Lauren of American Duchess on Sewing and Style

I’m excited to bring a guest post by Lauren of American Duchess in my continuing series of guest posts exploring individual connections between sewing and style. I love drooling over Lauren’s beautiful historical creations and am excited to hear how sewing enables her love of historical fashion.

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My name is Lauren.  I am a designer and historical costumer primarily interested in Western fashions from the 16th century to the early 1960s.  I love to sew everything from bustle gowns to simple Mad Men style dresses.  I also design ladies’ historical footwear and accessories for my company, American Duchess.

Describe your style.

I always go for sort of “business-like” designs, so garments with structure and a smartness to them.  For the old stuff, I love riding habits and man-tailored garments, rather than very fluffy an ruffly stuff (there this is some of that too, haha).  For the vintage 20th century, I adore slim shift dresses and tailored suits.

Describe what you sew.

I sew historical clothing, anything from the 15th century to the early 1960s.  The vintage 20th century stuff is more what I consider nice clothing – I don’t think of those pieces as costumes, and I wear them pretty regularly just as normal clothes.  The older stuff is all over the place.  I’m mostly attracted to the really glamorous evening gowns of any particular era, but most of the events I go to require day appropriate styles, so I make a lot of those items as well.  With the historical, it’s not just the outfit you see on the outside, but all of the underpinnings that go with it – corset, petticoats, chemise, bloomers, etc – so I spend a lot of time working on those structural garments that give the whole look the right silhouette.

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What inspires or influences your style?

I’m inspired by history!  I spend way too much time cruising museum websites and Pinterest, looking at extant gowns from whatever time period is currently my obsession.  I’ll usually find something that makes my heart beat a little faster, and then I’ll want to make my own version of it.

I look at every day as a chance to play dress-up. How do you play dress-up?

I like to go to picnics, teas, dances, tours, etc., in costume, with members of our costume society.  We formed a local group just for that purpose, and will attend events in our area, such as Sugarpine Living History Day, Lake Tahoe Gatsby, Carson Rendezvous, Valhalla Renaissance Fair, and so on.  We also throw our own events, just so we can dress up, haha.  This year we’re doing a Titanic Tea, a Marie Antoinette Luncheon, and of course the big Steampunk Ball in Virginia City, NV.

How does your passion for sewing influence your style? 

Sewing allows you to create anything you want to wear.  When I first started sewing, I stuck to what was fashionable, and made clothes to wear to class, or out on dates.  Then fashion went its own way, and my tastes veered more towards vintage 1930s, 40s, and 50s, so I started making and wearing skirts and dresses with styling from those decades.  There’s a lot of pride that comes with making and wearing something yourself – it’s different that just buying something unique and wearing it.  I was once asked by a friend, “why do you wear old lady clothes?”  I had to laugh, but maybe a comment like that would have put me off if I hadn’t made those “old lady clothes” myself.  I think you just have to be comfortable about what you’re wearing, and sewing helps you “own” it.  I’ve been told more than once that I was overdressed for an occasion, and at first I became self-conscious, but then I started replying, “it’s not that I’m overdressed, sir, it’s that everyone else is abysmally UNDERdressed.”  That usually shuts them up. :-)

Does your passion for sewing influence the style of those around you?

Hrm, I don’t know.  I think when someone is dressed really nicely and appropriately for an occasion, it might make others feels uncomfortable, but the NEXT time, those under-dressed people make more of an effort.  I started dressing nicely for Christmas Day, one year, whenever everyone else was in the expected sweat pants and hoodies.  The next year, I couldn’t be bothered, so I just wore jeans and a t-shirt, but my sister-in-law had made the effort to dress up, and said, when she saw me in my casual clothes, “you didn’t dress up! I thought you would, so I dressed up too!”  I felt bad, haha!  Really I felt underdressed!

I think if people know you’re going to make the effort to look nice, they will as well.  It’s never a bad thing to be dressed nicely and appropriately for something – I mean, don’t wear a ballgown to an afternoon tea, because it’s not appropriate.  DO wear what someone in the ’50s or ’20s or whenever would have worn to the same event.  Others will begin to dress up too.

Has your style or sewing abilities changed with time?  

Oh yes.  Sewing abilities especially.  Of course, the more you do anything, the better at it you become.  My style has changed with age – I never felt hindered by ability when I wanted to make something; I’d just jump right in – I used to wear large, full 1950s style skirts, but now I go more for slim pencil skirt or straight skirt frocks.  In my historical stuff, I was really into 18th century jackets paired with walking-length (ankle or a little higher) skirts, but now I like full gowns with floor-length skirts better.  I suppose the historical garments I make now are better fitted and more complex in their trims than ever before.  I do a lot more hand sewing than I used to, and I’ll sit there and sew on sequins or truckloads of trim, when in the past I couldn’t be bothered.  The overall effect in the end, I feel, is more authentic.

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What about in the beginning: Did you learn to sew so that you could have a certain style?

Yes.  I liked vintage and retro style clothes, and I couldn’t find what I wanted in the stores.  I started sewing from patterns, then quickly went to altering patterns to get the looks I wanted.  In the historical arena, I started sewing so I could have a costume to wear.  On can buy costumes, sure, but not only are they expensive, but the historical accuracy is…not.

Does your style require that you are able to sew?

For the historical stuff, I would say yes.  Sewing allows me to make whatever comes into my mind, or whatever I find inspiring from history.  I can re-create a gown in a museum, a painting, a fashion plate, or one of my own design.  If you are buying each piece, you are really limited to what’s available.  There are plenty of ladies who have stuff custom made for them, but that becomes very expensive very quickly.  For my own ends, I don’t feel at ease wearing a historical costume I did not make myself.

For the vintage “everyday” stuff, no.  I like sewing from vintage patterns, but I also love wearing original vintage clothing, and even some of the retro stuff serves pretty well.  I think if you’re into vintage style, you don’t need to sew, but sewing does open up your wardrobe to endless possibilities.

Anything else you would like to say about sewing and style?

Hrm…well, sewing definitely becomes part of your life, but like anything, you have to enjoy it.  There are a lot of women who don’t actually like sewing, but feel obligated to do it.  It’s no longer necessary, the way it was in the past, so if you don’t really dig it, don’t do it.  It can be extremely rewarding, but also extremely frustrating.  Like anything, it is a craft skill, and needs to be honed.

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