Mad Men’s Costume Designer On The Style Secret Modern Women Don’t Know

Photo: Courtesy of Janie Bryant.
When Mad Men returns for its seven final episodes this Sunday, viewers will eagerly await the fate of Don Draper's marriage to Megan and his sometimes-tenuous employment at SC&P; Joan's long-overdue promotion and bid for true love (via rejection of Bob Benson); and Peggy's scrappy ascent to girl boss in a man's world. But, for many of us, there's a parallel storyline we've loved following for seven seasons: the characters' wardrobes. Conceptualized and brought to life by costume designer Janie Bryant, Mad Men's costumes situate the story in time, underscore character development and emotional themes, and, in a show that's very much about the pleasures and perils of self-invention, offer us vital cues on who these characters are, and how they want to be seen. On the eve of the show's final season, we sat down with the delightful Janie Bryant, and talked about how the women of Mad Men have evolved since that fateful day in 1960 when Peggy Olsen hit the typing pool, why she'll always be #TeamBetty, and a lady's secret weapon in her quest for a good outfit (that's been in front of our eyes all along).
One thing you’ve done with Joan is give her these incredible signature colors — a real power palette.
"That you don't see today. By the late 80's, into the 90's, color palettes have gotten so limited for men and women. I always loved the idea of designing jewel tones for Joan, and speaking to how strong her character is, even though she may not know it at the time. It's an old-fashioned feminine power — which we're really not taught to use these days." Joan doesn't do that Dress For Success thing where you legitimize yourself in the workplace by copying men.
"She does not. And you know, I don’t think that it's demeaning. I always felt like the colors, the sexiness of her character, made her stronger." She's also an icon to women with a certain body type, because there's this misperception that everyone was skinny-skinny back then.
"And that was never the case. Then, as now, everybody has a different shape and I'm glad if Joan has helped women stop hiding and be proud of their curves. Accentuate the waist, be proud of your figure, and really own that femininity." Can we talk about her pendant necklace? It's such a statement of "I'm always ready to work."
"I always thought of it as her sword battling against those men!" I like that even better.
"Maybe she could get her revenge — stab them a few times."
Of course, Peggy has approached the work world very differently, and that's reflected in her wardrobe.
"Peggy is one of the characters that’s changed the most, through her different job promotions and leaving Sterling Cooper, going back, growing within the company and being a part of that boy's club. She's grown from a little schoolgirl secretary to a powerhouse businesswoman." Unlike Joan, she chooses clothes that de-emphasize her femininity — there's a primness.
"Well, one of the things I've always loved about Peggy is that she's a character who doesn’t have great style. That was never her intention or concern. She cares more about her work than what she's wearing." Tell me a bit about your process creating costumes.
"I'll receive a script and I break it down by character and figure out, 'What am I visualizing for the costume design for this particular episode?' And it depends on the episode how much I build, versus what I source from vintage pieces. And a lot is made from scratch — for instance, if Joan is going to be in an episode a lot, I'll design and have most of her costumes made. I also design a lot of the suits for Don and Pete. I also buy and redesign vintage."
Does [series creator and writer] Matt Weiner ever have input?
"Sometimes he does write in specifically what he's imagining. Like Sally Draper's go-go boots: He wrote those in, it was a real plot point. Or Megan in California in her Pucci dress, he wrote that in." Interesting — you don't expect men to have that sensitivity to fashion details.
"Oh, Matt knows. He's very knowledgeable of the period — menswear, womenswear, the furniture. He's obsessed."

Speaking of the go-go boots, Sally Draper has had some exciting moments of fashion rebellion with her youthquake wardrobe.
"The rebellion of Sally is a rebellion from her mom, so I wanted to start transitioning her into a different color palette than Betty to illustrate their struggles. So a lot of dresses that I would have Sally wear would be oranges, greens, reds. Very intense colors."
Not like Betty's icy palette.
"Yes — a palette Betty would never wear. We've never seen Betty in something orange or green, and Betty would only wear red if it was Christmas or Valentine's, not as an everyday thing." Because she's too emotionally remote?
"And too refined. Betty is all about being elegant, refined, beautiful. Orange to Betty would be an ugly color." She's got that East Coast patrician thing — "we don't do passionate."
"We do not. It's all under wraps and reserved and about looking perfect all the time. Camel is a good Betty color, pale blue, pale pink. So Sally's moving away from that — and of course, coming under the influence of the other woman in Don's life."
"Sally looks up to her style-wise. I always saw Megan as being the new, the young, the fresh in Don's life. And I love creating contrasts between Megan and Betty, because those two women really could not be any more different. Megan represents a whole different time period." And a different type of womanhood. Megan expects self-actualization, whereas Betty is this repressed woman who may never be happy.
"Poor Betty. I have such compassion for her. A lot of people really hate her. I think it was really hard to be a woman then, when you didn’t have any choices — and it's not like every woman is free from that to this day. But it was especially true then; they didn't even have the opportunities to support themselves, or not be under the thumb of some man." And the irony is that Betty was a smart, cultured woman! She went to Bryn Mawr, had a career...
"Traveled, speaks Italian." Yet was expected to give that independent life up when she got married.
"Despite all Betty's talents and interests, for her college was more a finishing school to get her MRS, as opposed to skills that would help her in the working world. So I feel for Betty. I think she feels trapped. And that's one thing I like about Megan — that she's modern and resists being trapped in that same way."

What do you think women of that era know that modern women didn't?
"Foundation garments."

That's the secret!
"Sorry to say. But that was just something that women did during that period. Stockings, girdles. And I know [modern] women don't want to do shapewear, even just getting fit and measured for your bras. It's a simple thing, but can really make your clothes look so much better. That's the secret."

When you look over the history of the show, what fashion moments stand out for you?
"So many. I love Peggy in her pantsuit. Megan in her Pucci dress picking Don up at the airport — the L.A. woman. Joan dancing around in her red Christmas dress. Megan doing 'Zou Bisou'. Betty in her pink peignoir shooting pigeons. Harry in L.A. in his scarf and double-breasted, mustard yellow jacket. Don in Italy in his blue sport coat. I love Don Draper in blue and silk — he's so dreamy. So many great looks."

It's been a great seven seasons. Thanks so much, Janie.
"Thank you."

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