By Sabrina Cardoso, Style Editor
Photos Courtesy of Lauren Stowell and via American Duchess
Originally published in Roaring Twenties: An Encore (2020)
Being a historical costumer, I know that one of the hardest components to find is historical footwear. One can learn to sew to make the actual garb but not many of us are cobblers or know the first thing when it comes to making a pair of shoes. Lauren Stowell, the woman behind American Duchess shoes, started blogging about historical costuming in 2008. After hearing the woes and frustrations from people worldwide about the lack of historical footwear, she decided to embark on an adventure, which has morphed, into a pretty spiffy company today. Since Lauren’s blogging and costuming was centered around the 18th century, the first pair of shoes she designed were the Georgiana heels. Since the success of Georgiana, Lauren has created shoes spanning the centuries, from Elizabethian times to the 1940’s. I have had several occasions to take classes from Lauren at the Guild Costumer’s West annual Costume College and was thrilled to be able to interview Ms. Stowell for this issue.
Sabrina: Lauren, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I hope your recent travels in Portugal were lovely.
Lauren: Thank you so much! We visited the Aveiro region and found some great factories to work with. We also spent a day in Lisbon, which was wonderful. Highly recommend!
Sabrina: So let’s get to it then!
Historical footwear was not made with the concept of left foot/ right foot in mind as we do today correct? When did making left and right shoes begin? In essence your shoes are historically accurate but for a modern foot.
Lauren: Yes, that’s right. Historically, shoes before about 1600 were made with left and right lasts, but these were flat shoes. It gets complicated when heels are added, and it’s much easier to make and apply heels to a straight than to make mirrored left and right (“crooked”). So most heeled shoes up until the early 19th century were made straight, though there is evidence for “crooked” flat-heeled shoes in the 18th century. The invention of the mirror lathe and increased attention to foot health changed all this, but shoemakers and shoe factories were slow to adopt the technology, so both straights and left/right shoes were being made contemporarily for decades because of the investment needed to create all-new lasts and heels.
Today, we make all of our shoes left/right. There are a couple major reasons for this – first is that leather tanning has changed significantly and leather does not mold to the foot the way it used to, so shoes made as straights today will not act in the expected and necessary way to produce a comfortable, wearable shoe. We have to balance modern expectations of comfort, fit, and wearability, and we simply won’t produce something we know will cause pain.
Sabrina: You began with 18th century footwear. What was the next era you created for?
Lauren: The first two shoes we made were a satin and a leather 18th century design. The next was a Regency pointed-toe slipper, then we went to our first Edwardian design, Astoria, which is one we still make today.
Sabrina: The 1920 styles seem easier to come by in historical footwear hunting. I have seen many companies create the T-straps and the like. When did you first start to create shoes from the 1920’s and why?
Lauren: I agree that ’20s style shoes are the easiest to find. This is because the ’20s, in so many sartorial ways, is the furthest decade back in time that we can still really connect to as 21st century people. The clothing can still be worn today without being too far away from what’s in fashion. Footwear-wise, industrialization and fashion produced the straight-sided Spanish and Cuban heels that replaced hand-made French heels by the mid-1920s. Very similar heel shapes are still made today, or close enough, and are excellent heights and shapes for dancing, which is why we still see a lot of 1920s-style shoes in ballroom dancing, for instance.
The first 20s design American Duchess made was 23Skidoo in 2013. We didn’t produce any more specifically ’20s shoes until we branched off Royal Vintage in 2015. Mostly this was because many of the older Edwardian styles still work for the ’20s, but there was also a lot more competition with those “close enough” shoes, so we spent more time and attention on older designs we felt were really missing in the marketplace. That being said, I got the question “where can I buy 1920s or vintage shoes?” a LOT on social media and I was referring those potential customers to other shops with “close enough” styles. I realized this was kind of silly, so we opened Royal Vintage in 2015 to offer 1920s, 30s, and 40s designs.
“The ’20s, in so many sartorial ways, is the furthest decade back in time that we can still really connect to as 21st century people.“
Sabrina: It seems to me that retro clothing is more popular than ever. Have you seen an upswing in trends and sales? Why do you think that is?
Lauren: I think you’re right, and there is definitely a mainstream trend for vintage fashion. Part of it is the whole 2020-1920 thing, but designers have been looking backwards for decades. It’s not a new thing. For instance, leg-o-mutton sleeves are all the rage right now, recycling obviously 1890s and 1830s designs. There’s an interesting dynamic in fashion history that links whimsy and strong expression in dress with societal/economic unrest or uncertainty. You can see it in the 1930s, 1890s, 1830s, and 1790s. It’s difficult to say if this is going on right now; it may be as much related to social media tribes and our culture being more accepting of alternative styles of dress, too. That’s two ways to look at it – a pessimistic one and an optimistic one! I think fashion historians in the future will form interesting hypotheses about this period, though.
Sabrina: Do certain eras have more demand than others?
Lauren: Any era that can be worn as a “crossover” into modern style does really well for us. Thankfully, “historybounding” is now a thing and people are becoming more comfortable wearing more unique styles, like 18th century latchet shoes, as everyday wear. Still, our most popular category is Edwardian. They’re very attractive by modern standards and also quite sturdy.
Sabrina: What is the latest year you create from?
Lauren: We categorize “1940s” on the website, but some of our ’40s shoes can go well into the 1950s, like “Marilyn” Pinup Pumps and “Claire” Oxfords.
Sabrina: How do you research, create and replicate your shoes?
Lauren: We mix a heady cocktail of museum collection research, shoes from our own archive, polling for what’s missing, wanted, or needed in the marketplace, tracking trends within historical costuming, vintage fashion, and mainstream fashion, and looking at our own sales data from over the years. This helps us decide on new styles. We then create a specification booklet with as much information, drawings, and photos we can include for the prototyping. If we have an original shoe or something very close to it, we will sometimes send that to the factory to help inform the design. This is particularly helpful when something has side-buttons, no toe boxes, or a specific heel shape. After prototyping we’ll usually go a few rounds making tweaks to the design and fitment until we get something that looks historical but is also wearable and comfortable by modern standards. It has to hit the emotional buttons too! Sometimes a design on paper just doesn’t come out in three dimensions and we either have to keep working on it or we scrap it. Intuition is really important through the sampling phase because if there’s anything at all bugging Nicole or me in the backs of our minds, we have to pay attention and fix it, otherwise the design won’t sell well because something is “off.”
“There’s an interesting dynamic in fashion history that links whimsy and strong expression in dress with societal/economic unrest or uncertainty. You can see it in the 1930s, 1890s, 1830s, and 1790s.“
Sabrina: What can you tell us about the merger with Royal Vintage Shoes? They are out of the UK correct? What prompted this?
Lauren: I’m sorry for the confusion on this one, but this is actually exactly why we’re merging. Royal Vintage and American Duchess are and have always been the same team/factory/location, but legally we were two different entities. I initially wanted to split Royal Vintage off as a brand because we had a slightly different goal. Royal Vintage shoes originally had rubber street-soles instead of leather.
They were aimed at a different demographic, were less expensive, and less “hardcore” with the historical accuracy. We intended to be primarily wholesale too. We started Royal Vintage in 2015 offering a selection of vintage style shoes from other vendors like Chelsea Crew, b.a.i.t., Aerosoles, and Miss L Fire, but by the end of 2016 we were already manufacturing our own line and phased out the other brands. We tried to stick to the plan with wholesale but there have been some major swings in the fashion world around brick & mortar and direct-to-retail models, and our wholesale business never really came to fruition. We had a few accounts, but for the most part the majority of our sales came through our own website, so we focused on that. Fast-forward to 2019, and we phased out rubber soles for all-leather due to customer demand, so it no longer made sense to keep the brands separate. Add on top of that a general confusion amongst our fans and customers, double costs for licensing, insurance, websites, phone lines, subscriptions, and many more business operating costs, and managing separate social media accounts for two companies and it just got to be too much. We decided to streamline and so we’re combining everything into one new website!
Sabrina: Since we are now in the 2020’s, are there any new shoes being released with the 1920’s in mind that you can share with us ( Yes, I did vote when you sent out the email earlier this year!)?
Lauren: We’ve been running a lot of polls lately, indeed! We have a few new designs in prototyping, but we’re not fully settled on any of them yet. Most excitingly, though, is that we’re molding a new ’20s/’30s heel shape right off an original and it is looking gorgeous. We’ll use the new heel quite a lot, and perhaps first on a strappy sandal (hint hint).
Sabrina: What does the future hold for American Duchess?
Lauren: 2020 is a year of major change for us. We’re merging the two brands, which will streamline everything, but it’s a ton of work to get there! It’s the right thing to do though. Additionally, we’re opening up two new factories in Portugal and we hope to release new styles made in Portugal in Spring 2021, but it may as early as Fall 2020 if we’re lucky. We’re working on adding a bunch of new styles, which includes new men’s designs as well, plus potentially an expanded size range on some of our best sellers. There’s a new, vastly-improved website in the pipeline as well, which will have sort-by filters (finally!) and much better layaway options, among other things. We’re also starting to look at better shipping and fulfillment options for our European customers. That’s a lot! But we have an amazing team, and the future looks bright.
California native Sabrina Cardoso has dressed for almost every century with her wide knowledge of historical fashions and participations in period reenactments (you can find her starring as Mary Fleming, cousin of the Queen and head lady-in-waiting across many local Scottish Guild events). She also runs Timeless Elegance, an insightful Facebook Page featuring historical archives on beauty and fashion.