone!), antique corsets, historical costume, traditional embroidery or some other topic...then please let me know.  It would be good to know what you would most like to read about.

Some links to read more about Chatsworth, the House Style exhibition and a really interesting discussion of what women wore underneath their Chemise a la Reine, should the blog have whetted your appetite for some further reading...

All photographs were taken by the author - Elyzzabeth A. Beswick.