"Mad Men" costume designer Janie Bryant is a genius. For the past seven seasons, she’s made each character’s wardrobe evolve right around with them, all while establishing trademark colours, cuts, and accessories. You could say [pause for dramatic music] that she’s helped establish a code. (Which I hope you already knew if you’ve been reading Tom and Lorenzo’s recaps as diligently as we have.)
The thing about "Mad Men" is that every last thing you see is intentional; there are no accidents. So while clothes tend to tell a story on their own, the ones that show up in the series allude to a bigger picture, or to the progression of a character. Here’s a few of the codes we think we figured out (and if we didn’t, just go along with us anyway -- over-analyzation is what this show is all about).
1. A woman in pants will rule the world
We’re into the seventies, but we’ve still yet to see women in pants on a regular basis. The characters who wear them most? Megan (who went on to divorce Don and become a millionaire), Sally (who is so powerful she’ll now be handling her mother’s funeral arrangements), and Peggy (who wowed the masses in her power suit at the end of season six).
A woman in pants is a woman who wields power. Even Helen Bishop wore pants. (And she scared the neighbourhood.) But that doesn’t mean skirts or dresses are powerless.
1. b) Don’t discount women who embrace traditional femininity
But the thing is, Bryant doesn’t shame her traditionally feminine characters. Meredith’s wardrobe consists solely of babydoll and minidresses, covered in floral prints and pink tones -- and girlfriend runs it. (Both Don’s work life and her place in it.) Trudy dresses similarly -- even in this most recent episode favoured a mini-dress and bright, happy colours. (And Trudy singlehandedly had the power to break Pete’s spirit.)
So it’s not a question of whether pants are superior to dresses, or vice versa: the power is different. Meredith mothers Don. Trudy is a maternal figure. Betty, while with Don, wielded her mom-power too. And we have mothers: we know how powerful they are, and how important this power is. It’s just a type of power represented in a very different way than the work-centric type we see showcased by Peggy, Megan, Sally, and most recently, Joan.
2. Wearing red represents a reclamation of power
What’s the colour we see Joan in most? Red? Nope! We actually only see Joan in red a handful of times, and each time she’s wearing it, she’s reclaiming her power from a man who’s trying to take it.
In seasons one and two, she wears red because Roger likes her in it; then, when she’s forced to entertain Lee Garner Jr. at the Lucky Strike/SCDP Christmas party, she wears red again. This season, we see her wear red when trying to reclaim power from her sexist coworker who nearly ruins an account. Joan may have red hair, she may be a queen (obviously), but when she wears red, it’s usually when she’s trying to take back what’s hers.
3. Black clothes want your attention (and it’s futile, I’m sorry)
Wearing black was a lot less common in the sixties and seventies than it is today (duh), which explains why the placement of black tends to stand out. Betty wears black in Italy, before her marriage with Don truly plummets. Megan wears a black mini-dress at Don’s birthday party, going on to perform her unforgettable rendition of “Zou Bisou Bisou.”
Joan wears black the night Roger has a heart attack, returning from a date. Peggy wears black when she leaves the office for a date -- trying to get Ted’s attention in the process. Funerals, suits, and attention. In Mad Men’s case, black not about blending in.
4. Nightwear and gender norms
Think about the women we see in fancy nightwear the most: Betty and Trudy, the women living within very strict gender norms. In season one, we saw Betty shoot birds while wearing a pink nightgown set, and last week delivered Trudy in frilly nightwear while reuniting with Pete.
Meanwhile, two seasons ago Joan answered the door in a two-piece pant-set (and glasses), Megan kept it simple in underwear and a controversial t-shirt, and Peggy’s usually seen in a plain robe or nightie -- which makes sense, considering all three women work, which defies the norms of the 1970s. The fancier the nightwear, the more rigid a character’s conventions are.
5. You’re doomed in blue
For the record, I know there are a few blue pieces that worked out fine (read: any blue worn by Trudy), but when blue appears elsewhere in the show, it usually goes hand in hand with frustration or upset. Blue is a favourite tone of Peggy’s, and was a colour she wore when accepting her job offer at Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough. (And we all saw how that turned out.) When Joan was sexually harassed in season four, she was wearing blue (and wore it when she was stuck as the third wheel on her friend’s date, and again when she was served with her divorce papers). And Megan? She wore a blue mini-dress to greet Don at LAX (again, a doomed union), and again in a business meeting with Harry. (You know: the one where he proposed they sleep together.) Hell, even when Meredith kissed Don (and he shot her down), she was wearing blue.
And finally, Betty. Tom and Lorenzo have been diligent in mapping characters’ favourite colours, and Betty’s have been nothing less than prevalent (pink and blue). Betty’s story also ends the worst. When she fell and broke her rib (which alerted the doctors to cancer last week), she was wearing blue. When she returned to school, she was wearing blue. When she told Glen she was sad (in season two), she was wearing blue.
Betty Draper is consistently clad in blue -- and it’s the colour she wants to be buried in as well. In terms of foreshadowing, blue is the new black: the more we see it, the the worse things end.
Here’s hoping this week we see only the shiniest, happiest tones. Or not. This show has broken us, guys.
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