Better living through fabulous shoes: Conversations with American Duchess Created by wilhelminaframe on 12/18/2012 4:34:12 AM
Editrix de Mode Wilhelmina Frame interviews Lauren Reeser of the blog and historical shoe brand, American Duchess.
After trying and failing to find the right shoes for her historical garments, blogess Lauren Reeser solved the problem herself by launching American Duchess, a historical footware brand. Editrix de Mode Wilhelmina Frame talks with Ms. Reeser about the costuming obsession, Steampunk and of course, shoes.
Wilhelmina Frame: I’m speaking with Lauren Reeser of American Duchess. We’re going to talk a little bit about historical fashion and American Duchess. My first question for you Lauren is how did you become interested in historical fashion?
Lauren Reeser: Well I went to a Renaissance Faire which sounds really cliché but that’s the truth. When I was in high school my mom and I went to Valhalla Renaissance Fair in Lake Tahoe, just in regular clothes. I was so taken with the beautiful big velvet gowns. Now I know that those women must have been dying. It was so hot and dirty. But I thought, “They’re so beautiful” and I instantly wanted to make one even though I had absolutely no sewing skill whatsoever. But I was determined. So we went to the fabric store and I bought some really nasty synthetic velvet and a pattern for a bodice that had a zipper up the back and horrible construction. I made it and it was terrible but I wore it and I was so happy and proud. After that, you know how it is, you either love historical costuming or you don’t want anything to do with it. I loved it and it’s become an obsession, an addiction and now a business so I can justify it. It was all downhill from there.
WF: You started out the way a lot of us do. You just tried it and didn’t necessarily “know” anything.
LR: I knew nothing.
WF: But you loved the look of it.
LR: I don’t really know why. When I was a kid I was a major tomboy. I was determined I would never wear a dress ever and now it’s how many dresses can I fit in my closet?
WF: So you started out with this ren faire thing. Where did you go after that?
LR: I spent one summer researching. I was house sitting for my parents. I ended up staying longer than I expected so I was trapped in their house for a month and a half. I was researching everything, Renaissance clothing, 18th century. This was before Google. Whoa. I was on AOL searching for dresses. I bought the Simplicity Shakespeare in Love pattern and promptly broke my sewing machine trying to make it. I particularly loved the research that goes into it. Find the strange little bits of knowledge like the history of sequins or my most recent thing is that I bought a fluter on eBay. Now I’m fluting things at 2 o’clock in the morning. I really love learning about the social context as well as the construction, the materials used and trying to feel that when you were these things, assuming you get to the point where you can wear them. Sometimes it goes in the trash or goes to the bottom of the closet but most of the time I try to finish everything and wear it. Some things you love and some things you hate. It’s all a journey and a hobby and a craft. I can’t help myself and I’m sure we’re all kind of the same.
WF: The 18th century seems to be where you’ve landed as your specialty. What is it about the 18th century fashion that appeals to you?
LR: I think it’s just so glamorous. The design and balance of the gowns; I want to put it on my body and wear it around. The pannier, the huge petticoats, everything. That’s not to say that I don’t love other periods of fashion. I really love Elizabethan, the 1930s. I’m getting into Victorian right now. I’ve done bits and bobs from most periods back to Elizabeth. But in the 18th century, everything from the trim to the textiles fascinates me. I feel a strong connection to the French Revolution. I was a reading a book called Queen of Fashion. It talks about how clothing fit into the French Revolution and the meanings it had. We do have some of these meanings today. But in terms of how important that is in our society versus the French at the end of the 18th Century, it blows my mind. Trying to experience this through dress.
WF: Can you explain a little bit about what you would see the 18th century that you don’t see in modern fashion? I know colors played a big part in showing your sympathies.
LR: We do have it a little bit in modern times. Like red and blue near an election. Or for some people wearing a rainbow shirt says you’re homosexual. It shifts around. It was similar in the 18th century in France. Certain colors were associated with royalists and certain colors were associated with revolutionaries, obviously red and blue but also white. But white was also the color of the king. The red, white and blue cockade was supposed to symbolize the common people plus the king. But the king, he ended up with his head chopped off so it didn’t really work for him in the end.
WF: He was a little uncommon I think.
LR: Black and green. Purple. Those were royalist colors. If you were caught in Paris wearing black or wearing green particularly – that was the color of Artois, a reviled politician – you might end up bloodied on the street.
WF: How did your research and journeys turn into American Duchess?
LR: It started as a blog. Originally it was called The Barn Owl Gown. I wanted to make this huge feathered dress for Halloween. I was going to document this and be a blogger. So I did it and I got to the end of that dress, and I wanted to keep blogging but I couldn’t keep calling the blog The Barn Owl Gown. It doesn’t make sense. The film The Duchess had just come out in theaters. I thought it was awesome, except for the plot. So the name American Duchess stuck, I changed the name of the blog and started blogging about things I didn’t know anything about. That sounds bad! What I mean is that I didn’t know how to make a hedgehog wig so I endeavored to find out. I couldn’t find much information on how to do these hairstyles online so I decided to experiment and blog about it. Then I can share what I’ve learned and I’m still learning as it turns out. So I was hoping that if other people needed that information too that it would help them. That was 2008.
As far as turning that into a business, I had a really hard time finding shoes that I liked and that were comfortable. I had some period shoes that were not comfortable and when I went to look for alternatives I didn’t find anything. One night my partner was telling me how easy it was to go online and source a factory overseas. I thought shoes! I can make shoes! Thinking back on that now, that’s insane. Where did I get that idea? It was only because I was obsessing about footwear at that time. I checked it out and didn’t get the answers I wanted but I was stuck on it. Eventually I found somebody who would make a prototype and a run of 200 shoes. Two hundred shoes are miniscule. People won’t even talk to you for that number. I used the blog to see what people thought of this idea and took polls to see what people wanted. It took months to get the prototype but we finally launched a product in April 2011. That product was Georgiana, a dyeable, 18th century pump with a little French heel and it did really well.
I absolutely love working with shoes. They’re infinitely fascinating. It’s something that someone put their foot in and walked around in. They have a lot of soul. That sounds cheesy cause shoes have soles. They have spirits in them.
WF: When you’re working with a new style, from conception to when it’s in someone’s hands, how does that process go?
LR: It starts with what people want.
WF: It doesn’t start with what you want?
LR: Sometimes…We’ve always been keen on asking people what they want and looking at what will sell very well. That’s the hard business line there. I’ll go for things I call stunners, the Astoria with its beautiful double crossed lattice straps versus just a shoe with cross straps or a mary jane. I steer away from things like mary janes because it’s something that you can go down and get in a store. Something that approximates it. If you’re on a budget and you can go to Payless and get something that will work, you will go to Payless. So I balance that with design, the speed in which I can get things out. After I decide what we’re going to do I’ll do a spec sheet. It’s a detailed drawing pointing out everything that I think the factory needs to know about that shoe. Things like the thickness of the sole, the material of the sole, the material of the upper and lining, shape of the toe or the last, closures, where the seams are what kind of trim is on it. The most specific I can be the better. I’ll send that off to the factory and they’ll make some samples from it. Usually I’ll make some corrections on the sample. Sometimes we’ll do a second sample. A third, a fourth, how ever many it takes. After that, it comes to my door and I try it on. I have everything sampled in my size. I have a very average foot, 7 1/2 , B width. I’ll have someone else try it on. See how it feels. And if it’s a go [my partner] Chris photographs it and we put it on the website. I spew my marketing everywhere. Hey, everyone come and get it! And hopefully they come and pre-order, which takes a lot of faith and I really appreciate it because that’s what makes us able to make the order with the factory. 45 days later, or more, we hopefully get some shoes that are lovely that we can send out to people who have pre-ordered. What is left is sold on our website in the store at full price until we’re sold out.
WF: You’ve got a shoe in pre-order right now that would be of great interest to lots of steampunks, the Tavistock. Tell me about the Tavistock.
LR: After we did our first shoe, Georgiana, I did a poll asking what people wanted, listed some shoes but I also had a field where you could write in your own answer. A very large group of people asked for button boots. I thought, oh lordy, that’s going to be very difficult to do because of the fit. So I put it off but I kept getting requests through email and facebook. The first thing I did was research who had button boots and it turns out nobody has button boots. And by that I mean no zipper. You have to use a buttonhook to get this on your foot there’s none unless you have them made bespoke. That is like dangling a carrot.
The boot has a lovely pointed toe. The buttons were a lucky find. I bought some original boot buttons and sent them over. They managed to find or create metal shank buttons, which apparently don’t exist these days.
They’ve been really successful. We’ve sold about a hundred so far and everyday we get new orders. I already put the order in for them so they will be arriving at the end of January. We’ve got the regular calf size and the wide calf and hopefully that will fit the mast majority of our lovely customers. They are so cool. I just love the way they look on the foot. They are so different than anything that’s available today.
WF: Is the pre-order still going on?
LR: It’s going until December 21, 2012. It is limited at this point. We did a run of 300 on these and if they are successful we’ll do it again and probably in other colors as well.
WF: Is the Tavistock the first Victorian shoe you’ve done.
LR: Yeah, it’s the first Victorian hard core shoe but it also does go to about 1918 before people stopped wearing them. It covers quite a span. With the shape of the toe and the height of the heel shank it’s very much a late Victorian shoe 1880 to 1920. I think steampunks would love them.
WF: Since you mentioned it, what do you think of Steampunk?
LR: I think it’s awesome. I love the fantasy element to it. Historical costuming is wonderful but it can get a little tedious sometimes. You’re bound by historical accuracy. With Steampunk, it’s like a free-for-all. You can be as creative, as goofy, as off the wall or colorful as you want. There really are no rules or at least limited rules. You still want the Victorian aesthetic but how you achieve that is kind of personal.
I got into Steampunk in the Bay Area. I went to a ball that had a Steampunk theme. Everyone was wearing really cool stuff and I thought this is so awesome. When I moved back to Reno I brought the costuming scene with me. I didn’t want to give up dancing and going to picnics and teas. There were a lot of events and dress up groups but not one cohesive thing. I started a costume club called the Great Basin Costume Society. We also discovered there was a Steampunk club in Reno. We joined forces and put on a ball, the Victorian Steampunk Ball at Piper’s Opera House. Piper’s Opera House is an amazing original location in Virginia City. It’s dilapidated and leaning to one side. It’s amazing and haunted and dirty and great. It was a roaring success. People came out of the woodwork from Reno and Carson City wearing Steampunk stuff. We had people coming from Oregon and Sacramento to go to this ball. It blew my mind. So it’s become a regular thing. This was our second year.
I love that it’s going mainsteam, although some people hate that because they don’t want it to fizzle out. I love watching Castle and seeing Steampunk. Everything I ever wanted! It’s Nathan Fillion and Firefly and Castle and Steampunk. Yes! Awesome! I absolutely love the blend of historical and fantasy and the whole world it fits in. It’s so cool.
WF: Is Steampunk also driving some of your interest in Victorian fashion in general?
LR: That’s a good question! I have to admit the gown I’m working on now, it’s a big huge green bustle gown, will be historical but maybe it will have a bit of steampunkyness to it. They feed each other.
WF: I think you referred to the research angle as “the rabbit hole”. I think a lot of us who have become enthusiasts, especially of historical costuming, that’s what happens. You become interested in something is particular and it leads you to something else and you keep going and going and going. You’re really never going to run out of something to do. You may decide you don’t like this period or that. Otherwise it’s pretty endless, especially if you’re willing to stray away from straight historical interpretation and start mashing them all up together or pulling in pure fantasy elements or existing characters. It’s a lot of fun.
LR: Don’t get in the way of someone’s hobby. It’s their passion. It’s what they want to spend their free time doing. The point is to have fun, to scratch that itch you have to make something or to wear something beautiful and feel that. Whatever your motivation is, make sure you’re enjoying it, having a good time and fulfilling that passion.
WF: To wrap up, what do you see for American Duchess in 2013?
LR: I’m so excited about 2013. I’ve got 12 styles in the pipeline, Regency, 1860s, more Edwardian and 18th century stuff. We have this new factory and they’re really great. I got a handle on new and improved dyeable fabric. I want to do more styles. I want to reach more women who had the same issue I had finding the footwear to go with their gowns. Nothing sucks more than wearing a gorgeous big 1860s ballgown and having your tennis shoes on underneath it because you can’t find appropriate footwear. Or wearing something that maybe isn’t comfortable definitely doesn’t look right. American Duchess is a social thing. I like to talk to women and see what they want and see if I can provide it for them. I like to think of it as feeding the community something that wasn’t there before and building community through that. I don’t want to stop. Failure is not an option. As long as the world needs historical or vintage style shoes, hopefully they will get them from me because I want to be hard core about the details and make some stunning footwear that appeals to both a modern sensibility and historical accuracy. That’s my goal. Keep it going. Stay in business.
You can pre-order the Tavistock boot and shop the entire American Duchess line here. Follow Lauren's costuming adventures at her blog .
All images courtesy of American Duchess.
Editrix de Mode and Part Time Lion Tamer, Wilhelmina Frame travels the globe in pursuit of adventure and style. When not in the circus ring with Rajah, her tiger and the rest of her “Kitten Kabal” (seven lions, three cheetahs and a rather droll panther), Ms. Frame can be seen at the most fabulous parties, in the latest fashions, sparkling with wit in conversation. Ms. Frame is the founder and Tiffin Master of The American Tea Duelling Society. Ms. Frame's alter-ego, Gretchen Jacobsen, is a freelance producer, award-winning costumer, prolific crafter and frequent convention panelist. She sings quite well also. Visit the home of The American Tea Duelling Society on Facebook, follow Ms. Frame on Pinterest or @ptliontamer on Twitter.