Stepping into a magnificently monumental building - think about an ancient church or a grand house - often fills you with a sense of awe. Yet architecture is not the only thing that may induce in a visitor a sense of dizziness, fashion can indeed contribute to do the same, especially when it is carefully assembled and displayed.
This is definitely the case with "House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth" currently on at Chatsworth House, in the heart of Derbyshire Peak District National Park, home to the Cavendish family since the 16th century.
The residence of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and quite often employed as the grand set for a variety of historical films, Chatsworth House is considered as one of the most elegant mansions in the British countryside.
Curated by Hamish Bowles, International Editor-at-Large at American Vogue, with creative direction and design by costume historian and curator Patrick Kinmonth and his creative partner Antonio Monfredo, the show could be described as a lavish display of power chronicling the lives of the Cavendish family members.
The idea for this the event came from a simple search that revealed a treasure trove: years ago former model, stylist, Roland Mouret muse, fashion buyer and wife of the heir to the estate Laura Roundell was looking with her mother in law (the current Duchess of Devonshire) for a christening robe for her son.
A research in the house's textile department produced not one but many christening robes and she soon realised the potential of the materials in the family archive to tell the story of the members of the Cavendish family.
Six years and many closets, cupboards and attics later (images chronicling the selection show garments and accessories painstakingly arranged on tables and along rolling racks) the exhibition became a reality.
Sponsored by Gucci (the design house shot its 2017 cruise advertising campaign in the grounds of the mansion last year), the resulting exhibition is the largest one ever held at Chatsworth, occupying most rooms in the house.
The various spaces are organised by themes (Coronation Dress; Bess of Hardwick and the Tudor Influence; The Devonshire House Ball; The Georgiana Effect; and Country Living and Entertaining at Chatsworth) and the main point of the first section is establishing a historical and temporal context, while exploring the theme of fashion and adornment.
The story starts in the 16th century with Bess of Hardwick, continuing with the 18th century "Empress of Fashion" Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, a fashion leader and the equivalent of today's "influencers" since her taste for romantic style was also celebrated at the French court of her friend Queen Marie Antoinette.
Georgiana's style also inspired contemporary designers as proved by a Christian Dior by John Galliano gown (1998 Spring/Summer Haute Couture collection) on display in the South Sketch Gallery, together with portraits of the Duchess.
In the same space there is a portrait of Elizabeth I in a gown given to her by Bess of Hardwick, and nearby there is a modern version of the gown by Gucci's Alessandro Michele (the house, but also Deborah "Debo" Devonshire's wardrobe and her collection of bug and butterfly brooches undoubtedly influenced the creative director who seems to have a passion for history and antiques).
The first rooms mainly feature archive materials from the family collections, among them livery, uniforms, rare costume designs from the early 17th century by Inigo Jones (Surveyor to the King's Works and one of the most notable architects of 17th century England) and coronation robes, while the christening robe that originally inspired the idea for this event became part of a display about the circle of life, alongside wedding and funeral attire.
Among the most extravagant pieces there are the fancy-dress costumes like the ones from the 1897 Devonshire House Ball that featured 400 guests and was inspired by the theme "allegorical or historical costume before 1815".
Showcased in the State Drawing Room and set amongst original furniture, the display includes an ostrich, amethysts and pearls feather headdress remade by jeweller CW Sellors, and originally donned by Duchess Louise for the 1897 ball that was matched with a dress made for her by Jean-Philippe Worth to impersonate Zenobia, the warrior Queen of Palmyra.
The story continues through letters, photos and scrapbooks, with a look at Adele Astaire, the sister and dance partner of Fred Astaire, who married Charles Cavendish, younger brother of the tenth Duke of Devonshire, in 1932 (her old annotated copies of Vogue, portraits and a short film of her dancing are included); Deborah "Debo" Devonshire and Nancy Mitford, two of the Mitford sisters (the slippers emblazoned with pictures of Elvis belonged to Debo, a fan), and John F Kennedy's sister Kathleen ("Kick"), who married Billy Cavendish in 1944 (killed in action shortly afterward; while she died in a plane crash not long after).
In some of the displays history is combined with art, fashion, jewellery, and interior design, while Haute Couture pieces such as Debo's Christian Dior ice pink satin 1953 "Carmel" gown, the centerpiece of the State Dining Room, seem to dialogue with more modern designs from Laura's own wardrobe, including pieces by Gucci, Helmut Lang, Margiela, Vivienne Westwood, Erdem, Alexander McQueen, Christopher Kane and Vêtements.
Traditions are juxtaposed to transgressions: the house's chapel includes Antonio Verrio's 17th-century ceiling painting "The Incredulity of St. Thomas" but also Damien Hirst's sculpture "Saint Bartholomew, Exquisite Pain".
In the same way, the conventional coronation dresses create constrasts with modern times and rebel heirs such as supermodel Stella Tennant, granddaughter of Andrew Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, photographed with her grandmother Deborah Mitford Devonshire, the 11th Duchess, at Chatsworth for Vogue in 2010 by Mario Testino.
You can't really find any faults in the curators' selection and in the layout: everything has indeed been taken care of in the smallest details to create infinite correspondences, a belt buckle becomes a token to tell the story of Bess of Hardwick, while the nose ring sported by Stella Tennant, introduces a modern tale in the Steven Meisel shoot for Vogue's December 1993 story "Anglo-Saxon Attitude".
Paper designs - Stephen Jones' fascinator made from the pages of a Robert Burns poetry book for Stella Tennant and Hussein Chalayan's paint-splattered paper dress - are very aptly located in the library.
More radical fashion fans may not like this display of grandeur mixed to aristocratic silliness (see the 22 bespoke slogan woollen navy jumpers embroidered for the 11th Duke of Devonshire and reading "Never Marry A Mitford," "Never argue with a Cadogan," "Get Up and Do Something," and so on), while fans of national treasures may complain about the more modern styles and fashions included in the event.
Yet, "House Style" is a way to explore an extravagantly gilded lifestyle most of us don't have access to through art, history, fashion, and interior design; in the same way, combining McQueen and Gucci with a world carefully preserved in tissue paper is a way to attract new and younger visitors to a historical mansion.
Visitors who may want to know more about "House Style" or those fashion fans who may not be able to see the exhibition in person, can check out the glamour and elegance Bowles & Co spread around the mansion in the eponymous volume recently published by Rizzoli that documents the exhibition and the work that went behind the scenes.
"House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth" runs until 22nd October 2017.
All images in this post courtesy of the Chatsworth House Trust