“How does it make you feel?” Don Draper asks an auditioning model, clad in her $15,000 chinchilla coat. And with that scene, which opens Mad Men’s mid-season premiere, the show announces its transition into the luxury-driven ‘70s. The company is rolling in money from the McCann-Erickson deal, and all of a sudden everyone’s a big spender. Look at Don’s and Roger’s dates, with their low-cut Marilyn dresses, piled-high hairdos and oversize jewels — the proto–American Hustle look. But even in this shiny new present, relics of the past are still hanging around — namely, Megan’s earring, still embedded in Don’s carpet. When Trish, his stewardess conquest, finds it and asks if he’s sleeping with another woman, Don says it belongs to “the woman I’m not sleeping with — my ex wife.” It’s the first allusion to Don’s divorce, though we might have already guessed that: The episode thus far has unfolded like a melancholy hangover. It’s telling that the woman Don is drawn to by the end of the episode is a plainly dressed diner waitress in a blue shift — her old-fashioned uniform and nurse’s-style hat a relic of the past. (Think of his similar affection for the slice of old Americana that is Howard Johnson’s a couple seasons ago.)
The episode is defined by missing women: Megan, who never makes an appearance beyond her jewelry’s cameo; Betty, who is nowhere to be seen, though Trish looks a bit like her; and Rachel, whose untimely death has Don sinking into a depression (and dreaming of her). Even Sally is nowhere to be seen — Peggy and Joan are the only major female characters who have scenes this episode.
“Apparently hemlines are going up,” says someone in the office at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. But the minidress trend still seems to extend only to the junior women there, like secretaries — Meredith in childlike pastel frocks with cutesy hair accessories and Shirley in her Biba-esque prints, or the packs of auditioning models in Pucci minidresses and clouds of perfume. But the higher-ups, notably Joan and Peggy, are still favoring longer dresses.
Perhaps because of those rising hemlines, tights are a major plot point of the episode. Joan and Peggy present their campaign ideas for L’eggs rival Topaz Pantyhose to a dismissive duo from the company: two women holding their own against two men in the thoroughly feminine realm of hosiery. Joan wears a navy suit-dress with big white lapels and gold chain accents — a vaguely nautical outfit. Peggy is thoroughly ‘70s, in a DVF-esque printed dress with contrasting cuffs and lapels. (Later, Joan will wear avocado paisley — peak Me Decade.) In a follow-up meeting with three men from McCann-Erickson, during which the sexists have multiplied (one says, “Well, you’re not the landing party we expected”), the two dress in similar style: Joan in a hot-pink suit, Peggy in a grid-print blazer and dotted lady-tie. While they form a united front for the clients, once they make it to the elevator (which tends to serve as this show’s confessional booth) they have words over Peggy’s stray comment to the effect that Joan should expect that kind of treatment, since she doesn’t dress appropriately for the workplace, while Joan retorts that Peggy needs to dress interestingly to offset her plainness. Clearly, despite their Teflon demeanor in the conference room, both are shaken by the comments about their looks, and the fact that no matter what they achieve at work, they’ll always be judged on that surface level.
When we next see them, both women seem to be making an attempt to step outside of their typical style patterns, and by extension, their personalities. There’s the black Oscar de la Renta dress with pearl trimmings and marabou cuffs that Joan tries on in the store as part of her “new look,” and Peggy’s light-blue chain-print shift she wears on her blind date, when she does her best impression of a spontaneous, adventure-hungry woman, suggesting she and her new friend run off to Paris — too bad she can’t find her passport. The “new Peggy” will turn out to be fairly short-lived, when she discovers it in her office drawer and reverts to her hidebound, workaholic factory settings.