Lost In Time
She Makes ‘Mad Men’ Look So Good
Mad Men returns Sunday, and as well as the complexities of Don, Peggy, and Betty’s destinies, is the small matter of how good they all look while they suffer and ponder.
For the past eight years, Mad Men fans have been watching to see when Don Draper’s shaky, alcohol-fueled facade would crumble, to see if Peggy will ever be taken as seriously as the boys, and to see what impeccable number Betty will button up next, while sniping at her children.
The final seven episodes of Mad Men will premiere on Sunday, marking the end of an iconic show that was one of the best illustrations of the current revival of television drama.
While Mad Men’s creator Matthew Weiner and its writers are responsible for crafting these complex, deeply flawed, and utterly compelling characters, no small amount of credit also goes to Janie Bryant, the inspired costume designer who created, scavenged, and styled their looks, shepherding them through the ’60s and into the ’70s.
“The first time I met [Matthew Weiner] we sat down and talked for two-and-a-half hours,” Bryant tells The Daily Beast. “I loved his whole take on the period, I loved all of his characters, and I wanted to be a part of [the show].”
The last seven seasons have been peppered with sartorial stunners. The Madison Avenue admen strut from booze-filled offices to cocktail-fueled lunches in impeccably tailored suits that Jon Hamm has likened to “suit[s] of armor.”
However, gossip about producers asking Hamm to wear underwear under those suits—as his penis visibly swung free—became more feverish than talk about how the suits were designed.
The style of the women in Mad Men shows how they want the world to see them—and gives us glimpses of what they’re hiding.
Office manager-turned-partner Joan embraces—and uses—her curvy sex appeal in brightly colored, almost-too-tight dresses that cling to her hourglass figure.
Reluctant housewife Betty covers up her dissatisfaction with her life by looking as tailored and sharp as an icy mannequin—until that period when her look became “Fat Betty.” Upon seeing it on TV, Jones said she “went screaming into the other room.”
Peggy sums up her fraught position in a man’s world in the last episode of Season 7 when she asks her 10-year-old neighbor Julio which of two dresses he likes better for an upcoming business trip:
“This is a suit and it has a skirt and it has gray in it, which is what men wear. And this is a dress and it’s pretty, but I might be sweating and not just because it’s July.”
The fashion of Mad Men has not only become yet another reason to watch this surprise hit (Bryant remembers the early days when it was hard to get vendors to lend her their vintage because the show was “basically our own little secret”), but it’s also changed the way we dress today.
In a real way, the ’60s has leapt off the screen and into our closets, thanks to Bryant’s work.
She has collaborated on three Mad Men-themed collections for Banana Republic (a TV screen-to-consumer retail move followed by the costume designers of Scandal and The Hunger Games), and the trends of the ’60s and ’70s have made a comeback on high-fashion runways over the past several seasons.
Bryant is quick to point out that Mad Men isn’t the first show to directly influence the fashion of its time.
She cites the work of Theadora Van Runkle and Theoni V. Aldridge on Bonnie and Clyde and The Great Gatsby, respectively, as well as Camelot, which influenced “the dramatic sleeve and whole Renaissance Movement and romance” of fashion in the late ’60s.
But there does seem to be something special in the speed and pervasiveness with which the style of Mad Men has swept the current culture.
“I think the popularity of the show launched this love of mid-century all over again. I really do,” Bryant says. “I think it has influenced fashion, it has influenced furniture design, it has influenced hair and makeup. The show has influenced our pop culture of today.”
Bryant was obsessed with period dramas growing up. Her taste trended a little more vintage than the mid-century of Mad Men, to costume dramas like Guys and Dolls, Gone with the Wind, and My Fair Lady.
When her favorite moments were on TV, her mom had a hard time tearing her away, she says.
One of those was the “Luck Be a Lady” number from Guys and Dolls, which Bryant loved watching over and over again, particularly for the costume details like how the dancers’ socks were coordinated with their suspenders.
But Bryant was also no stranger to 1960s style. She was introduced to the decade through her grandparents, especially her grandfather who worked in the textile industry.
“My grandfather was kind of a Don Draper,” Bryant says. “[He] would go and meet all of his colleagues [in New York City]. They would have three-martini lunches. They’d smoke cigarettes. They’d eat steak and oysters and iceberg lettuce salads with blue cheese dressing. My grandmother, she made all of her impeccable, immaculate clothing with a hostess apron to match every single outfit. She entertained a lot.”
The process of re-creating that world, however, wasn’t always easy.
The vintage looks that audiences eat up also caused problems for the costume design team. Bryant remembers shooting Season 3’s “My Old Kentucky Home” episode, which involved a bunch of extras in vintage dresses on the dance floor.
“The vintage clothing, the dresses, were basically disintegrating with each move that the background dancers made,” Bryant remembers. “So, bless them, my amazing set costumers were frantically stitching everybody together with every break. The director would call ‘Cut,’ and then my set costumers were dashing in with their threads and needles and mending the dresses.”
Bryant, who used a mix of vintage finds and her own designs to create the Mad Men wardrobe, says she identifies most with Megan and Betty, but she sees the latter as somewhat of a cautionary “what could have been” tale for her own life.
Raised in Tennessee, Bryant found herself asking the age-old question “What next?” after graduating from college, where she studied fashion design.
“I will never forget my father saying, ‘Janie, you need to go back to Macy’s, get your part-time sales job, and find a husband who will marry you and support you the way that I do,’” Bryant says. “So what I did is, I packed up my bags, and I moved to New York City.”
While she knows her dad had the best intentions and was just trying to look out for her, she has a lot of sympathy for the plight of Betty, who is “a reminder to me that women didn’t have too many choices then, and a lot of women around the world have no choices.”
The hardest character to design for? Quirky ad man Ginsberg. Weiner is known for his attention to detail and authenticity. While Bryant points out that he is “very knowledgeable” about clothing and fashion, he didn’t normally give specific instructions for what each character should wear.
Ginsberg’s interview with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was one of the exceptions. Weiner detailed that the character was to wear “a Madras plaid jacket and jeans.” Bryant balked. “[I] came to Matt, [and] I was like ‘Jeans, really? He’s going to wear jeans to the office?’ I couldn’t grasp that.”
Coming to the end of Mad Men wasn’t easy. Filming wrapped last July and the costume shop-cum-office closed up in August, so Bryant says she has already gone through her “mourning period,” an event that was “extremely emotional when that last shoe and last girdle was packed up and sent away.”
The in-demand designer has already moved on to a host of new projects, recently signing on to create the new uniforms for the renovated Watergate Hotel, scheduled to open at the end of the summer.
She has designed a dress collection in collaboration with Black Halo set to be in stores in July, and a capsule collection for Shoes of Prey that launched recently. In addition, she’s planning to produce her own hosiery line.
But Bryant is also “really excited” about the debut of the final season of Mad Men and seeing her fellow cast and crew at the Black & Red Ball sendoff party the evening she spoke with The Daily Beast.
“It’s such a strange feeling to have worked on the show for eight years and then everything’s just like poof, gone in a flash,” Bryant says. “It’s movie magic. We’re like the circus. The circus came to town for eight years, and then it was gone.”