“When I was in high school, I got into vintage clothing,” says Lauren Stowell. “One thing led to another and you end up at a Renaissance fair with your mother. When that happens you either go ‘This is great’ or ‘This is lame.’ I went the ‘This is great’ route.”
Stowell particularly enjoyed the historical research aspect of dressing up, looking at original garments and reading up on them wherever she could. A trained illustrator and freelance designer, Stowell had been sketching “tchotchkes and stuff you buy in a Hallmark shop” when she realized historical footwear was something people needed and couldn’t make for themselves.
She began in 2009 with a single product: the Satin 18th-century shoe. It sold like hot cakes. In April 2011, she introduced two more styles, and by year three she added 13 new styles.
But it took “maybe a year before I realized we were selling to stage and film,” says Stowell. Her company, American Duchess, ships directly to wardrobe supervisors and staff at production houses. “Sidney Shannon [head shopper for the costume shop at the Met Opera] ordered 15 pairs of shoes from us and I lost my mind.”
To date, American Duchess’ shoes have hit the decks of Broadway productions such as the 2016 revival of Les Liaisons Dangerouses, Bandstand, Dr. Zhivago, and Fiddler on the Roof and her buckles grace the feet of actors in Hamilton. “Phantom’s been a customer for years now and we’ve sent stuff all over the country matching up with their tour whenever they need things or they have a new principal,” Stowell says. She’s caught her styles on the screen, too, in shows like Alias Grace and Outlander.
There’s a reason high-profile costume designers choose American Duchess. “We come at it from a research angle because nobody’s really done that before,” says Stowell. “It has to be accurate. Our customers are historic consumers and re-enactors. A lot of historic sites buy our shoes and if we get one thing wrong we hear about it and the shoes don’t sell well.”
And Stowell has done well to capture her niche market. “There’s us and one other company that makes shoes that actually have 18th-century latches or actually button,” she says. “We’re the only company that makes button boots that function with a button hook and don’t have zippers. It’s one of the things we’re known for.”
As she did when she was a teenager, Stowell pours over research to ensure her shoes’ authenticity. Museums around the world feature original shoes in their collections and put them online; she references online collections from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and has gone in person to view shoes at the L.A. County Museum of Art. “There’s also tons and tons of prints, paintings,” she adds. “There’s a shoe-making manual, primary sources the 18th century, from Victorian era, Edwardian, old advertisements, old Boot and Shoe Recorder [catalogs], trade magazines—just a huge wealth of information where you can reference and cross-reference things, stuff about how shoes were constructed, which was quite different from today.”
When it comes to creating a world onstage, costume designers rely on American Duchess for precision because of the look, but the authentic construction and feel also informs actors as they build their characters. “We want to understand what our ancestors or ancestresses were feeling in their lives when they wore their clothes,” says Stowell.
“When I dress up, and I do it correctly from the skin out, where I'm wearing all of the underpinnings, and I've hand-sewn the dress, and then I put on the shoes, and I buckle them or I button them, and I have that experience, that's an experience that somebody 100 or 200 years ago also had.
“It's a very real feeling of beginning to understand the women in the past, and how they lived their lives through dress.”