Interview: Lauren from American Duchess

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“Kensington”, 18th Century shoe, by American Duchess


Laura flashing her red footwear, and clocked silk stockings: “Kensington”, 18th Century shoe, by American Duchess

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.


“Astoria”, Edwardian Shoe, by American Duchess

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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.


“Georgiana”, 18th Century silk shoes, by American Duchess


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.


“Renoir”, Civil War Button Boots, by American Duchess


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.


“Stratford”, Elizabethan shoe, designed in collaboration between renowned cordwainer Francis Classe and American Duchess

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.


“Gibson”, Edwardian shoe, tan, by American Duchess


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.


“Antoinette” 18th Century Mules, with metallic silver embroidery, by American Duchess

Learn more about American Duchess ~ click here to visit the website / blog or ‘like’ on Facebook



April Phillips Footwear at the Northampton Museums & Art Gallery UK + top ten footwear pieces from the collection

Back in October 2013 I exhibited a series of five boots at Gallery@OXO tower London UK ‘The Imaginary Happenings of Hospitalfield’ (to view these boots along with a short video click here) : A body of work created in response to an artist residency opportunity at Hospitalfield House, Arbroath, Scotland.

All five boots have recently been acquired by The Northampton Museums & Art Gallery UK permanent footwear collection. The museum has one of the worlds most outstanding footwear collections, with key pieces that represent makers, design, production, innovation, and the history of footwear. Together the collection stands to preserve footwear for the future ~ so for my series boots to be cared for amongst such an important crowd of footwear styles I am truly proud and honoured.

To celebrate the new acquisition I requested the Northampton Museums and Art Gallery put forward ten footwear styles from the permanent collection that are considered to be of special significance.  I imagine it must have been very difficult to compile this list, Thank you to the team at the museum for assisting me to put together this post.

no. 1: Queen Victoria’s Wedding Shoes


Queen Victoria wedding shoes

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Queen Victoria & Prince Albert on their wedding day 1840

Maker / Brand: Gundry & Son, 1 Soho Square, London. Boot and Shoemakers to the Queen

Dated: 1840

Date of acquisition: January 1949

Origin: Donation

Materials: Silk, Satin and Leather

Significance: unique, worn by Queen Victoria on her wedding day

Key Detail: Long ribbon ties fastened round the ankles to hold the shoes in place.                                                                                                                                                                                                            

These shoes…were worn by Queen Victoria on her wedding day 10th February 1840. Queen Victoria married her cousin Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in the Chapel Royal, St. James, London. To compliment her white satin dress trimmed with Honiton lace she wore these flat soled shoes trimmed with ribbon. They show the typical style worn by women of the time – simple flat soled square toed slip on shoes.

no. 2: Moira Shearer’s pointe ballet shoes


Freed pointe shoes made for the film ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948)

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Moira Shearer in the film ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948)

Maker / Brand: Freed

Dated: 1948

Date of acquisition: 1966

Origin: Donation

Materials: Satin and Leather

Significance: Evocative pointe shoes made for Moira Shearer to wear in the film ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948)

Key Detail:  This pair was prepared to be worn, the toes have been darned and the ribbons attached, but they remained unused.

These pointe ballet shoes… were one of twenty five pairs  of pointe shoes made by Freed to be worn by Moira Shearer to take her through all rehearsals and filming.

no. 3 Cloud and Rainbow Heels


Maker / Brand: Shoemaker and designer Thea Cadabra

Dated: 1979

Date of acquisition: 1979

Origin: Purchased from Thea Cadabra

Materials: Suede, Leather, Synthetic materials and beads

Significance: An eye catching seminal design by Thea Cadabra

Key Detail: Floating cloud and lightning motifs, mixed material combination

These heels… were made for the Arts Council exhibition called The Shoe Show: British Shoes Since 1790. It took place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall London, 5 December 1979 to 6 January 1980.

no. 4: 1851 Exhibition boot

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John Nelson Hefford boots 1851

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Interior sketch for media of the great Exhibition london – ‘The Crystal Palace’, UK 1851,

Maker / Brand:  John Nelson Hefford, shoemaker from Derby

Dated: 1851

Date of acquisition: 2006

Origin: Donation

Materials: Leather

Significance: A showcase of skills for the great exhibition UK. Came with label stating  the pair won a prize medal at the Great Exhibition 1851.

Key Details: Pair of beige and black leather dress Wellington boots. They have a wide flat square toe with a low stacked heel. Galosh in black leather with shaped top edge. Leg in beige leather with side seams piped in red. Front of leg decorated with appliqué design in black leather and coloured silk (now missing) of crown, national emblems, crosses, stars and scalloped border. Back of leg decorated with scrolling pattern. Beige leather boot top band. Wide ribbon loop sewn to inside of top at sides. Its leather sole has a domed waist.

This pair of boots… are a wonderful example of exhibition craftsmanship. Shoemakers were craftsmen. They had served an apprenticeship to learn their trade and were proud of their skills. They often made special shoes for exhibitions, beginning with the Great Exhibition of 1851.  These are full size shoes and could be worn if you could get them on your feet. They show a very high standard of workmanship.

no 5: Kinky Boots


kinky boots from the film made in 2005

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Transition from making mens formal shoes to over the knee boots, from the film ‘Kinky boots’ 2005

Maker / Brand: Unknown

Dated: 2005

Date of acquisition: 2006

Origin: Loan and then donation

Materials: Leather and printed pony

Significance: Appeared as set dressing / props in the film Kinky Boots (2005).

Key Detail: Dramatic metallic red over the knee boot

These boots… were used in the film Kinky Boots. The film was based on the true story of a shoemaker from Earls Barton, Northamptonshire who diversified into making large size Kinky Boots for men and women.

no 6: Silver Platforms

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silver platforms made by John Fluevog Shoes for Sacha, 1970s

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Disco dance floor, 1970s

Maker / Brand: John Fluevog Shoes for Sacha

Dated: 1970s

Date of acquisition: 2006

Origin: Purchased

Materials: Leather and synthetic

Significance: A wonderful example of 1970s platform shoes

Key Detail: Metallic leather with a dynamic square toe & high flared heels

This pair of woman’s silver leather buckle shoes with platform sole…examine the transition of footwear styles from the 60s to the 70s and capture the spirit of the 1970s dance floor

no 7: Confetti Shoe


single shoe covered in confetti made as made by ‘the girls’ sears factory as a wedding gift

Maker / Brand: Made by ‘the girls’, the closers, at Sears Factory, Northampton in 1925. This was a common practice at the factory to make a confetti shoe to give to a bride working at the same shoe factory.

Dated: 1925

Date of acquisition: 1987

Origin: Donation

Materials: paper, ribbon, adhesive

Significance: A great example of how shoes can pervade all aspects of life and be associated with rites of passage

Key Detail: Women’s single shoe covered with confetti, ribbon tied on vamp

This single shoe… was given to Edith Crouch at her wedding to Frederick Arthur Amos at St Michael’s Church, Northampton on August 2 1925. Edith was a closer at Sears shoe factory and Fred was a clicker at Oakeshott & Finnemore shoe factory.

no 8: Super Elevated Ghillie Platforms


Vivienne Westwood commissioned platforms for the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery

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Super model Naomi Campbell falls during a Vivienne Westwood catwalk show in Paris 1993

Maker / Brand: Designed by Vivienne Westwood

Dated: 1998

Date of acquisition: 1999

Origin: Commissioned and purchased

Materials: Leather, synthetic material, and cotton laces

Significance: The blue moc croc Super Elevated Ghillie shoes were made famous when the super model Naomi Campbell was filmed falling to the ground in them as she walked down the catwalk for the Vivienne Westwood Autumn/Winter 1993-4 collection.

These platforms… were made famous when Naomi tumbled during a catwalk show in Paris in 1993. The innovative adaptation of  a traditional footwear style is typical to many shoes Vivienne Westwood has designed during her career.

no 9: Wheel Heels


wheel heels, Designed by Maurice Kurdash for Mexico shoes Ltd

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Maker / Brand: Designed by Maurice Kurdash for Mexico shoes Ltd (now Gina Shoes Ltd)

Dated: Circa 1965

Date of acquisition:  2001                                                                                                                                                                                     

Origin: Donation

Materials: Leather and brass

Significance: A very interesting design from the 1960s.

Key Detail: Wheel in place of top piece on heel

This Pair of pumps… features a wheel is set at a critical angle, so that as the wearer puts weight on it a brake action is achieved. It was said to prevent the pitting problems in floors as well as problems of the heel breaking. Quite a novelty but do you think you can wear them safely?

no 10: George Boots

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Mens Boot with a print of lead singer of the Northampton band: Bauhaus Pete Murphy Designed by Guy West for Jeffery-West

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Northampton band : Bauhaus. Lead singer Pete Murphy (third from left)

Maker / Brand: Designed by Guy West for Jeffery-West

Dated: 1998-1999

Date of acquisition: 2002

Origin: Donation

Materials: Leather

Significance: These boots take Northampton’s long standing tradition of making classic English men’s shoes and with the Jeffery-West own twist.

Key Detail: The leather has been digitally printed with a repeated image of Pete Murphy who was the lead singer of Northampton band Bauhaus

These mens boots… are made through Jeffery-West, a well-known and successful shoe company located in Northampton and with outlets in Piccadilly, London City, Leeds, Manchester, New York and Taipei.  We are always interested in expanding our collection and are keen to collect locally made shoes as well as shoes from across the world.

I highly recommend having a look at the Northampton Museums and Art Gallery blog which you can find by clicking: HERE

Until next time,