Mad Men’s characters have remained, in many cases, set in their hard-drinking, mistake-making ways, but at least their wardrobes have evolved. Over the last six seasons, we’ve seen the female characters’ style evolve from knee-length skirts and boxy blouses to midriff-baring, flared two-pieces, while male characters are trading in their gray flannel suits for fringed suede jackets. (Don Draper’s buttoned-up appearance, of course, remains the one sartorial constant.)
Thirty-three of the show’s best costumes are currently on display at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the exhibition “Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men,” including Don’s classic suit, Megan’s “Zou Bisou Bisou” getup, and Joan’s bloodstained dress from season three’s lawnmower accident. The Cut spoke with the show’s curator, Barbara Miller, about go-go boots at the office and Betty’s dreaded robe from season six.
There are so many strong looks on Mad Men. How did you choose which to feature?
It was tricky what to leave out — there was so much beautiful stuff. We talked with Janie Bryant, the costume designer for the series, and asked for her opinion on what she felt were the most iconic costumes associated with each character, and her suggestions were really instrumental and influential to us. A lot of the costumes that you see on the show she designed and made. Her impact on the conceptualizations of the characters was really important, and we have on display the mood boards she created for the main characters, which became really important in terms of how the characters were defined and depicted.
Whose style do you think we see change most radically over the course of the series?
Peggy, for sure. Even in the pilot episode, the way she dressed was a topic of conversation and an explicit part of people’s reaction to her — you know, “show a little bit more leg, sweetheart.” We have a turquoise skirt and floral button-down shirt that she wore early on when she had her tryst with Pete, and it’s a kind of little-girl-like ensemble. At the end of the series, she’s in not power suits exactly, but her hair is more tailored, her look overall is more sophisticated. It’s not just the changing of the time — it’s really the changing of the character.
What about Betty? She goes through some physical changes as well.
She really does. We have one of the things that she wore during the period when she was overweight — this big, quilted pink robe. January Jones came to the exhibition last week and she was like, “Oh no, that robe!” It was a bad memory. But to me, aside from that period where she was overweight, it doesn’t really seem like Betty’s style evolved very much. She kind of knows what looks good on her and she sticks with that. The same with Joan, who does get more powerful as her role at the agency changes, but it says something about her character that she’s someone that picks a style of dressing and sticks with it. It’s interesting to see side by side how Peggy’s style evolved a lot while Joan’s stayed much more similar.
What shifts in the era do the costumes capture?
We do one very explicit display toward the end of the exhibition, with a dress worn by a secretary in the first season and a dress worn by a secretary in the seventh, to really show how everyday women’s styles evolved. In another section, we have elements from two scenes from an episode in the seventh season called “The Runaways,” when Betty and Henry Francis have a party and then Megan has a party in L.A. The costumes, props, and styles of the parties are so different they look like they could have taken place in different decades, but it was actually the same evening in 1969, for people not even that far apart in age. It really speaks to this big sort of rupture in the culture in that decade. From the Francis party, Henry’s wearing a sport jacket, slacks, a tie, and his American flag pin on his lapel. Betty’s wearing this cute little floral number, knee-length, and then the party guest who we have is wearing a dress that goes all the way to the floor, with a ruffled top. And then from Megan’s party, she’s wearing that super-short Pucci dress, and her friend Amy is wearing a tiny little miniskirt and a see-through top, and the guy that Megan dances with is in a jean jacket and bell-bottom jeans and jewelry. It speaks very clearly about the shifts in both fashion and culture.
Why did you decide to display just one look for Don?
We wanted one suit that, with the hat and briefcase, really stood in for him. Even for the character it was a costume — he was dressing as somebody that he really wasn’t, and he had to maintain that image. We just wanted something really classic. Men’s fashion didn’t vary tremendously, until all of a sudden toward the end of the 1960s you start to see the hats fall away, and people start dressing much more casually. We have Stan’s costume in the exhibition where he’s wearing a fringed suede jacket and the whole sort-of-late-’60s getup, which couldn’t contrast more with how the men, even the creatives, in the agency dressed at the beginning of the series in 1960.
What about the dress Megan wore when she sang “Zou Bisou Bisou” in season five?
That was a vintage dress that Janie Bryant found and added those diaphanous bell sleeves to give Megan more drama and movement when she sings for Don. It’s clear she’s younger than most people there, and she seems meant to usher in this new era in fashion where the hemlines are super short.
Did you or any of the museum staff manage to try on any of the costumes?
No, but we were definitely tempted.