Maggie Siff playing Chanel suited businesswoman Rachel Menken was present for the birth of a show that now creates trends as much as reflects them; fashionistas cannot get enough of Mad Men.
2007 Was the dawning of a new era; a time of cocktails, Cadillacs, A-lines and trilbys. This is when sixties-set advertising drama Mad Men first hit our screens. Don Draper was trying to sell his ‘luckies’, Campbell still looked about twelve, Peggy made a big mistake and Rachel Menken arrived on the scene wearing the ultimate in simple sophistication.
As series one progressed her character gradually became less and less interesting (pretty much as she fell for Don). However Rachel did at least wrestle the moral implications of loving a man who, deep down, understands less about women than even Roger Sterling. She retained her self respect in other words, and never lost her dress sense.
In episode one ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ (pilot), Maggie Siff plays a pivotal female role, second only to the introduction of Elisabeth Moss as new girl Peggy. Looking every inch the well groomed Jewish heiress, Siff instils a frosty air around Rachel that gels with her cool beauty. The sharp box suit she wears might not say much to Don, but to viewers it smacked of chic professionalism:
Two piece magenta suit in tweed (possibly woven silk), waist length collarless box jacket with patch pockets, braided trim and brass stud buttons; fitted knee length skirt; black court shoes; matching pearl necklace, stud earrings and bracelet; long black leather frame handbag, black silk gloves, gold plated cigarette holder.
John Dunn was costume designer for this episode as opposed to show regular Janie Bryant. His memorable work on Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995) and Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers (2005) establishes a track record for retro inspired pieces. Interestingly though, Rachel’s Chanel suit was a personal request from Mad Men creator/writer Matthew Weiner. Apparently he was keen to show what has now become the preserve of middle aged women at weddings was once considered both sexy and youthful.
Maggie Siff’s costume may or may not have been a Chanel original (possibly not as the buttons bear no emblem), but the philosophy behind it remains the same. At seventy years old, after some fourteen years in retirement, Coco Chanel returned to the fashion world in 1954 with her now iconic two-piece suit in Linton tweed. This break from exile was prompted by Christian Dior’s über-feminine ‘New Look’ line launched in 1947. Chanel hated the idea that women’s clothing should be so abstract and unwearble.
Yet her audaciously simple suit was not an instant hit; general mutterings pronounced Chanel out of touch with the era (don’t forget she was designing way back in the 1920s). Time however would prove to be her salvation. The Chanel suit now lives on as quite possibly the most recognisable and oft-copied couture item in history.
So although the box suit was not as trendy for young people in 1960 as Matthew Weiner implies, meaning behind his choice is not lost on Rachel Menken. With her hair up, classic pearls and controlled manner, she handles a room full of sexist lummoxes like a card sharp handles a stacked deck.
In the context, one woman holding a meeting worth millions of dollars during a period in history when women were only supposed to hold a tea towel is a major statement. If Rachel veers a tad ‘off model’ later in the season it is only because she has been established with such power. One can only imagine what her character has already gone through to be taken seriously treading in her father’s footsteps.
Twenty-five minutes into Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and already Mad Men had the makings of a great series. Just the little moments, like Don coughing politely as his big tobacco clients splutter their guts up, or Joan’s ‘paper bag’ speech, or Roger’s glance at the mailroom guy as he dares to pour himself a Bloody Mary. Mad Men was here to stay, anyone could see that, even if Rachel Menken wasn’t.
Before the end of this episode Rachel has swapped her tweed set for a gold flower print shift dress. Cocktails with Don clearly justified something more (or less) than an absolute professionalism. As she nurses a Mai Tai, defending her position of wanting to have a job and not wear an apron, Rachel lets Don win just enough to show his charm is still intact. The Chanel suit and pearls may be gone but she is still in charge – for now anyway.
© 2010 – 2013, Chris Laverty.