the gentlewoman

Reader of the Month

Most people learn about their in-law’s via a flick through the family album after Sunday lunch. But for Laura Burlington such intimacy came through immersing herself in their 500-year-old collection of wedding dresses, shoes, jewellery, gloves, cloches, bowlers, caps and canes. Six years on, Laura has turned that research into House Style, an exhibition that explores the fashion history of Chatsworth House, the home of the glamorous Devonshire dynasty, of which Laura, 46, is the 13th Duchess in waiting. Also a former model, fashion buyer, fashion editor and now a consultant for the NEWGEN prize, Laura’s fashion pedigree is as equally true-blue. The Gentlewoman’s Richard O’Mahony ventured north to meet with Laura at her in-law’s stately residence in the Derbyshire countryside.

Laura Burlington

Richard: Wow, the landscape here is just magnificent!

Laura: It’s something to do with the proportion of sky to land, apparently. Because the grounds are in a dip, there’s this extraordinary vista of sky. You really get to see the land rising. And then the way Chatsworth House sits within the hills is quite an astonishing sight, isn’t it? I never tire of it.

R: Working on the exhibition must have given you quite an insight into your in-law’s history here, has it changed your relationship with them?

L: Looking back, I realise what a high-risk endeavour it could’ve been! I was always of the point of view that my husband William shouldn’t know everything about my family history, but now I know everything about his. There are 100 pieces from the collection on display, some of which have never been shown in public before, and it’s astonishing, some of the items that were kept. Notebooks and poetry belonging to Duchess Georgiana; outstanding bills for her jewellery that arrived after she’d died — things one would think they maybe would’ve wanted to sweep under the carpet. But my mother-and-father-in-law have been so wonderful and supportive. They never suggested we scale it back or do less, even when we didn’t have sponsorship in place, they were always very behind it.

R: Do you now feel a responsibility to continue the Devonshire fashion legacy?

L: Legacy’s something my husband and I talk about a lot. It would be a shame to stage this exhibition and then for that to be the end of it — not that I’m about to do another show next year. But I do think it’s important to continue to evolve the collection at Chatsworth, so last year, I bought Christopher Kane’s “Lovers” dress, even though it doesn’t fit me. It’s just such a beautiful dress. That was a turning point, where I purchased a garment not to wear, but as an object, like an art collector would a painting. So I’d really like to continue to do that, buy a garment every year, as a way of evolving the collection. We’re also running a series of talks with Derbyshire University, where designers will be speaking so I hope this will open up a greater artistic exchange with the local universities. Creative people have always been drawn to Chatsworth, either through patronage or inspiration, but I’d like to see the estate become more engaged with what’s happening in contemporary fashion, art, music, otherwise these stately homes can become mausoleums.

R: You say the Christopher Kane dress wasn’t for you, but were you ever tempted to try any of the historical pieces on?

L: Ha, I don’t think I would’ve fit them either! There’s a corseted-dress previously owned by Duchess Evelyn that has a 16-inch waist. I’m a bit more of a boyish dresser, a little scruffy. But there’s a Le Smoking by Alber Elbaz from his first and only collection for Yves Saint Laurent in the exhibition that’s mine. I just adore it! I was drawn to the shoulder line; it made me feel quite powerful. I’ve always thought about clothes in personal terms, their craft and beauty as a private pleasure. Dressing just for myself, you know?

R: Oh, absolutely. Everyone else, be damned!

L: But working with Hamish Bowles on this exhibition was a real eye-opener in terms of appreciating fashion’s power to access history. I mean, we all wear clothes; we don’t all have that same interaction with an old master.

R: What’s your earliest fashion memory?

L: It’s probably the dresses my granny used to make for me as a child. They were smocked in 1970s Liberty-style flowery fabrics, but they were a bit itchy and she never quite got the tension right so they'd be very tight and puffy. They had matching pants too, which were a great source of amusement in the playground.

R: I was tickled by Andrew Devonshire’s jumpers you have in the exhibition with slogans like “Never Marry A Mitford.” If you were to design one, what would it say?

L: Oh, probably something practical like, “Please Clear Up After The Dog” or “Have You Seen My Child?”

Interview by Richard O'Mahony. Photograph by Ben Murphy. Would you like to be the next featured reader? Then sign-up sister and tell us about yourself!