When I commenced my studies in footwear design I realised how limited my knowledge was when it came to the history of the world. Shoes were the perfect way for me to discover the past in an accessible way. I became drawn to history through fashion – why were people wearing what they were wearing?
What did footwear reflect about the period?
How could footwear tell me a story of the life of the person who wore them?
It was during this ‘history of the world told through shoes’ obsession that I came across American Duchess: a wonderful company that has created many shoe styles which resemble footwear worn from eras since past. For many historical costumers the launch of footwear styles from American Duchess has been warmly welcomed, a niche brand that celebrates the past in the present.
What I love about American Duchess is that I truly feel that these footwear styles are carefully created. It is so apparent that Lauren has a true respect to the era in which they were conceived. It was a pleasure reading her responses to my questions below. I dream that one day we are in the same place to drink tea and eat cake together – perhaps one day they will build a time machine and we can meet someplace in the past!
Can you begin by describing the world of the historical costume community?
The historical costuming community is an amazing, virtual place where anyone can learn an immense amount nearly instantly. There is so much information and experience being shared through blogs and social groups, like on Facebook, all you have to do is follow along, ask questions, read posts. The community has grown so much in the past few years, too, and has connected people all over the world.
You started your blog: American Duchess in 2009, to chronicle your sewing adventures. This site has quickly become a popular resource for other costumers. How has this blog developed over time?
Originally my blog was called “The Barn Owl Gown” – I know, the worst name ever, haha! – and was meant to just chronicle a single project I was working on. That name, and that project, only lasted so long, so of course I renamed it and carried on from there. The blog has always had the mission to share information and help other costumers. I didn’t know anything about the 18th century when I started it, so I set to figuring stuff out, like how to make wigs, patterning out jackets and gowns, etc., and then I shared everything I learned along the way, whether I was successful or not. A couple years after starting the blog, I came up with the idea of making shoes for other costumers, and because I already had a bit of a readership, I was able to work out the design of that first shoe style, with the input of other costumers. It was and still is a great way to make sure we’re getting in right with the design we produce – a “miss” is bad for business, sure, but it’s even worse for the community, because it’s not filling the footwear needs of other costumers.
In 2011 American Duchess released the first footwear style referenced from the 18th Century called “Georgiana”, a silk low heeled shoe to accompany a colonial costume. What led you to launch this business and begin with this style specifically?
I touched on this a bit in the last question, but it needs more explanation. Initially, I myself was frustrated, as a hobbyist costumer, in the lack of choice with shoes for historical gowns. I felt like there was a big hole in what was on offer, and this lead to the idea that maybe I could fill it. I didn’t want American Duchess shoes to look like anything else, but I wanted to make sure the community and I were on the same page. I set up a survey and asked all sorts of questions – heel height, materials, etc. – and took all the feedback and created the “Georgiana,” which was an 18th century latchet shoe with a french heel. The dyeable satin idea actually came from my mother – go Mom! – and was popular with those who took the survey too, so that’s what we made them out of. There wasn’t anything else like Georgiana in the marketplace, so when we launched it for pre-ordering (essentially, we did our own crowd-funding campaign), they were a big hit, and we were off and running.
How close to the historical footwear styles are the replicas you create at American Duchess?
I try to get as close as possible, but there are always compromises. For instance, the size and especially width of modern feet has changed, and the expectations of the wearer have changed. In the past, shoes were constructed without any arch support, no left and right, some without any toe boxes, most custom-made, all with hand-carved heels, some in materials that don’t exist or aren’t being manufactured in the same way anymore. I have to balance all of these things with modern comfort needs, and modern construction methods. We’re not bespoke shoemakers – we run in small batches, but even though we’re not making thousands of shoes at a time, they’re still “mass produced,” so I’m constrained by some of those processes. In each design I strive to get the hallmarks of the period correct. I’ll take a hard look at where the side seams are, the shapes of the lasts, closures, how the heels are balanced and attached, all of these things, and anywhere that I can hold true to those design points, I will, without making the shoe uncomfortable for the user.
American Duchess recently joined forces with renowned cordwainer: Francis Classe to create the Elizabethan shoe, the “Stratford”. How did you come to work with Francis? How would you describe this collaboration?
I met Francis at Costume College in LA last year, and watched him put together one of his famous “Stratford” style shoes, from scratch. After Costume College, he emailed me rather out of the blue, and suggested the collaboration. He knew that we’d been developing an Elizabethan style – we’d had requests for Elizabethan shoes from the get-go, but with factory changes and other businessy stuff, it had been sortof on the back-burner – and he proposed that we work together to get that project done.
I couldn’t be happier with the whole arrangement. Francis made the patterning sample by hand, and our workshop produced a version of it that I feel was very true to the original. It’s one of the best shoes we’ve ever done, and it’s our first “Signature Collection” shoe. I love the “Signature” shoes because they’re all about helping other people in our community. Francis receives a commission every time a pair of Stratfords sells, and future “Signature” shoes will act in the same way – we’re working on our second Signature style, called “Seabury,” with the Newport Historical Society, so the sale of those will help fund them, too.
I noticed you have names for each of the footwear styles at American Duchess. What has been the inspiration behind these names?
Each of the names ties in somehow with the period. Most of them are place names – Devonshire, Kensington, Pemberley, Highbury, Hartfield, Tavistock. Some of them are also the names of influential figures from the periods they represent – Astoria, Pompadour, Georgiana, Renoir, Tissot. The names are meant to evoke a feeling of each era.
What is your opinion towards modern footwear styles?
Some are great, some aren’t. It was that way in the past too! I really love a lot of the vintage-inspired lines, like b.a.i.t, and Miss L Fire, but I’m not adverse to a super-high-heeled modern stiletto too. A part of me wants to see the return of properly engineered, well-designed footwear, because so much of modern shoe design is influenced by machining and mass-production capability, not by human elements. Then again, if shoes were being made to those standards these days, I wouldn’t have much of a business! Part of our mission is to fill that gap, and bring some grace and comfort back to shoes.
I am in love with the fantasy of time travel. Is there a specific period / place / historical figure you would meet if you had the chance?
I don’t know if I could choose just one! I would visit lots of times and places, maybe just for a day, to see what it was *really* like, and maybe (probably) to do some shopping, haha. I’d like to meet, or maybe just observe, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Marie Antoinette. I guess I kindof want to see if they really look like their portraits. I’d like to meet Charles Frederick Worth, Paul Poiret, the Callot sisters, Chanel. I don’t know what they’d think of me! I’d probably be paralysed by celebrity and not be able to say a word, just stand there grinning like a goofball.