When I first thought about running a bridal boutique here on the Chatsworth Estate, I wasn’t really expecting to find a place so steeped in fashion history, and marriage scandal.
The Mitfords, the Kennedys, Adele Astaire… Gucci designer Alessandro Michele called Chatsworth House “the most rock’n’roll place I have ever been”. And the more you delve into Chatsworth’s best-known brides, the more glamour and intrigue there is to discover.
So here’s the first in a series of mini history lessons on what I’ve managed to uncover so far.
The Mitford Sister of Chatsworth
If you’ve never heard of them, the Mitfords were the six aristocrat sisters who took Britain’s social scene by storm in the 1930s and 1940s. And they definitely brought the drama.
The fascination with Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah inspired what became known as the Mitford Industry, long before the days of gossip mags and social media scandals. Just imagine a Downton Abbey special of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. With Nazis. I’m not even kidding.
The Chatsworth connection came through Deborah, the youngest of the Mitford sisters. In 1941, aged 21, ‘Debo’ put the cat among the socialite pigeons by marrying Andrew Cavendish, son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire.
The Observer described Debo as “one of the beauties of this generation”. She would later become the Duchess herself. Maybe even the most famous Duchess of them all. Plenty of people credit Debo with turning Chatsworth into the stately success story and thriving tourist attraction it is today. One impressive lady.
Debo’s couture wedding dress was made by premier London designer Victor Stiebel. Her wedding dress style? In her own words: “masses and masses of white tulle, a tight bodice and sleeves, and a skirt such as has never been seen before in size”. Love it.
Over the course of her life Debo would switch seamlessly between glamorous gowns made for her by Oscar de la Renta and the ‘Mitford style’ of tweed skirt suits and tea dresses. She loved feeding her rare-breed chickens, and her friend Hubert de Givenchy (yes, that Givenchy) made personalised shopping baskets for her trips to Bakewell.
Here she is being photographed for Italian Vogue in 1995, feeding her beloved chickens in a red satin Balmain gown. And pearls, obvs.
Debo even had her own rubber chicken handbag, and a pair of Elvis slippers! And whenever they went on holiday, her husband the Duke would get his valet to whiten his favourite pair of Converse high-tops after each wear. Now there’s two sentences I never thought I’d write on a wedding dress blog!
The Duchess’s granddaughter, Stella Tennant, became a big name in fashion modelling in the 1990s, appearing on the cover of Vogue and as the face of Chanel and Versace. She also modelled for Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood and Karl Lagerfeld. Helmut Lang made his first ever wedding dress for her.
In 2010, Stella Tennant and grandma Debo were featured together in a 10-page Vogue editorial, and photographed by Mario Testino.
‘Never Marry a Mitford’
Debo died in 2014 at the ripe old age of 94, after years of devotion as Duchess to Chatsworth and the estate she called home. She had outlived all her sisters and lived through all their adventures. And boy did some of those adventures get pretty real.
Take Diana Mitford, for instance. In the 1930s, Diana infamously had a very public affair with Oswald Mosley, head of the British version of the Nazi Party. The pair would later get married in secret at Goebbels’s house. A certain Adolf Hitler was there as a guest. (Diana ended up in Holloway Prison.) Diana and Oswald’s son, Max Mosley, is the former boss of Formula 1 racing, and no stranger to controversy himself. S&M orgies and everything.
Even scarier, Diana’s sister Unity basically worshipped Hitler, meeting (and flirting) with him in Munich on no less than 140 different occasions according to her diaries. Hitler even gave her her own pistol for protection.
Oh it gets crazier. Unity had always maintained that if her two beloved countries (Britain and Germany) went to war, she would take her own life. When they did, Unity symbolically took herself to the English Garden in Munich, took out Hitler’s pistol, and shot herself in the head.
Only she didn’t die. The bullet lodged in her brain, and she was eventually flown back to England – no questions asked – after her father pulled some strings with the British government.
Pretty wild stuff, right? Maybe it’s no wonder that, back at Chatsworth, Debo’s husband had his own tongue-in-cheek collection of novelty jumpers, including one with ‘Never Marry A Mitford’ on the front…
In 2018, Gucci launched a version of their own on the Milan catwalk as part of their 2018 Spring collection. Brilliant.
Next up: Kick Kennedy, JFK’s sister.
Feel like writing your own name into Chatsworth’s bridal fashion history?