Monday, September 18, 2017

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The American Duchess Guide - Previews!

Lovelies, we are so excited to finally be able to give you all a sneak preview and some behind-the-scenes info on our upcoming book, The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking.

We want to thank everyone for supporting our effort so far - thanks to you, The American Duchess Guide has reached #1 Bestseller on Amazon in the "Sewing" category. Woohoo!!

This video is the first in a series of "chats" about the book - motivation, inspiration, intention, and later on some more in-depth info about each of the gowns we chose and how the projects went.

The book is currently available to pre-order on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other major booksellers. It's available through Amazon in Europe, Australia, Canada, and other countries, so you don't need to purchase from the USA.

Make this gown, step-by step!
We *will* be selling signed copies on on November 21st, if you'd like your book to have a bit of Lauren&Abby chicken-scratch on the opening pages. ;-) We will also be attending events and book signings but we don't have settled dates on any of those yet. We'll keep you posted!
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Friday, September 15, 2017


The American Duchesses: A Tale of Two Consuelos

Hello Lovelies!

Welcome to part two of our stories of  real life American Duchesses, rich stateside socialites who married into the British aristocracy. Today we have the Tale of Two Consuelos.

The first is Consuelo Yznaga, was born in New York to a Cuban father & American mother. Through her father there were close connections to Spanish aristocracy and a great deal of wealth. She married George Montagu, Viscount Mandeville, who later became the Duke of Manchester. Thus, Consuelo became the Duchess of Manchester. Consuelo was also one of the real "Buccaneers". She passed away in 1909.
Consuelo Yznaga, Duchess of Manchester, 1907, John Singer Sargent
The Manchester Tiara, which Consuelo commissioned Cartier to make, is in the Victoria and Albert collection and it's amazing.   

Manchester Tiara, 1903, Cartier, V&A
As it turns out the Duchess of Manchester was super besties with Alva Smith Vanderbilt who is actually the mother to the second Consuelo. And yes, she was named after the Duchess of Manchester, who was the godmother to Consuelo Vanderbilt.

Consuelo Vanderbilt was born March 2, 1877 in New York, heiress to an immense railroad fortune. Her mother was apparently very controlling and manipulative, pressuring her to marry Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, by locking her in her room and pretending to be on her death bed. I feel bad for Consuelo - supposedly she was already secretly engaged to another man, but her mother won that battle of wills and she married the Duke in 1895. It wasn't too long before it was marriage in name only, and eventually they had the marriage annulled. Consuelo re-married for love to Jacques Balsan, a French textile manufacturing heir.  

Consuelo Vanderbilt, Duchess of Marlborough, 1903, Paul César Helleu
Even though her marriage to the Duke of Marlborough failed, Consuelo still kept close connections with the Spencer-Churchill family, especially Winston Churchill. Consuelo relocated to Florida around 1932, and spent the last part of her life living in the United States. She passed away in 1964. 

Consuelo Vanderbilt, c. 1890 (?)

Conseulo Vanderbilt wrote about her life and experiences in her own book "Glitter and the Gold: The American Duchess, in Her Own Words."

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Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Real American Duchesses: Part 1

Hello Lovelies!

As you all know, this blog and shoe company are called American Duchess - but would you believe we're not the first American Duchess(es) to exist? Nope! Indeed, there have been many American Duchesses over the years, from real women to a race horse, oil company, and line of fine cigars.

Perhaps the first common usage of the term "American Duchess" arose in the 19th century, when it became "a thing" for wealthy American socialites to marry broke English lords. The ladies got the status while the gentlemen got the money. If this sounds familiar, it was the premise for the marriage between Cora and Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey.

The term "American Duchess" on our side of the pond - the American side - became a colloquialism for this kind of pan-Atlantic match regardless of the actual title of the ladies involved. Some were actual Duchesses while others could claim less - or greater! - titles. With that being said, and much to the chagrin of proper English folks everywhere, we share with you the stories of some of our favorite, notable "American Duchesses."

Meet Jennie Jerome, who became Lady Randolph Spencer-Churchill. Lady Churchill was born in Brooklyn, New York to Leonard & Clara Jerome. Her father's success in stock market speculation and investments meant that she grew up in wealthy aristocratic circles in Europe and New York. She married Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill in 1874, and became the mother to Winston Churchill. Turns out she was also, ahem, quite popular in aristocratic circles, and developed a lot of political and social connections this way. These political connections seem to be quite beneficial to Winston's career as an adult. She was also just stunning:

Photography by Henry Van Der Wyde, 1874-80s 

Portrait c. 1880

Lord Randolph died in 1895, leaving Jennie a widow and a bit of a saucy cougar. Her second marriage was to George Cornwallis-West, who was the same age as her son, Winston, in 1900. Sadly, things fell apart over time, and they divorced in 1914. She married a third time to Montagu Phippen Porch, who was 3 years younger than her son Winston Churchill, in 1918.

Outside of her love life, Jennie seems to have been an incredibly inspiring person. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross in 1902 for her services during the Second Boer War, published a memoir in 1908, was an avid playwright for West End productions, and edited a quarterly magazine, "The Anglo-Saxon Review" for a few years.

Jennie died in 1921, after a failed amputation attempt from an infection in her leg. She was 67 years old.

In my opinion, Jennie seems like she would have been an incredible woman to have been acquainted with during her lifetime, and is a great example of an "American Duchess."

Finally, just wanted to share this picture of her son, Winston, from the 1890s, when he was smokin' hot.

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Monday, September 4, 2017

Tulip Fever - Hello, Early 17th Century

Holliday Granger as Marie in "Tulip Fever."
Lauren here -

This past weekend, we went to see "Tulip Fever," a film set in 1630s Amsterdam. Though the movie suffers from mixed reviews, for historical costumers it's a feast for the eyes. Beautiful, very accurately made and worn garments, beautiful sets and lighting, excellent's one to add to your list of good-to-sew-by costume flicks.

While I too felt mixed about the plot (being business-minded I did wish there was more focus on the wacky tulip trade and not so much on the wacky love triangles), I couldn't help but be seduced by the clothing. Costume designer Michael O'Connor is famed for such fabled films as "The Duchess" and "Jane Eyre," and has produced in "Tulip Fever" another insanely rich and detailed depiction of early 17th century Dutch clothing.

A very 1630s gown with the "new" broad, soft silhouette, appropriate for the scene - a portrait being painted, so the height of fashion.
So of course now I want to make my own. Although I've always been drawn to the very late 16th century and early 17th century, I have made very little from that span and nothing at all from the 1620s or 1630s. "Tulip Fever" takes place in the mid 1630s and the styles of garments vary just as they did then. The 1630s seems to be a very transitional period with all sorts of change in silhouette, rigidity vs. softness, volume, etc. The film depicts this very well.

Anonymous - Portrait of Mertijntje van Ceters, 1623
Portrait of Catharina van Voorst Paulus Moreelse - 1628
Elisabeth (or Cornelia) Vekemans As A Young Girl - this date I believe is a little earlier
Cornelis de Vos Elisabeth (or Cornelia) Vekemans as a Young Girl, c. 1625
This specific period of dress holds a lot of mystery. It's not particularly well-studied and hardly represented at all in the historical costuming hobby. Angela Mombers does it wonderfully and her recently completed 1620 outfit is so inspiring that I'm feeling a neeeeeeeed to explore this period at last.

Angela from Walking Through History with Jasper and Angela 
So off I go. I have a couple books with scant resources. The two most fantastic in my library are Seventeenth-Century Women's Dress Patterns: Book 1 and Book 2, and I also have a little help from The Cut of Women's Clothes. The late 1620s, early 1630s are somewhat skipped by my other references. If anyone has book recommendations for me, please comment!

It feels good to be stepping into a new period of dress history. I've been laser-focused on the 18th century for years now, and I do love love love it beyond everything, but it's good to step out of one's comfort zone at time too. I'm nervous....I don't automatically know all the stitches or what order to do things in or the proper this-and-that, but that's all part of the fun, right? Wish me luck. <3
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Monday, August 28, 2017

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New Cotton Striped Stockings, Oh YEAH!

Storyville portrait, New Orleans, c. 1912. Portrait by E. J. Bellocq.
Who doesn't love a good striped stocking?

The Georgians, Victorians, and Edwardians sure did! Striped stockings of various colors - some loud, some more demure - have been in fashion for several hundred years now, right up until today. Why are we so draw to wearing striped hosiery?

Stockings, The Met, late 19th century. Cotton. C.I.56.10.5a,b
Stockings, The Met, late 18th c - early 19th c. C.I.44.8.13a,b
Stockings, The Met, 19th century, silk. C.I.54.7.7a,b
We're thrilled to announce the first addition of striped cotton OTK (over-the-knee) socks into our Accessories shop. These super-stretchy, heavy-ish stockings feature bright colors in ribbed knit.

Stockings, OTK, cotton - green and black rib knit.

Stockings, OTK, cotton, yellow and black rib knit
You can wear these vertical-striped stockings for so many things. They'll work for late 18th century and late 19th century, particularly the 1890s, when all manner of brightly-colored, wackadoodle legwear was en vogue.

Also wear these stockings for Harry Potter cosplay, Halloween, or just because they're freakin' awesome. Check them out:

Click me like one of your French girls, Just kidding - striped stockings aren't just for Edwardian prostitutes, promise.

Hufflepuff stockings, or bumblebee stockings, or Victorian stockings because they totally wore these crazy things under their prim dresses.

The End. <3
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Friday, August 25, 2017


Introducing Nicole Rudolph, Footwear Designer

We are beyond excited to officially announce the newest addition to the American Duchess / Royal Vintage team: Nicole Rudolph!

Many of you will know Nicole from her blog Diary of a Mantua Maker. Some of you will have also met her at Colonial Williamsburg and Costume College.

Nicole is not only an amazing mantua-maker and tailor, but an incredibly skilled historic shoemaker. Her research, know-how, and epic level of taste make her a real jewel in our tiara, and we could not be more excited to be working with her.

Here's a bit more about Nicole in her own words...

Tell us about how you got into historical costuming.

I have been interested in historical costuming since I was very young, making my first "historical" piece when I was 12- a purple crushed velvet Medieval gown with gold trim. It sounds terrible, but we all start somewhere! My mother is also an avid seamstress and taught me so much about sewing from an early age. From there I became responsible for costuming many of our high school's theatrical productions and went on to college for Technical Theatre at Ball State University. In designing a production of Cabaret I fell in love with researching historical costume and haven't been able to stop since!

What is your favorite period of dress?

My favorite era is probably the 1890s. I love the tailored looks that were so fashionable, as well as the absurdity of the sleeve proportions! So much changes in that one decade. But, the details, trim, and finishing of some of those garments is simply breathtaking. While no costume is ever "perfect", the closest I've come was with an 1890s jacket I made for steampunk a few years ago, so it's a bit of a sentimental time period for me as well.

An insane pair of 1920s shoes made by Nicole.

Did you go to school for historic costuming/dress? Have you done any training?

After college I worked at Colonial Williamsburg for about 8 years, starting in their Costume Design Center. I was fortunate to spend time learning tailoring, gown making, tent making, and even shoemaking from the tradespeople in Williamsburg. At the moment, I'm mid-way through graduate school, studying Fashion History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

What lead you to shoes and footwear? How did you learn how to make shoes?

While at Colonial Williamsburg, I was frustrated by the lack of 18th century shoe options that fit me (the dark, pre-American Duchess days) and signed up to take an 18th century shoemaking workshop from Brett Walker. It turns out I have unusually narrow feet and have a hard time fitting into many off-the-rack styles. The only way to solve this was to plunge into the world of shoemaking and six years later I'm now in process on my 26th pair of shoes (I may have lost count). It's not an easy trade to learn, and in fact my first pair of shoes was two sizes too large for me and I've only suffered to wear them once! The second pair I wore through completely, however. And the third, and the fourth. Turns out I walk a lot!

What are your plans for the future?

I'll be finishing up graduate school in a year or so, with my thesis focusing on mid-19th century shoes. I've had to take a break from producing shoes because of school (aside from a few exciting pairs this summer), so I look forward to opening the workshop up again. I was able to take a research trip up the East coast this summer to look at original shoes in a few museums, leaving me full of inspiration and technical ideas I want to experiment with. I can't wait to start applying the research I've been doing!

If you'd like to follow Nicole more, check her out...

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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Podcast Episode 11: Interview with Theatre/TV/Film Costumer Constance MacKenzie

Constance & Cathy Hay looking amazing at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath
Hello Lovelies!

Lauren and I had the pleasure of being introduced to Constance MacKenzie by Cathy Hay while we were at Costume College in August. It took all of about 5 minutes for us to develop a strong costumer girl crush on Constance. This girl has made incredible things happen throughout her career, and never took no for an answer.

She started her sewing journey attending Kentwell Hall's Tudor Days as a child and eventually becoming a reenactor & participant in the event. From there she secured a job at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, attending Wimbledon College of Arts for Costume Design, and eventually has worked her way into working on massive movies like....


She even got to be an extra in that scene when Diana is being outfitted in "proper" 1918 women's clothing. Constance is even in a gif!

See Constance?! She's measuring the customer in the background! Wee! 

While we don't get into a lot of nitty gritty history things with Constance, we thoroughly enjoyed hearing about her professional journey and we believe that she should be an inspiration to all young people who want to work in this field. Lauren and I both left the interview feeling inspired by Constance's drive and determination to follow her dreams and achieve her goals by being true to herself and working her bum off. 

Constance attending Tudor Days at Kentwell Hall

A selection of Ruffs made by Constance. She is a ruff queen! 

You can follow Constance on Facebook and Instagram!

Note: Thank you so much for all of your feedback both here, on facebook, and on iTunes - we are trying to figure out and better work with the sound issues (still a bit of a learning curve for me) - and while some steps have already been made, we are looking into other options so that way we can have better sound quality for all of our guests. <3
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Monday, August 21, 2017

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The "Jane Austen Goes to Ikea and then to Jane Austen Festival" Gown

This year was my first visit to Jane Austen Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, at beautiful Locust Grove historic site.

I had been to Locust Grove before on a rainy November afternoon rather a few years ago. I adored the house then, but longed to see it "brought to life" by this famous event.

I knew I would need a gown to handle the heat of Kentucky in Summer, something light and cool but also fashionable. It was an easy choice to explore the late 1790s after studying and creating the gown and millinery for the American Duchess Guide earlier this year.

My inspiration came from Kyoto Costume Institute, a couple of the transitional open robes in bold floral prints worn with white-work petticoats. While this direction was a bit more involved than the simpler round gown, I felt that the plainer petticoat would help balance the floral print.

The petticoat was an exercise in stash-busting - several different pieces put together and tea-stained for uniformity. It didn't come out quite how I'd hoped, but it gave the effect I was going for. I may revisit petticoat option later...
And yes, the floral is from Ikea. Huzzah for curtains! I was very happy with this textile - 100% cotton with a linen-ish look, lightweight enough for a gown, and with a pleasing design. My only quibble (if one can even quibble when one is using curtains for costuming) is that the design is screenprinted on and a little tough to get a needle through in some places.

I had originally planned to pleat the back skirt, but because I had already finished the bottom edge of the bodice and the top edge of the skirt, I stroke gathered and whipped the volume instead, which worked well with the sash and was secure and full enough for the right look.
The petticoat is a suspender style, opening on the side. Because of the sheerness of it I wore split drawers beneath, which may not be entirely accurate but they solved *many problems.*

The gown bodice is constructed on a linen lining and underbodice that pins at center front. The front - two pieces on drawstrings tying at center front - is then applied over the top. I love this transitional method so often seen on 1790s gowns, as it means you can use the same underbodice repeatedly and just do a different design over the top - surplice, bib front, gathered round or V-neck, etc. For reference, Abby's 1790s dinner gown is the very same bodice/underbodice, but how different these gowns look! It's merely a matter of what sleeve style/length, what front style, open robe or round gown? (Don't worry, we go over all of this fun in the book, too).

The bodice - top is the back, bottom is the front. You can see the linen left plain and just hemmed where it will later be covered by the gathered front pieces.
For the event, I wore the gown and petticoat with a silk sash, ruffled chemisette, and Dashwood Regency Slippers in brown/tan. In the morning I wore a Caroline hat I re-fashioned from an old straw hat (many are the bows. many!), then changed into the turban cap for our formal dinner.

Dashwood Regency Slippers in brown/tan for Saturday. I wore the black/black on Sunday.

A bit hard to see, but the straw Caroline hat served me well for sun protection and added fluff. Thank you to Tony Tumbusch for the photo <3
Best of all, I didn't die. We were lucky to have rather favorable weather this year, and my gown was comfortable and easy to wear, breathable, and quite cool. I was surprised to have been more comfortable on Saturday dressed as a lady in stays and petticoats than I was on Sunday as a sailor dressed in trousers and waistcoat!

For more information and tutorials on making your own 1790s gown and millinery, you'll love our upcoming 18th century costuming manual, The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking, now available to pre-order on Amazon. <3

Millinery and Accessories - the turban cap and chemisette are two pieces we made for the book. Coral necklace by K. Walters At the Sign of the Gray Horse.

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Friday, August 18, 2017


The Robe a la Turque - Part 2 - The Gown

Italian Gown in yellow silk taffeta worn with a ruffled voile apron and cap, and fashionable black silk hat with black "Dunmore" shoes. Mid-1780s.
One thing I love most in costuming is versatility. I love that our Georgian foremothers re-trimmed old gowns, refashioned old frocks, and mixed-and-matched their clothing and accessories in different ways to achieve different looks. Being able to wear something for more than one occasion is economical, and this was at the forefront of my mind in planning my Turkish-inspired costume.

In studying the portrait, I concluded that the costume was a throw-together of various pieces to hand. A gown here, a belt there, oooh a shiny sash, how about this polonaise robe, wait put some fur on it...there we go. I can just imagine the actors and actresses of Comedie Francaise raiding a big trunk of garments, assembling them into various "characters," like the Sultana here.

So that is what I did too.

I started with an Italian gown. Lucky for me, Abby cut a muslin 18th c. bodice on me recently and I was able to get straight to assembly after a quick test fit. I tweaked the front closure from center front pinning to overlapping on an angle, to create the fold-down lapels seen on the gown in the portrait.

The lapels of the bodice are lined in purple silk, trimmed with silver leaves.

The trim had to be applied to the purple lining silk prior to the assembling of the outer and lining fabrics, so no stitches showed through.
I also added Flippy-Flappies, which were tricky and needed fiddling more than once. Additionally, my diagonal "zone" seams went all wibbly-wobbly on me and I had to piece in some extra silk to make up for the gap. Still a mystery to me how that got quite so off!

Pinning a flippy-flappy into place on the muslin bodice front. I had to adjust these a couple times.
For the back, I stuck with the simple two-piece back rather than adding additional seams. This meant quicker assembly of the CB seam and an easy fitting through the two side-back seams. I even reference our own book (The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking) multiple times to be extra sure I was doing things in the right order and with the right seaming techniques.

Center back seam assembled with internal boning channels. I worked on the bodice over the split bum, which helped me curve the back waist edge down into the point.

The finished gown back. I pulled my stitched a little tight on the CB seam which caused a little rumplage - this is a watch point for you guys when working with thin silk!
One thing I really love about Italian Gowns is that they really do go together super fast. The longest process was in trimming and lining the front of the bodice to fold down into those lapels. Aside from that, once the front and back pieces were together, I pleated up the skirt, stitched it to the bodice, leaving the raw edges turned down on the inside, and hemmed it. The last steps were to set the sleeves (thanks, Abby!), apply the shoulder straps, and tack in the lace tucker.

Pleating up one side of the gown skirts. I didn't do a great job, to be honest. Better next time....

Last bit of gown construction - applying the shoulder straps after the sleeves have been fitted. This is fiddly, but it sure does feel good to get it done!
Just like that, the gown was down. It felt great to have something completed that I could wear if I did not finish all the rest of the pieces for the Turkish costume. And, of course, my favorite aspect is that it can be worn different ways - either as a fashionable outfit with a split bum, apron, hat, and cap, or snazzed up a la Turque.

The yellow Italian Gown worn as fashionable European dress. The bodice is pinned closed up to the neckline, hiding those trimmed lapels completely, especially with the breast bow. The gown skirt is tied up and the ensemble worn over a split bum and matching yellow silk petticoat with a fluffy voile apron. To finish the look, a large 1780s cap, black silk hat, and black "Dunmore" shoes and "Dandridge" buckles. There is nothing "Turkish" about this ensemble.
Fashionable dress, mid-1780s

...but can you believe this is the same gown? Here the gown is worn over bright pink shalwar (pants) and a high chemisette. While still worn over stays, I did not wear any hip or bum padding. I roughly tacked on a decorative front panel to the skirt, looped up to show the purple lining and silver trim, which tied in with the lapels of the bodice worn open. The addition of the blue robe, a few accessories, and a change of cap and shoes render this outfit ready for the stage.
Turkish-inspired stage costume, 1790.
Never fear - I know there's a lot more going on with the Turque than just the gown, and I have posts on the way for the poofy-pants, the robe, the accessories, etc. Stay tuned!

And if you'd like to learn how to make a late 18th century gown like this, pre-order a copy of our Georgian mantua-making and millinery manual, The American Duchess Guide to 18th Century Dressmaking, releasing November 21st. We present detailed how-to's within on how to make both caps, the apron, and the black silk hat that appear in this post, in addition to step-by-step instructions on constructing the Italian gown in the accurate 18th century way.
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