don’t be fooled by fashion’s obsession with upper-class wardrobes

It is a peculiar quirk of the British aristocracy that you can have a title, such as the Duke of Devonshire, without having any connection with the part of the country to which the title refers. The Devonshires – first earls and later dukes – do not live in Devon. Past and present include Bolton Abbey in North Yorkshire and Chiswick House and Burlington House in London. The jewel in the portfolio is Chatsworth: a beautiful Grade II listed building in Derbyshire, often described as one of Britain’s favorite stately homes. For those who have a lot of it, land simply becomes an heirloom to be divided up, sold, bequeathed and passed down through the generations, like a fine handbag or antique opera coat.

This summer, Chatsworth is staging Erdem: Imaginary Conversations, an exhibition exploring the influence of the late Deborah Cavendish, born Mitford, former resident and muse for the designer’s Spring/Summer 24 collection. Featuring deconstructed ball gowns and bejeweled insects, the opening look is the funniest: a fraying tweed skirt suit that references the Duchess’s love of Derbyshire redcaps and Scottish dumpies. Erdem says he wanted it to look “destroyed by chickens.”

As funny as it is, this look epitomizes the fashion world’s bizarre reverence for the aristocracy. From the days of whimsical Tim Walker shoots in stately homes to Princess Anne-inspired Fendi clothing, the visual codes and expansive homes of the upper classes often grace mood boards and magazine pages. Part of the charm, at least as far as designers and photographers are concerned, seems to lie in that very chic combination of splendor and splendor – a nod to a world where sloppiness can be read as blasé unconventionality and quality counts, but nothing is too precious; Principles such as ‘do and mend’ take on a different, more ambitious tone when there is an archive full of 19th-century hand-painted fabrics to plunder.

On a simpler level, with their dresses and Capability Brown-designed gardens, the aristocracy satisfied fashion’s taste for high fantasy: they offer an approximation of a real fairy tale, complete with tiara and castle (funny considering there are just as many fairy tales are published to cover up their unpleasantness, the aristocracy is also an expert at hiding dark, exploitative secrets beneath idyllic exteriors). As obvious as it may seem why an industry selling expensive clothing might decide to refer to the historically rich and powerful, it is disturbing to see how easily the continued romanticization of inherited titles, inherited mansions and vast inherited wealth – the average value of a title has doubled post-financial crisis to £16 million – serving as a form of soft propaganda, encouraging affection and even admiration for those who have lucked out in the feudal order.

The Duchess of Devonshire, popularly known as Debo, spent half a century as chatelaine of Chatsworth after marrying Andrew Cavendish in 1941. In 1981, ownership was transferred to the Chatsworth House Trust, a charity responsible for its maintenance and community outreach – with the family paying the market. rent for their private quarters.

Over the decades, the Duchess became a relatively beloved institutional figure: the embodiment of the old-fashioned, no-nonsense, chic girl with a highly mythologized childhood, who loved animals (unless they could be hunted), and her clothes were the preferably bought from agricultural companies. shows (aside from her custom Turnbull & Asser shirts in every color), and by being a lifelong conservative, she managed to achieve a veneer of neutrality compared to her sisters, including a Nazi (Unity) and a fascist (Diana , which was repeatedly voted Debo’s favorite).

In the exhibition, Erdem celebrates Debo’s ingenuity and indomitable English spirit, and praises her business instincts in reviving Chatsworth. She sold land, buildings and works of art to fund an unexpected £7 million inheritance tax. Later she founded, among other things, a farm shop and a farmyard. She plays on all the usual references you would expect: portraits of Cecil Beaton and shiny jewelry, elegant dancing shoes next to comfortable walking shoes.

Taken in itself, it is a beautiful exhibition, especially in the way it highlights Moralıoğlu’s obvious joy in the research process. And when you go to Chatsworth, despite yourself, you long for ceilings big enough to accommodate murals of goddesses and kings. But look closer and Debo emerges as the poster girl for the still influential interwar fiction of a ruling class on the brink of disappearance; their roofs and vests both full of holes, the old world in disrepair as heating bills rise. This tasty, rotting image, complete with tulle skirts in storage and an endless supply of valuable works of art and tapestries to be sold in an emergency, illuminates a strange nostalgia synapse in the British psyche. It’s the same part tickled by endless remakes of Brideshead Revisited and The Pursuit of Love, in which the dream of the big house is offset by more recognizable problems: chilblains, melancholy, emotional distance, the threat of aging. But it’s worth remembering that in the case of Debo, the grand story is not one of triumph against all odds or a real threat of hardship, but something more akin to a princess who got to keep the palace.

Inspiration takes many forms, and designers often use imagined national characters, playing with a mix of crude clichés and selective cultural history to shape their idea of ​​a certain kind of woman. French designers opt for understated chic, Italian designers for sexy maximalism, and so on. British designers often fall back on the idea of ​​eccentricity around the edges: a clash between monarchs and punks, pearls and hoodies.

While this might point to a more democratic class where all are free to roam, the subcultural or working-class aesthetic is often presented as either ridiculously stereotypical or as tempering grit for the upper-class fantasy – unsurprising in an industry where there is still a shocking number of titles and honorifics, and the golden age of working-class designers is far behind us. Previously, more interesting and provocative riffs on aristocratic codes came from the likes of Alexander McQueen, who grew up in East London and left school at 16 when he was offered an apprenticeship on Savile Row, and Vivienne Westwood, who worked as a factory technician and primary school teacher. However, research from 2022 shows that the number of working-class people in the creative industries in Britain has halved since the 1970s to just 7.9%. What’s more, a recent report from Vogue Business highlights several systemic barriers to entry. Expectations include endless unpaid labor at the beginning of one’s fashion career, automatically excluding those who cannot afford to work for free, especially as the cost of living remains high.

Luxury continues to flourish. Scan the Peerage and you’ll see plenty of prominent fashion names, from models Cara Delevingne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Jodie Kidd and Lady Jean Campbell to designers Serena Bute and Samantha Cameron. The Mitford sisters alone have been responsible for spawning a generation of models, editors, ‘It’ girls and stylists, with fashion being an industry where connections and wealth don’t so much open the front door as provide the keys to the castle. In 2016, then Burberry chief creative officer and CEO Christopher Bailey described the Mitfords as “glam rock, military, boots… a patchwork of things I love” (which begs the question, given Unity and Diana’s politics, which army ? )

Burberry famously went through a period of image change in the late 2000s after its famous check began to be worn by what some classified as ‘the wrong kind of people’: ‘chavs’. The answer was to revive an image of British heritage and whimsy, all mud on silk hems and tasteful trench coats. The results were often beautiful to look at, but there was an underlying ugliness in the desire to shed unwanted customers in search of a higher clientele.

That’s the other reason why the aristocracy retains its innate thematic appeal: once able to dictate fashions and fads – Chatsworth was also home to the famous 18th-century Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, whose hairstyles became legendary – many of them will are probably still customers.

In 1959, Evelyn Waugh wrote in an updated introduction to Brideshead Revisited, published fifteen years earlier, that it was ‘a hymn preached over an empty coffin’, noting that ‘Today Brideshead would be open to trippers, while the treasures would be rearranged by expert hands. the material is better maintained than that of Lord Marchmain.

The ‘cult of the country house’ that he then called remains strong – Chatsworth is still hugely popular, and Erdem’s exhibition will undoubtedly be a hit – but even stronger is the status of the aristocracy. Debo’s son Peregrine, the current Duke of Devonshire, has an estimated fortune of £910 million and is number 182 on this year’s Sunday Times rich list. This is not surprising, as it follows a general trend of extraordinary wealth consolidation among British peers through land ownership, asset management schemes, investments and more.

We may now browse their great halls and even take great pleasure in their dresses, but it is worth remembering that the aristocracy are not just relics or cheerfully temperamental characters – but active participants in a vastly unequal landscape.

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