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.