Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mad Men Style

by guest contributor Christian Esquevin

The thing that makes Mad Men such a perfect television series is its “all-of-a-piece” quality. It has all of its elements operating at a high level and fully integrated into a drama geared towards adults. This goes well beyond high production values, or even great writing – it is a seamless creation mixing fascinating characters, interesting plots, evocative sets and costumes, a down-to earth reality needing no gratuitous violence. It is a perfectly pegged recreation of the Zeitgeist - not just of the world of advertising - but of urban America at the turn of the 1960s. Despite its very real display of sexism in society and in the workplace, including the very negative consequences of that mindset, Mad Men is mainly the story of one man and his perilous perch high atop the hierarchy of a corporate ad agency. The series title is a play on “ad men” and Madison Avenue, where the big ad agencies were located.

The opening title graphic and much of the show’s advertising uses the art and theme of a man falling from of a skyscraper. The new 5th season advertising art of the falling man in New York was printed on reflective plastic so it would show the surrounding skyscrapers as backdrop – causing a bit of a controversy by recalling bad memories of scenes from the Twin Towers. Regardless, it is no accident that the show’s creator Matthew Weiner was influenced by the aesthetics of Alfred Hitchcock. The character Don Draper is very much living a dilemma like Vertigo’s Scottie Ferguson, not because of a fear of heights like Jimmy Stewart, but rather of crumbling along with his stolen identity and the edifice he has constructed of his life. “Who is Don Draper” a reporter asked him in Season 4. Very few people know, and those characters have been mostly dying off, including the real Don Draper himself. In a rare display of self-analysis, Don took up a diary in a 4th season episode titled Summer Man: “When a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him. If you listen, he'll tell you how he got there. How he forgot where he was going, and that he woke up. If you listen, he'll tell you about the time he thought he was an angel or dreamt of being perfect. And then he'll smile with wisdom, content that he realized the world isn't perfect. We're flawed, because we want so much more. We're ruined, because we get these things, and wish for what we had.”

Mad Men is full of metaphors that enhance the theme of the show and add layers of meaning, but we are still trapped like voyeurs watching unfold a real life drama. One of those subtle metaphors is that Don seems to be the only person that carries keys. He can use them boldly when entering his domain, clumsily when he’s drunk, or nervously shaking them in his apartment door lock when he thinks the FBI is tailing him. At his low point, he forgets them completely and relies on his secretary to deliver them to his apartment, where she finds him asleep in the hallway. The show is all-of-a-piece because, in a story about how advertising creates images for products, the show creates images for the characters in the plot, and the characters are involved in creating their own images of themselves. As Don Draper says, “You are the product.” 

The Man with the voice - Jon Hamm as Don Draper
The show’s hallmark is its obsessive attention to visual detail. This provides the audience with a rich experience through the recreation of the early 1960s: the clothes people wore; the interior architecture of their offices and homes; and the sparkle of those material things that they crave. That re-creation of the era was taken so far by Matthew Weiner that he cast actors based on whether they had that late 1950s-early 1960s look. For example, Jom Hamm as Don Draper could not be a muscled actor, a rare trait in the early 1960s. Similarly, Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris needed to have a full-figured, hour-glass silhouette (though helped by padding). But Jon Hamm as Don Draper was the perfect choice, not only does he have the looks that slays the ladies, but he has the voice – that smooth deep soothing voice that could sell snowballs in Alaska.

The secretarial pool at Sterling Cooper
The set design recreates the world of the early 1960s when America had the world by its tail. The interior office architecture was planned not just for efficiency, but to show the benefits of modernity and the use of the same kinds of products the ad agency helps sell. The buildings were in the “International Style’ of modern architecture. The offices had wood paneling and Danish influenced furniture. The chairs and couches were streamlined and low to the ground. Windows had Venetian blinds with curtains, executive desks had pen sets, and whisky was in the drawer. The secretarial pool was in an open layout, and a plethora of IBM Selectric typewriters denoted a modern business. Abstract art hung on the walls. The firm may have re-organized in lesser quarters later in the series, but the mid-century style remained the same. Roger Sterling’s new office was designed by a “decorator” in various monochromatic shades of gray, leading him to quip that with his gray suits and gray hair he just disappeared in his surroundings.

Don's first office at Sterling Cooper: manly but modern
As for the ladies of Mad Men, they provide the sizzle that makes the show such fun to watch.

Although it’s also a guilty pleasure to see how much bad behavior they think they can get away with, or how long it is before one of them screws up. The show is anchored by January Jones as Betty Draper (later Betty Francis), shown below, Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris, and Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson. Betty is always the classy, if somewhat immature, woman – and a not very good mother. Her wardrobe is always stylish; she’s a Grace Kelly in the suburbs. She wears bouffant skirts in single piece dresses, all in cheerful colors and floral prints. She is always, “put together” wearing jewelry, matching purses and shoes (as was de rigueur in the day), gloves, and red lipstick. 

January Jones as Betty Draper
Joan Harris is the red-headed and curvaceous bombshell. She wears tightly-fitted dresses in bright jewel colors. Her costumes are made with fitted foundation undergarments, which was how they were made for the Hollywood movies at the time, though ladies of the day achieved the same effect with girdle/bra combinations.

Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris
The Mad Men cast
During most of the series Peggy Olson’s wardrobe was still influenced by her former Catholic School uniforms.  She dresses very plainly and unattractively, and she is often dressed in plaids and stripes. As she advances in her career and matures, her clothes become more sophisticated and becoming. In the photo below she is wearing a dress seemingly inspired by vintage Metlox California ceramic dinnerware.

Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson
Janie Bryant is the show’s excellent costume designer. She designs many of the items for the show’s large wardrobe, although vintage clothing and accessories are also used. Like other costume designers, she must design the costumes to define character. Subtle changes have marked the advancing years of the early 60s. As we make our way into the mod-influenced and youth movement fashions of the later 60s, significant changes will be shown in the women’s wardrobes. Skirts will go up, and clothes will increasingly define personality in a more forceful and even rebellious manner.    

As for the men, the business suit is the most prevailing costume, which is making a comeback thanks to the show. In the case of Don, it’s his armor, and he seems vulnerable during the times he dresses casually. Gray flannel suits were the preferred dress for business men of the era. For Mad Men, Janie Bryant had to find distinguishing features for the various mad men and others. Don always wears a white dress shirt with French cuffs, with slim ties then fashionable. The suits were slim with narrow profiles Don’s accessories are the tie clip and the white pocket square worn flush. He keeps his bills neat in a money clip. Roger tends to wear three-piece suits with vests, often in light gray to complement his hair. Pete wears darker suit colors. When tough times rock the firm and Don in particular, his suits also become darker. Lane Pryce is English. He is usually dressed in a suit with an unmatched vest. To be more accurate, his suit jackets should feature side vents rather than a center vent, as was preferred in England, but we won’t quibble.

John Slattery as Roger Sterling and Jon Hamm as Don Draper
The men’s fashions in Mad Men have also influenced current trends. As mentioned, the suit is back. Skinny pants have been common for a number of years, but the skinny ties and tie clip are one influence of the show. It is hoped that that the current style of wearing dress pants 3 or 4 inches too long will disappear as a result, and maybe even the single jacket button fastened high above the waist.

January Jones and Jon Hamm as Betty and Don
Don and Betty are now divorced, and at the end of last season Don fell in love with his new secretary Megan and they became engaged. It remains to be seen in the new season what their fates will be. Jessica Pare plays Megan. She’s beautiful and ambitious, but also caring and nurturing. She’s perfect for Don – perhaps too perfect. She doesn’t know much about him, but who does? Whatever happens to the couple, we will be smack in the middle of the turbulent years of the 60s. Everyone is sure to get buffeted.

Another reason the show is all-of–piece is the embedded themes and currents that influenced the era of the early 60s. These include such iconic books as Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown from 1962, David Ogilvy’s 1963 tell-all, Confessions of an Advertising Man, and the earlier The Hidden Persuaders, written by Vance Packard and first published in 1957. The latter explained the new techniques of using psychological research and subliminal messages in advertising.

Mad Men is also amazing because it can deliver nostalgia while simultaneously setting the show during the most tumultuous period in modern American history, when the influence of the past was questioned and the present was crumbling. Now that’s what makes a great show. We’ll see if Don’s motto of “live in the present,” while escaping from his past and adjusting to his surroundings like a chameleon will serve him well.

Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.

Christian Esquevin's blog is Silver Screen Modiste and he's the author of Adrian: Silver Screen to Custom Label.


  1. Christian, I was fascinated reading your marvelous post that manages to capture so much of the surface glamour and underlying reality of Mad Men. I loved your line, "the early 1960s when america had the world by the tail". Some time back I heard a radio interview with one of Mad Men's writers and Janie Bryant, the wonderful costume designer whose work you discuss. You did a great job of describing how she designed the costumes to define the individual characters, along with the overall zeitgeist. In the interview she said she was having the time of her life working on the show - your post eloquently explores the approach taken with each character. Personally, I'm fascinated with January Jones as Betty Draper, with her extremely "put together", "Grace Kelly in the suburbs" look masking her chaotic and confused identity. I also appreciate that Mad Men, as you stated, needs "no gratuitous violence". It's refreshing to have a tv drama that doesn't require a central murder to solve in order to provide narrative tension and a sense of mystery. You hit on so much of what makes this show so absorbing - great job.

  2. Thank you Motorcycle Boy for the praise. There are so many layers to Mad Men. Although I did notice on re-reading the piece that I meant to say, but didn't specify, that it was the men that were displaying the bad behavior, not the women. And two of the paragraphs are repeated starting with the bit about Janie Bryant as designer. I'm gratified that I was able to participate in this Lady Eve/Mad Men series.

  3. I've been waiting and waiting to read your take on this, Christian, and you've delivered--and how! Great insights, and please, never, ever apologize for "quibbling"...that's what makes costumers (and their admirers)so revered and unique. The whole point of great costuming, as you know, is to immerse someone in your dream; if the costumer gets it right, we're there. If not, we start to lose our concentration, and thus, our appreciation. I call it "time burps"...when the costumer just doesn't get it right. (Why some folks hate to watch TV or movies with me...!) I was comfortable with the Brit's mismatched vest, since I'd seen it on the likes of 60's American actors like Gig Young, but didn't know about the side vent controversy! Was that a Carnaby Street innovation or Saville Row tradition or what? Simply loved reading this (twice!!). Oh, and great catch on Don's use of keys--what a marvelous observation! Makes total sense, doesn't it, since he's the only one who actually DOES hold the keys to so many of the show's enticing mysteries.
    Great addition to this blog series, Christian, as always. I love Mad Men because it "takes me back" to a world I barely glimpsed as a child, but understand so much more completely now. And now, we all just have to wait for the series premiere!

  4. Marvelous post. "Mad Men" is so complex, and I appreciate how you link the costumes to this complexity. In particular are the women, especially Betty: Grace Kelly of the suburbs, so put together when her life is not.

  5. Christian, I’m sorry I missed your post yesterday, but it is certainly worth the wait. I feel that, as with your post on style in “Vertigo”, I want to go back and watch “Mad Men” through “the eyes” of your observations. The new design elements in season four at SCDP’s sleek and modern office created a sense of unease (for me), which acted as non-verbal cues concerning post-Kennedy uncertainty. I liked the warmer and private offices in the first three seasons; I guess these spaces created an environment of secrecy and security. The new offices leave no room for mystery and everyone is on display.

    I can see a parallel between Midge’s soft skirt and sweater combinations and Peggy’s style, and the ultra stylish sensibilities of Madeleine and Betty. However, I hadn’t noticed the very intriguing observation that Don Draper is the only character who carries keys (you have a great eye for detail). I wonder if textile designers such as Vera Neuman and Alfred Shaheen played a big role in both casual fashion and interior design during this period. I own both a Neuman and Shaheen blouse, although based on the condition of the first I don’t believe it is from the 1960s, and I keep looking for fashions that resemble either or both. I have also convinced myself that Pete will be the first of the male characters to show up wearing a Nehru jacket (and sideburns?).

    I’m looking forward to the 2-hour season premier (thank you Matt Weiner and company for rewarding your faithful viewers), and I hope it is a night full of bumps that would make Margo Channing proud.

  6. Whistlingypsy - that's great that you own blouses from those textile designers. They are both had such beuatiful fabrics and garments and were so evocative of the 1950s and 60s. I also much preferred the former offices of Sterling Cooper, they exuded confidence, but it's not without reason that the new officers are different. I can't quite see Pete in a Nehru jacket, but who knows. I still have mine, in a paisly print no less. I could loan it to him if he wants to wear it.

  7. Gypsey and Christian - When it comes to which character first wears a Nehru jacket, I think I'd put my money on Paul Kinsey. He already is smoking dope and flirting with Bohemian attitudes - he also made the "bold" statement of growing a beard. He seems to be a guy who likes to think of himself as being on the edge of things: outer space, the Twilight Zone, etc. He's a trendy kind of character and I can see him with the Nehru jacket and the love beads. And, yes, Christian, your observation of Don Draper as keeper of the keys was quite sharp.

  8. Oh, Christian! A lovely post. This show has so many layers and levels - it's easy to miss a clue here and there. Although I confess to really loving January Jones's look, it's Peggy's whose evolution is so much to watch. And as for Megan - I'm going with the "it was all a dream" story line!

  9. Kay, the side-vent jacket has been the traditional English tailoring technique for decades. It's advantage is it is easier to sit with this jacket, even if buttoned. Both the single vent or the no vent have a sleeker profile, however. The single vent has been the more popular American jacket since the 1950s. As for the Nehru jacket, Motorcycle Boy, I agree that Paul Kinsey is the top candidate - he has been the "beatnik" and could definitely ease into some Go-Go 60s outfits.

  10. Christian – I got a surprise as I read your opening paragraphs and came upon your mention of the influence of Hitchcock on Matt Weiner and similarities between the dilemma of Mad Men’s Don Draper and Vertigo’s Scottie Ferguson. I’d just been thinking about the ‘falling man’ motif shared by the series and film, and had been considering the Don/Scottie connection. As for Weiner’s appreciation for Hitchcock, who can forget a particular horseback ride of Betty Draper’s that was especially ‘Marnie-esque.’

    You’ve certainly covered much fascinating ground with “Mad Men Style” (I hadn’t picked up on Don as the man who holds the keys either). I’d read that Matt Weiner purposely cast ‘50s-‘60s types in the series, but you mentioned Jon Hamm’s voice, and that’s an excellent point (one of so many, I should add). His voice adds much to Don Draper’s persona – and mystique. He is one very fine actor, and his deep, persuasive voice is pure perfection for those trance-inducing Draper soliloquys .

    By the way, I agree with all that Paul Kinsey would be the first to wear a Nehru jacket. Maybe in Season 5, now only days away…

    Thank you, Christian, this is a superb reflection on Mad Men's style and substance.

  11. I concede Paul Kinsey would certainly be the first male character to wear a Nehru jacket. Do you suppose his character will return to the fold, after being who knows where? I can imagine him and his girlfriend, and almost certainly Peggy, will take a trip to San Francisco for the "Summer of Love".

  12. I'm always better/smarter for reading your articles.

    As a child of the 60s, in my eyes the "Mad Men" characters look how I still think adults are supposed to look.

  13. I have the same reaction to the adult characters, Caftan Woman...