Rebecca Lerner hadn’t watched Mad Men since she was in high school almost a decade ago. During stay-at-home orders, when the world shut down, though, Lerner found herself in her parents’ home re-watching the AMC series, which ran from 2007 to 2015.
More than a year later, her quarantine watch has become a passion project. In November 2020, she started the Instagram account @madmenstyles, a love letter and analysis of all the costumes in Mad Men, styled by award-winning designer Janie Bryant. Today, the account has nearly 10,000 followers and earned Lerner the approval of both Bryant and Mad Men actress Elisabeth Moss. “Sometimes [Bryant] will comment on my posts and I have to go lay down,” says Lerner.
A lover of movies and fashion, the 25-year-old is a graduate of the University of Michigan, where she majored in film and English. (Lerner now works in a nonprofit focused on food justice.) She remembers that she’d often be the one student in class bringing up the role of costume design in the films they studied, an aspect of the movie and TV industries that she thinks is highly overlooked. “Costuming and the fashion in movies has always been so gendered,” she says, referring to the pay and credit disparities in the industry that female costume designers, who make up 83% of the Costume Designers Guild membership, have fought for years. “And I think that is part of the reason that we might not pay as much attention to it as the actual directing because it's been this hidden labor done by women.”
With @madmenstyles, she’s hoping to change that.
Since its premiere, Mad Men’s fandom has only grown stronger. The show, which celebrates its 14th anniversary this July, follows the inner workings of New York City’s advertising agencies in the ‘60s. Lerner believes that what distinguishes Mad Men is the way the show’s storylines merge with real history, showing the characters’ lives at pivotal moments of the 20th century, like the 1960 Richard Nixon-John F. Kennedy election, Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968, and the moon landing in 1969.
“This is an incredibly influential and iconic time in history,” she says. “The show was so rooted in the events that happened.”
The costumes similarly show a time capsule of America between 1960 and 1970, from the gendered politics of office wear to the rise of the mini skirt and Mod aesthetic. Since 2020, Lerner has documented outfits in each episode of Mad Men, chronologically. Right now, she’s up to Season 3.
“I started really thinking about it from sort of a more theoretical lens and looking at it specifically through the narrative that they're portraying in the fashion and the clothing, because, especially on a show like Mad Men, everything is so meticulously planned,” she says.
Her first post featured Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in the opening scene of Mad Men, where he’s drinking at a bar while doing research for a cigarette ad he has to present to the client the next morning. Draper wears a dark gray suit with a white shirt and striped tie, while his hair is meticulously slicked back. For this post, Lerner focused on the importance of first impressions, noting that the “uprightness” of the look is reminiscent of 1950s businesswear which was held to high standards. Later, when she discussed a gray A-line dress worn by Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) on Season 2 episode 15 that emulates her boss Draper’s style, she compared the character’s similarities with the modern-day “girlboss” archetype, writing: “The idea that to succeed she must be Don and Peggy, work overtime and be assertive and non-threatening? Ya that’s girl boss shit.”
Lerner watches each episode between two to three times — one to enjoy, another to take notes. As she watches, Lerner takes screenshots of the outfits she wants to spotlight, doing research on the particular style, cut, fabric, and inspiration behind the garment, and analyzing how it fits into a character’s storyline. Shen then uses her Notes app on her phone to write the captions that she refers to as “scholarly, burning hot takes.”
Since the early days, Lerner has opted to focus on the looks of the women in the show. Her favorite female character on Mad Men is Megan Draper (Jessica Paré), Draper’s second wife, whose style aesthetic is marked by Mod fashion and Hollywood glamour of the time. See: the colorful shift dresses and short hemlines, usually paired with go-go boots, heeled pumps, and fishnets. But she also favors Peggy, the secretary-turned-copywriter and Draper’s protege, who starts the series as a shy Brooklyn girl who dons long skirts, and transforms into a successful businesswoman who wears the pants (literally). Still, Lerner also appreciates the consistency of characters like Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), the lead secretary-turned-agency partner, who “loves a sheath dress.”
Before starting the account, Lerner gathered some inspiration from other Instagram pages dedicated to documenting TV shows and movies on the app. One example is the Sex And The City-focused account @everyoutfitonsatc, created by Chelsea Fairless and Lauren Garroni, which has grown nearly 700,000 followers and even published a book called We Should All Be Mirandas. Lerner says this community of film and TV-focused accounts “keep these really incredible time capsules alive” and help the works gather more fans.
Along the way, Lerner has found a community of Mad Men lovers, who interact with her content in the same academic level she approaches the show. “Some people tell me they’ve watched the show like 13 times,” she says, adding that sometimes her followers even help her nail down details she’s missed.
Currently, she’s anticipating the time she gets to rewatch her favorite episodes, which come in Season 5. Once she finishes the entire series, Lerner says she’ll leave the account up even if she’s not updating it regularly.
She says @madmenstyles will always serve as a reminder of that time she revisited her passion for film and fashion in the middle of a pandemic: “That is the thing that I'm going to take away, that you can always make time and space for a project that you're passionate about, even if you're not locked up in your house for 24 hours a day.”