We are now up to the year 1968 for the double-episode season 6 opener of Mad Men. This already seems to be the show’s most progressive season so far costume wise. Season 5 certainly took the most significant cultural jump, with Swinging Sixties politics, clothes and interiors looming like a shadow of coolness. In the latter half of season 5, aspiring actress Megan’s (Jessica Paré) capri pants and sweater audition wear, while not exactly beatnik were avant-garde enough to suggest the growing exuberance of her character. The times they are a-changin’.
For season 6, costume designer Janie Bryant looks to be channelling the same ideal as season 1, but whereas season 1 (set in 1960) was a crossover in terms of fashion from the 1950s/60’s, season 6 is transitional from the 1960s/70’s. As we are only in 1968 it could be argued this is a mite early, but cleverly Bryant only hints at the changes to come. Costume design is not necessarily presenting a historical truth (though it can be); what is more important is that the audience sees what they expect to see, albeit in a way they were not expecting.
Obviously Megan Draper (Jessica Paré) is the style focal point of Mad Men, and with good reason – her character has the figure, looks and means. But it is also worth noticing some of the younger background players on the show, as they are often wearing even more youth orientated fashion.
To put 1968 into context in New York, it was the tail-end of Mary Quant’s youth fashion movement that originally started in London, which then gave birth to the Swinging Sixties around four years earlier. Mary Quant is one of the most influential fashion designers of all time, though she would probably refute this assertion, believing that a movement as important as that which occurred during the sixties could not come from one person but many working toward a common goal. Arguably Quant created the mini-skirt; definitely she was designing the kind of mini shift dresses seen on Megan by the late 1950s. Her dresses were 1920s inspired, short, unfitted or drop-waist. Thanks to Quant’s success in the UK then even more in the U.S., London led the way in terms of fashion influence. Her clothes and the clothes that followed by among others, Biba, were crisp, lively, fun and, above all, youthful. By 1968 this new movement had died down in London making way for the hippy generation, but for those with means in Manhattan it was at its height. At this point, high-end designer names such as Dior (ready to wear) and Pucci were making psychedelic mini-dresses, wraps and skirts. This is the look we are seeing more and more of in Mad Men.
Early in the season 6 premiere, Megan is on a beach in Hawaii wearing a pink and purple maxi dress, very much resort wear of the time, and later in purple florals, a floppy wide brim hat and white round plastic sunglasses. This is spot on for someone with her money. It is a step up from the more youthful clothes she sported in season five (some of which were a little too young for her) and it screams designer. Pucci would have been a good fit for Megan and no doubt we will be seeing more of their swirly prints as the season progresses. In what could be a first for Mad Men, for her arrival back in New York Megan wears a hip-length fur coat, in leopard skin print no less, which contrasts neatly against the prim, but still elegant Betty (January Jones) who wears an equally trim version in plain brown for a night at the theatre. Staying with Megan, further nods to the 1970s come with the Missoni like skirt and top she wears later during the day in her and Don’s apartment. Then entertaining guests in a metallic silver trouser suit with tunic top (very Goodfellas housewife). She is racing ahead in terms of contemporary style more than any female character on the show. Although for the men, Megan would be hard pressed to keep up with snappy jacket wearing Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), seemingly modelled on Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer) from Rosemary’s Baby (1967).
New SCDP partner Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) is seldom seen out of a sheath dress, except for a wiggle skirt and blouse, so a suit is something different for her. Those brooches though, generally indicative of Joan’s mood or the time of year in the show, are a signature piece.
Megan might be the most forward thinking central character, though a few brief glimpses at the orange mini-dress receptionist working at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (SCDP) indicate that fashion is now led by the young. Megan is not old, though it was the buy and throw-away teenage wear that inspired trendy adults. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) on the other hand has always been fascinatingly tough to pin down in terms of style. She began in dowdy separates with occasional broad checks, went through a beatnik phase in season 4, donned a conspicuous 1950s esque evening dress in season 5 and is shown for the first time in season 6 wearing white knee socks. Immediately she appears more teen-like, even Mod, but her new shorter, tucked under hair and pearls with Chanel-like suit indicate a professional persona she is trying hard to project at her new agency. Her boyfriend Abe (Charlie Hofheimer), however, is now nearly unrecognisable with long hair and Viva Zapata moustache. Peggy is inconsistent in terms of style because she has no idea what she is doing. She aims to fit in, but eventually falls back into old patterns. Ultimately she is a sensible girl who would rather dress this way.
Noting the brief appearance of new partner at SCDP, Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), who unfortunately does not receive much screen time in the premiere, it is obvious there are changes afoot. Once ubiquitous in sheath dresses, Joan has put her new money to a new wardrobe consisting of a purple skirt suit with waistcoat and matching blouse – possibly the first time she ever has worn one. We have seen Joan in wiggle skirts and blouses before, but not a suit. It looks like a brand new creation by Janie Bryant too, rather than a vintage piece. And this is something Joan could afford: custom clothing. It is telling just how dated Joan is in terms of overall demeanour at this point in the show. She will always be stunningly beautiful, but the Twiggy figure was dominating fashion spreads and posters on teenage boys’ walls. Despite her ingrained beauty, to most young men Joan was starting to look like a buxom aunt or worst still, their mother.
Although Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is the oldest of the three men pictured, he is the most modern in terms of styling with his blazer and even a stitched shirt cuff. Note that even staid Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) attempts a lively pocket square and matching tie (likely chosen by his wife), while Don Draper opts for a sober grey check.
For the gentlemen of Mad Men, the show’s make-up and hair department clearly had some fun embracing a new ‘wild man’ ethos. Don Draper (Jon Hamm), still in the same cut suit in the same colours, wanders into a meeting of young freelancers looking like a handsome headmaster. There are beards, moustaches, jersey sweaters and loud sports jackets. He, like Joan, belongs to an entirely different era. But Don is a smart man, he surrounds himself with young, hungry people who now know the world he is selling to far better than he does. Roger Sterling (John Slattery) is more youthful than Don at heart, seen in the premiere wearing a blue blazer with heavily stitched lapels, grey slacks and white sideburns. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) has let his sideburns grow too; he seems a tad sloppier which in turn makes him seem more relaxed. His brown suit is further sign that the seventies are right around the corner. Out of all the male characters in the show, Pete is the one who would suit the 1970s best: comb-over, slight paunch, fat lapels, wide flares, kipper tie, brown liquor in hand – perhaps we will be fortunate enough to get a spin off when Mad Men ends for good at the close of season 7.
This season’s double episode premiere was slightly disappointing in respect of the evolution of Don, who appears to be retreading old ground, but in terms of costume design it is one of the most accomplished yet. Janie Bryant understands that trends do not turn on the decade, some creep in early, some come later. But most important of all it depends on the individual wearing them. We see Don in a rather jazzy red and grey check sports jacket later in the episode, which we will likely see more of, although really this is a man who will live and die in a grey single breasted suit. These are people, remember, not a catwalk. That said, roll on the rest of season 6, and bring on the patterns.
Mad Men season 6 continues on Sky Atlantic HD every Wednesday at 10 pm.
© 2013, Christopher Laverty.