FIT’s Take on How Style Tells the Story

Mad Men, the TV show about a Manhattan ad agency in the 1960s—the delight of multitudes of obsessive fans—airs its final seven episodes this spring on AMC. And design enthusiasts are already mourning. Because, despite the complex characters, delicious plot twists, and mordant humor, Mad Men has captivated audiences on another, more surface level: it’s just so darn stylish.

Indeed, design plays an enormous part in the show — from its nip-waisted shirtdresses and youthquake minis, to its midcentury-modern apartments and space-age offices, to its retro cigarette holders and power-wielding pen pendants. Which is fitting, since Mad Men is as much about the 1960s as it is about the central character, ad man Don Draper, and it’s impossible to tell the story of a decade — particularly that decade — without paying acute attention to its look. “If you ask me in general what I think the story of Mad Men is, in terms of its design, it’s that the ’60s brought too much change too fast,” says Associate Professor Lourdes Font, who teaches fashion history at FIT. “It was dizzying for people; they couldn’t ride the wave of change the whole way.” And Mad Men’s characters all deal with change differently, by tuning out, going crazy, drinking, or all three.

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To commemorate the end of the show, we delve into some of the objects, sets, and clothing central to Mad Men. Using material from the new exhibition Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men,” running through June 14 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, we explore the ways in which the series deftly uses design to tell the story of 1960s.

Fashion historian and conservation expert Tae Smith, Fashion and Textile Studies MA 2004, prepared a selection of the show’s memorable outfits for the exhibition. She, Font, and other FIT faculty— including Al Romano, assistant chairperson of Advertising and Marketing Communications, who started working in the ad industry in 1971 — share their thoughts and insights on the cultural changes of the 1960s. It turns out that “Mad Men” gets a lot right, particularly about advertising, including the late nights, the napping, and the three-martini lunches. “At midday, you would open the credenza and there was the booze,” Romano recalls. “They would be drinking at lunchtime — and after.”

The Ads

Mad Men Ads

“The most memorable ads don’t necessarily sell product,” Romano says, and that’s true of the best campaigns on “Mad Men.” Junior copywriter Peggy Olson’s first ad, for the fictional cosmetic company Belle Jolie in Season 1, promotes more than just lipstick. “Most fashion advertising promises that you will be sexier and more attractive,” says Thomas McManus, associate professor of Communication Design. “Instead, the Belle Jolie ad says that women are dominant and possess their mate.”

The Jaguar ad is even more radical than the Belle Jolie one: It doesn’t show a car at all. Instead of painterly illustrations and cluttered copy, it offers a stark white background and a simple tagline. The ad shows that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce had caught up with the creative advertising revolution sparked by Volkswagen’s game-changing “Think Small” campaign: “witty, direct, clean, and simple,” says Joe Staluppi, assistant professor of Communication Design, Advertising Design.

The Clothes

Joan Clothes

Joan Holloway’s green dress, blood-stained from the lawn-mower incident in season 3, alongside dresses from later seasons. Her silhouette remains consistent, even as fashion changes.

Joan Holloway’s unchanging wasp-waist silhouette shows how some women found themselves left behind by fashion in the 1960s. “Joan has this incredibly voluptuous body, and that worked in the late ’50s and early ’60s,” Font says. “But if she were to go to a store in 1964 or ’65, she would not find anything that fits. Her look hasn’t changed, because it can’t change. If you put Joan into a ’60s mini dress, that’s not going to work.”
Peggy Olson's Clothes from Mad MenPeggy Olson’s girlish season 1 outfits displayed with her sophisticated looks from later seasons.

Though she’s hardly a fashion trailblazer, secretary-turned-Draper-protégé Peggy has the most wide-ranging wardrobe on the show. When the series begins, she’s a 19-year-old naif, in a schoolgirl-plaid shirtdress. But, by the time she is recruited by a competing agency, she has ditched her signature Peter Pan collars for graphic scarves and sleek shifts that left the 1950s in the dust.

Stan from Mad Men clothesCreative director Stan’s fringed jacket doesn’t convey quite as much counter-culture cool as the all-denim look of Megan’s party guest.

The 1960s counterculture seeps into the Mad Men universe in later seasons, with art director Stan incorporating hippie fringed suede into his more corporate office look (left) and Megan’s California set embracing the bohemian lifestyle (right). Here, Smith discusses the challenge in preparing such “anti-fashion” looks for MMI’s exhibition.

The Interiors

In Season 1, both Don and silver-fox account man Roger Sterling have classically mid-century modern offices. In Season 4, after they launch their new agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Price, Roger updates his office to reflect the firm’s embrace of mid- to late-century design. “Using the most current design furnishings of the era—the Arco lamp, Corbu lounge, Saarinen tables, Artemide lamp—Roger’s office really reflects the new technology of the times,” says Andrew Seifer, associate professor and chair of Interior Design. Indeed, its space-age molded plastics and op-art interior design, serve signal his hipness more than anything else. “His office is a sales office used to affect his clients and less of a ‘working’ office,” Seifer points out.

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Roger Sterling’s classic mid-century modern office, season 1. By season 5, Roger’s new space-age office includes the latest designer furnishings.

Don’s new office, with its neutral palette accented with occasional pops of color, appears relatively unchanged from the firm’s former space, showing that he is unable to ride the wave of change that is the 1960s. Yet, it was typical of corporate office design of the period. “It represents a more conservative approach to the design style of the ’60s,” Seifer says. “It is a no-frills working office, with clean lines and less ornamentation. The furnishings inside are stylish, but they aren’t ‘designer’ pieces, as in Roger’s office.”

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Don Draper’s office design remains relatively unchanged, even when the firm moves to a new space.

Don and Betty’s suburban Ossining kitchen reflects the 1950s neo-Victorian concept of separate spheres, set off from the rest of the home. It isolates Betty but also functions as her domain, with its modern conveniences — including on-trend built-in appliances — as well as the kitschy mismatched knick-knacks that give it a lived-in quality. “All of this technology that was supposed to help women with their housework actually made them more chained to the house,” Smith says of Betty’s state-of-the-art kitchen. “And that really defined their role as housewife.”

Ossining Kitchen in Mad Men

Don’s hip second wife, Megan, by contrast, can’t be chained to the house. Her California bungalow has an open-plan kitchen that extends into the common space, a repudiation of the concept of the ideal homemaker and housewife — signaling the cultural shift, and feminist revolution, heading into the 1970s. “Megan’s kitchen, inspired by the residential design ideas of the early modernists, is more reflective of the ‘free, independent’ lifestyle typical in California during the ’60s,” Seifer says. “Minimal detailing and wood paneling dominated the wall surfaces, and textured carpet, brightly colored window treatments, and the dull-yellow corner metal fireplace accent the space.”California kitchen

The Objects

In Season One, newly married accounts guy Pete Campbell struggles to return a ceramic Chip ’n’ Dip that he and his wife receive as a wedding gift. The trompe l’oeil lettuce-and-tomato dish was “probably a popular gift because it was new and different,” says David Brogna, assistant professor, Home Products Development. “The U.S. ceramics industry was experimenting with a lot of different shapes and colors at the time, particularly taking floral and other traditional print motifs into three dimensions.” The rococo ceramic couldn’t be further from Megan Draper’s sleek fondue pot featured in Seasons 6 and 7.  While both objects reflect the mid-century American woman’s role as gracious hostess and entertainer, the Swiss fondue pot also represents French Canadian Megan’s cosmopolitanism and sophistication. “If you were a fashion-forward person, you would have gravitated toward the Northern European design trends that began to take hold during the late 1960s, not the novel and kitsch.” Brogna notes that these trends influenced not only design, but how people entertained.

Kitchen towel and napkins from Mad Men

“There are two things we do when we get our home: We either recreate the home we grew up in or we create the home we wish we grew up in,” Brogna says. The Drapers’ kitchen contains a plethora of examples of traditional and trendy surface design, like the floral dishtowel on the counter. The nostalgic prints found throughout the room harken back to an earlier era. Contrast that with the printed paper napkins that appear in later seasons, with their groovy, psychedelic swirls and op-art prints. These reflect the experimentation and rapidly changing aesthetics of the booming decade.

– By Raquel Laneri and Julianna Rose Dow

Publicity shots and film stills courtesy of AMC.
Installation at the Museum of the Moving Image photos by Julianna Rose Dow.

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