Glistening on the approach in the early morning sunshine, the ‘Palace of the Peaks’ slowly emerges from an ethereal summer haze. A scene of majestic beauty with historical significance, Chatsworth House stands proudly amongst the flowing Derbyshire hills.
It is always a pleasure to visit, and today is no exception as I am welcomed by Susie Stokoe for an enviable behind the scenes guided tour of the clothing and textiles archives at Chatsworth. As head of the department for the past ten years Susie, along with a dedicated team of experts, manage the storage, conservation and restoration of an extensive and very poignant family collection.
Having trained in woven textiles for fashion with a strong skill set in sewing, Susie has a diverse and interesting background; previously creating bespoke soft furnishings and, as a weaver, developing a deep understanding of fabric construction. Eventually she retrained in conservation after becoming ‘jaded’ by the disposable nature of design and passionately explains that ‘the object, it’s life and history are bigger than what it looks like, it is not just pretty, it has a life’.
Working closely with a committee that includes the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and Lord and Lady Burlington, her aim is to ‘protect the legacy and integrity’ of historical and contemporary pieces. Over ten years Susie, with her wider team of experts, has planned numerous exciting and logistically demanding exhibitions which, as she explains, have to be carefully and precisely organised.
‘We order and prepare mannequins to fit the garments with numerous layers of protective cushioning. Through this demanding practice of protection and made to measure mannequins, the garments will give an interesting insight and accurate representation of the individual and past generations.’
Previous exhibitions have included ‘House Style’, which ambitiously displayed five centuries of Chatsworth fashion. This highly anticipated exhibition demonstrated the diverse collections that form part of the Devonshire family’s historic and contemporary fashion archives.
The tour begins at the historic costume store – originally used to store props from the family theatre and, which Susie explains, once contained the belongings of Major William John Robert ‘Billy’ Cavendish, son of the tenth Duke of Devonshire, who tragically died in action during the Second World War. ‘The room was locked upon his death, storing many of his clothes and possessions,’ says Susie. ‘This remained so until some ten years ago when the current Duke agreed that the room be used for historic clothing storage.’
From 19th century household livery to an eclectic mix of family clothing, accessories, trunks and Piccadilly hat boxes, this room has become a store to showcase a rich collection of treasured family pieces. This space that once represented such a harrowing event now contains rails of well documented and fastidiously labelled protective garment covers, each listing the uniquely historic item within. These codes in turn create a database of the entire collection – a monumental piece of documentation which Susie, over a period of ten years, has been determined to complete and organise; a ‘sweetie box’ of mismatched items into a logical set of recorded contents which stay protected and are stored properly in order to preserve them for future generations.
Unfortunately, the influential designs of Duchess Georgiana Cavendish, a prominent fashion icon and wife of the fifth Duke of Devonshire, do not form part of the collection, as Susie explains. ‘Her garments would have been made out of very fine and expensive materials, which would have been carefully reused or handed down to her Lady’s maid. Their clothing was a statement of affluence as much as their mistresses; a richly dressed Lady’s maid was an illustration of her mistress’s status and wealth.’
Most recently, in collaboration with the Duchess of Devonshire, Susie has redesigned the guides’ uniforms, taking inspiration from the historic livery worn by Chatsworth’s footmen in the early 20th century – demonstrating the importance of conserving a significant collection.
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