I can’t remember a time when I haven’t been intrigued by the fascinating Mitford sisters (Jessica, Nancy, Pam, Unity, Diana, and Deborah). The last of the Mitford sisters, Deborah (also called Debo) died in September 2014 at the age of 94. Whilst her other sisters are infamous for falling in love with Hitler (Unity), writing books satirizing the upper class (Nancy, the author of Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, among my all-time favorite books), breaking John Betjeman’s heart (Pam), being a communist despite her several of her sisters’ rather more right-wing tendencies (Jessica, also known as Decca), and marrying Oswald Mosley (Diana), Debo followed the most “traditional” route of the English aristocracy, marrying Andrew Cavendish, who became the Duke of Devonshire after the death of his older brother and his father. Despite this, Debo was a remarkable individual and certainly not your typical duchess.
The sisters’ childhood was well documented in Decca’s memoir Hons and Rebels and Nancy’s novels Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love. Their childhood was indeed “the quintessence of British eccentricity“–their father insisted that playing hockey would make their ankles fat and also hunted his children on horseback, vividly recounted by Nancy in her novels.
In 1941, Debo married Andrew Cavendish, who unexpectedly inherited the dukedom when his older brother was killed in the war. To pay off the enormous death duties they inherited with the estate when her father-in-law died in 1950, Debo turned Chatsworth, the family seat, into a self-sustaining enterprise. She raised chickens, sponsored programs to bring city children into the country, and produced and sold food all in order to maintain Chatsworth for their family and for the country. She was, indeed, successful.
Her husband died in 2004, and eighteen months later, the Dowager Duchess moved out of Chatsworth. Though she left the house, she said “In all those years I never took the place for granted but marvelled at it and the fact we were surrounded by beauty at every turn.”
Debo’s style has always appealed to me–her penchant for wearing traditional court dress worn with wellies to feed the chickens was immortalized on the cover of one of her memoirs, All in One Basket.
As comfortable in worn-in tweeds and wellies as she was in couture, Debo is a style icon for the ages, and someone I always turn to for style inspiration.