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On a damp autumnal day among the sheep-speckled hills in the heart of England, the Old Vicarage, home of Deborah Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, is radiating warmth. Henry, her butler of nearly 50 years, attends to the door of the rambling house on the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire — and she’s right behind him, ready to greet her visitors. A bucket of chicken feed sits in the hallway — the duchess has tended her beloved birds since she was a girl — and next to it a pair of snazzy black ankle boots, with sturdy rubber heels and soles.
“Henry is meant to be retired, but so am I meant to be retired, but I notice I’m not,” she says after offering drinks and a plate of cheese, salami and savory crackers. The duchess — Debo, as she’s known to her friends — turned 90 earlier this year and is losing her eyesight, but that hasn’t stopped her from living with trademark gusto or from writing about her extraordinary life, which has ranged from her being one of the famed and beauteous Mitford sisters to marrying the Duke of Devonshire.
Next week, she arrives in New York to promote her critically acclaimed “Wait for Me!: Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), and, here, the former chatelaine of Chatsworth talks fashion, entertaining, alternative table decorations and one very dull meeting with John F. Kennedy.
WWD: You talk in the book about attending the wedding of the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer, and make a point of saying the women had all made an effort to look their smartest, something that’s rare today. What are your thoughts on how women are dressing now?
Dowager Duchess: I don’t think English women are that interested in fashion. The ones I know live in the country, where it doesn’t matter what you wear. I’ve got a sort of uniform, which is these kilts. [She points to her navy blue kilt secured with a pin.] You can climb a gate with them — or anything you like.
WWD: What about your feet? Do you live in your wellies?
D.D.: I’ve got some that I love which are very short, and needless to say you can’t get them anymore. We looked and looked and looked to find a label, and eventually we found a very sort of dirty, scrubby old one called Ferragamo — which sounded rather good to me. But if you go into Ferragamo now, they just look at you as if you were mad. None of the people in the shop were there when they were invented.
WWD: Are you still buying your clothes at game fairs?
D.D.: At country fairs, where they have very good outdoor clothing. The [clothes] last so long.
WWD: What are some of the really enduring designer pieces in your wardrobe?
D.D.: I’m very lucky to have some amazing presents from Oscar de la Renta. There’s a beautiful [dress] made by Patou, which I had for my son’s coming-of-age, and as he’s now 66, that’s a long time ago. Givenchy was — and still is — a mainstay. I don’t much like new clothes.
WWD: Do you still wear these dresses?
D.D.: Not the [Patou]. I’m not sure I could get into it because I think old women with even semibare arms look rather revolting.
WWD: Do you do any shopping in London?
D.D.: What can you buy that’s of any interest or beauty in England? You can in Paris and you can, I’m sure, in New York. You can’t in the boutiques in England. It’s simply awful — it looks like a jumble sale. I love Oscar’s clothes because he understands what very old people like.
WWD: Are your daughters and granddaughters angling for pieces of your wardrobe?
D.D.: They were angling like anything, and they got some of them. Stella Tennant was never after them. She gets so many contemporary ones, which aren’t any good to anyone except her. She’s six-foot high and then she wears six-inch heels.