In the season 3 episode ‘Souvenir’, Betty Draper (January Jones) undergoes a dramatic style transformation. Following an impromptu trip to Rome, she temporarily drops the pinched, pretty; near-outmoded late fifties style dresses to instead don the very latest in European chic, specifically a colourful maxi dress that belongs in sleepy Ossining just about as much as she does.
Betty accompanying Don (Jon Hamm) on his business trip likely had two intentions: to run away from her feelings for Henry Francis and to rekindle desire with her husband. In such a romantic setting, away from the kids and free to role play, the latter prevails – at least in the short term.
The first priority Betty attends to after catching up on some rest, laying atop the sheets next to Don in her pristine white corselet, is to visit the hotel beauty salon. Her transformation is revealed to us (Don may have already seen her in their room, it is not exactly clear) as she steps outside toward the one vacant umbrella outside amongst a hoard of chatty local Casanovas and equally noisy tourists.
Wearing an empire line, just below the knee black evening dress with her hair pinned high above her head and unsubtle yet perfectly tasteful oversized pearl earrings, she is a breathtakingly obvious sight. Ironically this look has added years on her; sophisticated years, a grown up look in all the right ways. In a time when many a woman would still follow the fashion dictates of her mother, Betty is channelling the transatlantic proto-independence of Audrey Hepburn in Charade (1963).
However, even more exciting is when she arrives home, away from the naughty Mediterranean novelty her and Don injected into their relationship for that one night and morning of unbridled passion. Here Betty tries to keep the dream of their collapsing marriage alive in a flowing, vibrant, very expensive looking maxi dress. And Don does not even seem to notice:
Multi coloured (blocks and swirls) empire line maxi dress. Full pleated skirt to ankle; lightly fitted bodice with darts, bordered in mid-blue, purple and green above slot neckline and underneath bust; deep scooped neckline to rear; accessorised by white ribbed hairband and fire engine red false nails.
This dress is characteristic of Italian designer Emilio Pucci, mainly via the wild psychedelic colour scheme and because his sixties era clothes were worn by the ‘jet set’ (he actually designed pink and pattern uniforms for the airline Braniff International Airways). Betty is not a member of the jet set, nor would she want to be. Don encounters the jet set towards the end of season 2 and discovers for himself that a rich folly of free love and no work amounts to far less than the illicitness of a casual affair. Betty on the other hand is too prim to be in the jet set. For all her boredom of dull conformity, she is trapped in its safety.
Pucci prints tended to be, though not exclusively, swirly patterns rather than the smudgy square shapes of Betty’s dress – which is particularly noticeable in the skirt area with its almost op-art feel. Nonetheless the Pucci allusion is obvious and surely intentional by Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant.
Although, the maxi length was not necessarily typical for Pucci either and gives the dress a look of Bill Gibb, early trailblazer of hippie fashion – certainly in bringing this style to the runway. Betty is not hippie any more than jet set, but she does long for escape. This adrift but pretty outfit is as much a contradiction as its wearer.
Vainly, Betty attempts to bring back dreamlike Italy to her suburban existence in the U.S, and for a few blissful minutes at breakfast (which Betty never eats) she succeeds. As Don lights her cigarette, just as he did in Rome, his attention is fixed on Betty like a proud, smug prince. Then as they kiss briefly and he strolls out of the house into his closed-off world of secrets, bullshit and betrayal, she realises it is all a lie.
Betty just has time to brush down the smooth (most likely silk) material of a dress she will never ever wear again as reality comes crashing in. She is left, as always, alone. Clearly this was yet another beginning of the end moment for the Draper marriage; no amount of kaleidoscopic colour was ever going to change this. Italy was a fling; this was real life.
© 2010 – 2013, Christopher Laverty.