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The ’60s Revisited

July 24, 2008

By Clifford Pugh, Houston Chronicle

Jul. 24–In the acclaimed cable-TV series Mad Men, New York advertising executive Don Draper always wears a tailored suit, a starched white shirt with cuff links and a narrow tie to work — but no wedding ring.

His stay-at-home wife, Betty, looks perfectly put together in a sleeveless sheath, a colorful swing coat or Capri pants and espadrilles. Her wavy blond hair is never out of place, even when she’s lying on her psychiatrist’s sofa harboring doubts about her “perfect” life.

It’s a highly stylized tableau of an era nearly a half-century ago, when WASP-y men ruled the world and it was OK to drink like a fish, smoke like a chimney, treat women like dirt and disparage Jews, gays and people of color. Though such overt sexism and racism would never be tolerated today, many of the straight-as-an-arrow styles from back then are the hippest thing around.

As TV’s buzziest show — it has garnered 16 Emmy nominations, two Golden Globes and Program of the Year honors from the TV Critics Association — Mad Men is spurring a revival of midcentury-modern merchandise like Zippo lighters and silver-rimmed highball glasses. It’s also inspiring designer fashion.

Many of the fall collections, from Prada’s lace pencil skirts to Betsey Johnson’s crinoline party dresses cinched at the waist, echo the silhouettes of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Michael Kors’ entire fall collection is a paean to the period; he filled his runways with men in tweed suits and fedoras and women in fitted sheaths and floral coats.

“Mad Men is (set in) such a beautiful period,” Janie Bryant, the show’s costume designer, said in a telephone interview. “But it was not a period of being comfortable. These girls grew up with the motto of ‘pain before beauty.’ We’ve sort of lost that in American culture.

“But the clothes are so accessible, and the silhouettes are so beautiful. Somebody said to me the other day, there’s a formality happening now with the way people are dressing. I think that’s a great thing.”

Pam Pellegrino, owner of Planet Vintage and Retropolis vintage clothing stores in Houston, notes an uptick in demand for styles from that era, including fitted men’s suits with skinnier lapels and women’s silk two-piece dresses and sweater sets in bright colors.

“It’s very classic,” Pellegrino said. “It’s not ’60s psychedelic or the ’70s disco and hippie thing. It’s not costumey. It’s just a classy look.”

The painstaking attention to detail is a fascinating aspect of the series, which kicks off its second season Sunday at 9 p.m. on the American Movie Classics channel. The fictitious New York advertising agency where much of the action takes place is decorated in 1950s modern style, with light wood walls, lots of windows and teak desks, each with an IBM Selectric typewriter, carbon paper and overflowing ashtrays.

For ideas about the clothing, which also has been integral to the show, Bryant watched classic movies from the era, including The Apartment, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Days of Wine and Roses and Lolita. She also pored over fashion magazines to develop a collage with color swatches for each character. She designs some pieces for the main characters and scours vintage stores and flea markets for others.

Since Draper (Jon Hamm) is harboring a secret that was revealed at the end of the first season (and now out on DVD), Bryant put him in dark suits to retain an air of mystery. To highlight his creative side, she gave him a little pizzazz with a French-cuffed shirt and spread collar.

“He’s not ostentatious, so I wanted him to have minimal accessories. Cuff links are the only accessories he wears. He doesn’t ever wear a wedding band,” said Bryant, who won an Emmy for designing the costumes for Deadwood in 2005.

Draper’s wife, Betty (January Jones), often wears cooler colors, including lots of blues — perhaps to match her sense of melancholy. But her attire is always impeccable, reflecting her station in life as the wife of a successful executive.

“She is an oversized image of perfection,” Bryant said. “In that era, housewives had a lot of time to beautify themselves. That was part of the culture. You must look pretty for your husband.”

The secretaries in the office — most of whom Bryant noted were aiming for a “Mrs.” degree because so few professional opportunities were available — have a different look from the wives.

“Secretaries, they’re working girls. I wanted to keep (their look) more about pleated skirts and pencil skirts and not have them wear trims and bows and lace kind of things to have that separation of lifestyle between the housewives and what’s going on in the office.”

The attire varies from the tight sweaters and form-fitting dresses worn by office bombshell Joan (Christina Hendricks) to the prim and proper garments of new hire Peggy (Elisabeth Moss).

The early 1960s were a transitional period in women’s fashion — bridging the post-war McCarthy period of conformity and the upheavals of the Vietnam war. Within a a few years, hippie headbands would render hats and gloves old-fashioned.

Incremental fashion changes will be reflected in the second-season opener, when the action jumps ahead two years to Valentine’s Day 1962. A few of the characters with means will have a more couture look, reflecting the influence of first lady Jackie Kennedy, Bryant said. But most styles hadn’t changed markedly yet.

“The biggest change is that hemlines are creeping up. But it’s not the miniskirt period. It’s still a very conservative time, so the silhouettes are similar.”

But the ashtrays will continue to be overflowing. In the first season, characters smoked in nearly every scene — at work, in the car, at home, even in the children’s nursery.

So how does a costume designer get all that smoke out of all those classic clothes?

“I have a great dry-cleaners,” Bryant replied, laughing loudly. “I don’t know what’s in those cigarettes, but it’s not tobacco (they’re reported to be herbal cigarettes). They never complain about it. They’re all smoking, so I don’t think they smell it.”

clifford.pugh@chron.com

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