How one show changed the way we dress
by Catherine McCarthy
“My posture is phenomenal when I’m wearing a piece like this,” notes Ashley Grant, proprietor of the roving vintage fashion treasure trove Gypsy de la Lune, handling a recently acquired mid-century sheath dress. “You carry yourself a little better, because you have to. There’s no room for slouching!”
Grant and other vintage fashion connoisseurs noticed a surge in interest for mid-century fashions in recent years, and overwhelmingly one thing seems to be at the source of all this fascination: the AMC workplace drama Mad Men, which begins its seventh and final season April 13.
Janie Bryant, the show’s costume director since its debut in 2007, is known for her meticulous use of clothes to tell a character’s story on screen, earning an Emmy for western drama Deadwood. Mad Men’s legions of fans seem to care just as much about following the show’s changing fashions as the show’s shifting plot lines. The loyal following scored Bryant a book deal and three different contemporary collections offered by Banana Republic, all paying tribute to the show’s dapper aesthetic.
Even other designers are getting in on the mid-century-for-the-masses trend. The Tommy Hilfiger collection designed with actress (and noted vintage fan) Zooey Deschanel, “To Tommy, From Zooey,” debuts April 14 at Macy’s stores. The collection’s 34 pieces are all “Sixties-inspired short dresses,” Hilfiger told Women’s Wear Daily’s Marc Karimzadeh. “I’m always looking for ways to incorporate vintage, feminine pieces into my own wardrobe,” Deschanel told WWD. While Deschanel has rocked vintage pieces for most of her career, the line takes a page from the characters of Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss) and Megan Draper (Jessica Paré), who sport kicky drop-waist dresses and pop-art prints regularly on screen.
“I love women in menswear and men in more feminine looks, but there’s something about mid-century fashion that’s very appealing,” notes Grant. “I feel the most elegant when I’m wearing a vintage dress from the 50’s or 60’s, none of which I can fit into now,” jokes the pregnant Grant. “I’ve seen my clients drawn to these pieces. I think the show brought back the desire to have a waist at your natural waist and embrace your hourglass shape.”
Grant advises those looking to dip their toe in mid-century waters to keep the overall look fresh and contemporary. “To modernize it a little bit you might want to take up the hemline,” says Grant, handling a below-the-knee skirt on a slim belted dress.
Vintage collector and purveyor Ryan Sporre, who has run Retro Trend Vintage & Recycled Clothing since 2001 and supplies vintage accessories to Bryant’s costuming team for the show, thinks it’s easy to bring a 60’s look up to speed. “Let’s face it, fashion is cyclical. Everything is on basically a twenty to thirty-year cycle. Streamlined dressing is back. It was popular in the 90’s, and it was popular in the 60’s.”
Like Grant, Sporre has seen a growing interest in mid-century fashion in her clientele and by contemporary runway designers as well. “I think that there have always been people who collected and celebrated vintage culture,” she says, “But I’ve definitely seen more people who otherwise wouldn’t be as interested in vintage clothing showing a fascination.”
“You’ve got the Joans and the Bettys,” she adds. “There’s a cross-section of mid-century fashions represented on the show, and you’re seeing it in modern fashion. I was on Instagram earlier, and there was a sponsored Ralph Lauren ad, and I had to note that it was Ralph Lauren S/S ‘14 collection pieces, because it was very mod dresses with retro sunglasses. It looked like what Marc Jacobs was doing for Louis Vuitton last year, but all of it’s based on 60’s fashions.”
“It’s hard to find vintage for girls of every size,” says Grant, “So when I found this piece,” she says, displaying a black beaded frock, “I knew my customers would want it. You could wear it to a dinner party or a first date. There’s so much you can do with it where it’s appropriate. You put this on and you feel incredible.”
“Sometimes, it takes a little work,” adds Grant. “Spanx is our friend. These garments were designed to be worn with foundation garments. You sort of mold yourself to the dress.”
Bryant reportedly outfits Christina Hendricks in vintage foundation garments that include boning at the waist for her character Joan Harris’s signature vivacious wiggle dresses, while other actresses such as January Jones, who portrays the glamorous Betty Francis, are often wearing recently-constructed but vintage-styled undergarments.
The influence of Mad Men’s style extends all the way to the toes. Lately the most iconic shoe of the 60’s, the kitten heel, is making a comeback on runways and in stores. Claire Coulson of The Telegraph declared in 2011, “After a decade of vertiginous pumps, lower heels are back,” citing an affection for these daintier heels by major trend-setters like Alexa Chung, and even First Lady Michelle Obama and Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton. This spring’s lookbooks are filled with daintier heels that offer women a little added height and poise without wince-inducing arches, in a shape that’s pretty, yet practical.
The mid-century aesthetic has taken hold in men’s fashions as well. “For the men, I’m always collecting the vintage skinny ties,” notes Grant. “When we started dating, my husband was wearing a suit every day, trucking off to the Treasury Department, looking really dapper, but he had a more traditional ‘politician tie’ thing going on. Now when I bring skinny ties home, he’s the first to go through them, and then the rest can go out. For him, putting that with a slimmer fit suit is very contemporary, even though it’s sort of this throwback.”
Steve Driscoll, an analyst for a federal agency and avid fan of the show, agrees. “Mad Men has been very influential in ushering back in a dapper, square is cool, and non-ironic fashion sense.” Driscoll, who owns a large collection of mid-century ties, notes that in an office culture that requires a tie and jacket every day, mid-century touches allow men to stand out. “Mad Men style is cumulative of a lot of efforts, like Buddy Holly glasses, which started making a comeback as I was finishing up college, and never went away, to Thom Browne suits, which emphasize a tight, fitted look that harkens back to the 60’s.”
The show’s hair and makeup, not just costumes, appear as carefully plotted out as the twists and turns of the sprawling storylines. If the clothes of Mad Men are the protagonist of its aesthetics, a Best Supporting nod could go to the show’s range of mid-century hairstyles. From the typing pool to the boardroom, the most iconic looks of the 60’s are in full effect on the cast of Mad Men.
Vincent Kartheiser, who plays the ruthless striver and the show’s central ad firm’s youngest partner, Pete Campbell, told New York Magazine’s Mina Hochberg in 2012 that he shaved his hairline back at the request of creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner, giving an added dimension to Pete’s transition from young go-getter to increasingly embittered and soulless executive. “Most of my friends were like, Dude, don’t do that, it might never come back in!” he told Hochberg. “But luckily I have a good head of hair.”
Pete and his fellow young account men sport a look that’s closely cropped on the sides and longer on top. “It’s a simple style that’s really come back in,” says Shawn Helton, a veteran hairstylist with a client base split between Phoenix and Washington, D.C. “It’s a style that suits a lot of men because it’s a simple style that’s easy to work with on a day to day basis. It’s clean but it leaves enough length at the top that they can rough it up if they’re going out, giving them more versatility.”
Paré wears a wig when in costume for her character of the glamorous up-and-coming actress Megan Draper, née Calvet. Scene after scene, her thickly-lined doe eyes peer out from beneath her dark, blunt cut bangs, and her short bob goes swinging when she and husband Don Draper get into heated arguments.
In the course of the show’s six seasons, no one more than Peggy Olsen, the secretary who rose through the ranks to Copy Chief at one of the largest ad firms on Madison Avenue, goes through more of a hair transformation. Even when Peggy begins to dress in more flattering clothing, her hair remains lifeless in an limp style that may have been acceptable when she was enrolled in secretary school as a young woman in the late 50’s, but looks glaringly outdated in a sea of carefully coiffed and sculpted up-dos.
In a memorable scene at the end of the second season in “The Jet Set,” Peggy’s hair goes from blah to ba-bam overnight. After Peggy’s made the leap from a secretary’s desk to the copy writers’ room, Kurt Smith (Edin Gali) lops off the sagging length, teases the crown and curls the ends, giving Peggy an au courant flipped bob that makes her other co-workers take notice.
“You see it with men and women alike, in the last five years in particular,” adds Helton, of the mid-century theme in current hairstyles. “It’s a trend that isn’t going to be going away anytime soon. There’s a lot more product, and more of a grooming aspect ot the style that harkens back to the silver screen era as well. I think that’s what people are gravitating towards. Long or short, women are more comfortable than they’ve ever been before with shorter interior layers in their haircuts and softer haircuts.”
Perhaps the most influential head of all is that of the always-stylish Joan Harris. While her hair has grown longer each season, and as we get more glimpses of her domestic life, first as a newlywed and then a single mother, we see her let her hair down, literally, and incorporate more hair accessories, like beautiful scarves. Since the show’s beginning, we’ve seen the glamorous volume and swoops of Joan’s bright red hair reflected in iconic contemporary styles. When British singer Amy Winehouse swept the 2008 Grammys, winning Best New Album and Best New Artist, her modern, messy take on the mid-century beehive drove women to reconsider flat-iron styles for something with a bit more oomph at the crown. When fellow Brit Adele took to the stage at the 2012 Grammys, she too sported a teased and coiffed look that leaned more mid-to-late 60’s in it’s more precise layers. Model and actress Kate Upton’s all-American looks are rarely complete without a highly volumized, 60’s style reminiscent of Brigitte Bardot’s tousled bed head, even if she’s wearing nothing but a string bikini underneath. (Though, as we know from the season four premiere, “Public Relations,” in which Don turns down client work from swimsuit manufacturer Jantzen, the bikini itself is a mid-century invention.)
No matter where the seventh season takes the cast, we can expect Bryant to keep the wardrobes of these beloved characters in line with their respective personalities. Weiner pushes his ensemble through bursts of personal growth and change, but always keeps their actions in line with their true nature. Bryant will surely incorporate more wild looks on screen as the show moves into the freewheeling 70’s, and we’re keen to see what trends will appear on runways and on the streets once they’ve graced the Mad Men set.