Janie Bryant image by Elisabeth Caran
As huge Mad Men fans we are naturally in awe of Janie Bryant, the book-writing, Emmy-winning boss who designs the costumes on the AMC television show–now in its seventh and final season.
Bryant’s depiction of dress codes and coded dressing in the American office space in the late 1960s/early 1970s is crucial to the story of every episode. Her creations are their own characters, speaking to the viewership on several levels about the message-conveying power of surfaces and the ways they can be used to mentally manipulate others and also ourselves.
Bryant spoke to us on the phone about designing for characters’ traits–Joan’s “provocative” appreciation of her own body; Don’s desire to never change–and answered the question: Who has better style: Don Draper or Roger Sterling?
Nordstrom blogs: How do you think about your job, as a source-r of existing materials or a creator of new ones?
Janie Bryant: I always approach my job the same way, in terms of designing from scratch, or if I’m finding vintage, or redesigning vintage, or resourcing from the rental houses in Los Angeles. I love to design everything and it would be amazing to have every single piece of the show designed and built. But there’s never enough money or time to do that.
Can we talk about the–quite sexist–scene in season seven, episode eight where Joan and Peggy meet with McCann Erickson, since Peggy does call attention to “the way you dress”?
Mad Men images courtesy AMC
Well, that is a dress that I designed for Joan for that episode. That dress expresses a lot of different elements of Joan’s character. She’s a character that shows off her figure. That’s one of the things we love about Joan and I think she appreciates about herself. She understands the power of the feminine form. That dress definitely does show her figure, and also the color is very bright, very flirtatious, it’s clearly provocative to Peggy. But you know, the thing is, no matter how provocative Joan dresses, it’s disrespectful for these men or anybody to treat her that way. It’s demeaning and condescending. These guys are thinking they have power over these women. And it was important for Joan’s dress to be maybe a little sexier than what she would normally wear, to have that provocative capability. It’s also important that Joan and Peggy were so contrasting in that scene as well.
I guess they’re both caught between being who they want to be and who they’re allowed to be.
It’s true. And it’s such a creepy scene to watch. You want to take a shower afterward.
You really feel for Joan. She’s going to be taking these guys’ money, so in the end she wins…
..but the path to winning has so much losing in it.
Yes. That kind of sexual harassment doesn’t take place so much these days in professional situations, but women today have a different battle in getting equal pay. Which is another form of sexual harassment. So I can only tell you, the fight is not over.
Through the years, the mens’ style on the show changed but Don’s stayed more or less the same. Why was that?
That’s true and it’s on purpose. Don is a character that’s stuck in his ways. He is a man who maintains what he knows. So that’s reflected in his costume design. His lapel might be slightly wider, or his tie, just slightly wider. But he’s still the same man. And I love that classic aspect to Don’s character. You can see the contrast, too. In the late ‘60s there’s this whole movement toward loosening up. I don’t want to say hippie influence, because that was not the culture in offices at the time. But the hippies definitely had an influence on menswear in terms of hair being longer, facial hair being accepted and just more of a relaxed feel. So we can really see that element happening within the office. And it’s definitely contrasting against Don. I would describe Don as being set in his ways. His suit is his armor. It’s about protection. The uniformity. The suit is protecting him from himself and from the world.
Who has better style: Don Draper or Roger Sterling?
For modern times, Don Draper. For period times, Roger Sterling. I think that men today, they still want to look like Don Draper. In menswear we are seeing the trend, which is still holding strong, of the skinny suit, the skinny tie, that real ‘60s looking skinny suit style. It’s even gotten shorter and skinnier and tighter. I’ve seen guys walking around in a total schoolboy style suit. It’s totally cool but it’s definitely taken from the 1960s skinny suit design.