Mad Style: Time & Life

Posted on April 29, 2015

Looking at it through the costuming (as one does), we were a bit surprised to find out how strangely off balance this episode was in retrospect. Every character (including those who spoke only a line or two) got several eye-popping costume changes, but the bulk of the action took place over two business days, which means the bulk of the costuming remained unchanged from scene to scene. In other words, roughly 80% of the episode was spent on the main characters as they went from scene to scene interacting with each other and wearing the same costumes. Then there was a flurry of very briefly seen costumes on the periphery of the action. We’re not trying to derive meaning out of that, but it did make for a particularly challenging Mad Style entry.

There were some powerful color motifs playing out this week, establishing roles, drawing connections, and revealing emotional states. While color absolutely exploded in all the background players, for the movers and shakers of the soon-to-be-shuttered SC&P, it was all browns and blues this week, reminding them that nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky.

Okay, that last bit was reaching, but now you have “Dust in the Wind” stuck in your head, so we feel it was worth it.

Onward:

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Okay, several things are playing out in this brief scene. Roger and Joan, who were more openly affectionate and made more references to their history than we’ve seen in some time, are in matching outfits, with black, gold and red touches to them, depicting that bond and history. This matching quality will also serve to delineate the hierarchy of the office in this scene:

 

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Secretaries wear blue, executives wear black. There’s a very clear line separating the roles of the administrative people and the roles of the partners in this scene. There have been countless scenes in the run of the show depicting Joan with a gaggle of secretaries and there’s almost always something shown to connect her to the women or to show how much she influences them. There is nothing like that to be found here, really.

Now take a step back, blur your eyes, and recalibrate your style settings, making Shirley the most stylish and trendy person in the room (which she is). Now take a look at Joan. In 2015, her look may seem the most stylish and classic, but in this time and place, compared to women younger than her, she looks mature and not particularly up on the times. It’s a great dress, but in 1970, it was a great dress for a middle-aged woman. And in 1970, a 39-year-old woman -especially if she had a child – was considered middle-aged.

As for secretary style, it’s a tale told through hemlines. Caroline (below the knee) is older and not remotely stylish, Dawn (above the knee, but not too far) is young, but she thinks the women in her church are “harlots,” so she tends to be fairly conservative in her style, Shirley (barely covering her ass) is a walking magazine cover of the period. There’s always one secretary at Sterling Cooper who looks a bit like a movie star. That particular crown got passed from Joan to Jane to Megan and now to Shirley. From Marilyn Monroe to Pam Grier in the space of ten years, the secretaries of Sterling Cooper serve as an illustration of the changing definition of female beauty during this period, not to mention the increased visibility of African-Americans – from the perspective of upper middle-class white Americans, that is.

We should note, as we have before, that Shirley essentially wears the same dress in different fabrics, over and over again. Part of this is likely due to Costume Designer Janie Bryant finding a silhouette and style for a character and working it like a motif, but since she tends to do this sort of thing mainly with secretaries (Joan herself had a lot of nearly identical office dresses), we think there’s a class issue as well. When you need a good working wardrobe, a smart person finds what works for her and sticks to it.

Back to Joan and this highly focus-pulling outfit:

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Once again, united by their costumes, signaling both their history and their roles. Two executives in black finding out bad news about their company. Two former lovers having a moment of quiet affection. Joan is in a dress with red flowers on a black background. As we’ve pointed out before, she’s worn plenty of black dresses with red roses on them and they were usually to signal moments of romantic disappointment. We won’t claim a clear connection between those dresses and this one, but the red flowers of the dress are much more prominent in this scene with Roger, as well as this one:

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So Joan’s costume has both an executive quality to it, as well as some references to her romantic life. We tend to think this highlights something that’s been gnawing at Joan ever since her misogyny-fueled shopping spree a few weeks back: whether or not she’s really committed to the shitshow that is the advertising industry anymore. Certainly, the news that she’ll go back to being a condescended-to cog in a machine doesn’t have her brimming with ambition or interest. As Joan said to Bob last season, she wants love. She always has. Which isn’t to say she has no ambition, but it’s something she can pick or put down as it suits her, unlike Peggy who’s always been consumed with ambition.

We keep hearing fan theories about Richard being some sort of psycho or con artist or sleazeball and it tends to remind us of all the old theories of Bob Benson being roughly the same, before we found out who he was. In the case of Bob, we surmised that a lot of those theories arose out of an unfamiliarity with the lives of pre-Stonewall gay men, which made a lot of his odder behavior look fairly sinister to modern audiences. In the case of Richard, we think people are being blinded by his costuming, which reads as slimy and gross in the modern day but would have simply been looked at as another middle-aged California divorced man’s style.

There’s a certain sense of the characters snapping back to form in their romantic lives as the series winds down and they’re winding up with the people (or the kinds of people) they always should have been with. Joan is once again with a wealthy older man who worships her. Pete and Trudy are flirting with reconciliation. Roger (who spent his youth partying in Paris before the War) stopped chasing after women half his age and is making a go of it with Marie Calvet. Peggy and Stan, who’ve been dancing around each other for years, are closer than they’ve ever been. Ted reunited with his college love. There’s a feeling of inevitability about it all.

Only one of the main characters isn’t in love or on track for love:

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Earth and sky, brown and blue. It’ll repeat.

His wife took a million-dollar check and all his furniture and skipped out of town. His last lover wanted nothing from him, left her furniture behind, and also skipped town. And yet, all things considered, Don doesn’t seem to be doing too badly.

One of the tricks in Jon Hamm’s actor’s arsenal is his ability to show age and exhaustion on his face at will. There are countless scenes in Mad Men‘s history where one can be astounded by his seeming ability to age ten years in a scene and then drop those ten years for the next one. Our point here is that Don looks good. We see the middle-aged man that he is, but he’s scrubbed and groomed, his coloring looks good and he looks like he’s well-rested. These are things that Jon Hamm and the production not only have control over, but they’ve always used as indicators of his emotional state. There has never been a problem for the audience when it comes to seeing how Don’s doing based on how Don looks.

Both his marriage and his last affair have recently ended and for the most part, he’s functioning and presenting a competent front to the world. When his previous marriage ended, he fell into a year-long drunken pity party. When his previous affair ended, he had an epic, drunken meltdown in a meeting. The worst you can say about Don right now – or at least up until this episode – was that he seemed kind of resigned and complacent, letting everything be taken away from him one by one and letting anyone he’s wronged rip off a chunk of his flesh before leaving him.

Up until now, we were thinking Don was on a death track. We don’t mean we predicted his death; just that the story was using a lot of metaphor to show that Don is close to it (or It’s close to him), which is why, for instance he’s mostly fine with the giving away of all his possessions and dismantling of his life. But we gasped when we saw this tan suit, which is unprecedented in his wardrobe. When you pair it with a rare patterned shirt and a thick ’70s-style tie, there’s a real sense that Don is freshening himself up a bit; that he may be coming out the other side of something rather than heading down a long tunnel toward the inevitable. It’s not just the suit that spurred this feeling; it’s also the highly notable (and very deliberate) placing of him in an elevator full of mothers and children. This is the ultimate Guy with Mommy Issues and yet he’s relaxed, smiling, and most important of all, non-contemplative. There’s no sense of “THAT WOMAN REPRESENTS MY WHORE MOTHER AND THAT LITTLE BOY IS ME, LOWLY DICK WHITMAN, WHO DESERVES NO LOVE” dark navel-gazing.

He may still be Brylcreemed, but Don has changed some of the surface details slightly, and it’s possible they reflect – believe it or not – a little bit of growth and self-acceptance. In fact, we’re starting to think that self-acceptance is one of the themes tying the various stories together as the series reaches its end. This reinforces something we’ve been saying for some time about the show; that it’s about how people can’t change the fundamentals of who they are and the best thing they can do in life is figure that out and learn to work within the parameters of their own psyche.

And speaking of which, here’s the poster child for self-actualization, having her world rocked by once again getting slapped in the face with her past:

Mad-Men--Season-7B-Season-11-Mad-Style-Television-Series-Costumes-Tom-Lorenzo-Site-TLO (5)Stan and Peggy, earth and sky.

Oh, we could SO have fun with this theme and say that Stan represents grounded reality and lowered expectations while Peggy represents moving ever-onward and upward. Or how Don’s tan and blue ensemble represents someone for whom a certain integration is occurring; someone who’s still in the gutter but looking at the stars.

But that doesn’t quite scan for this next earth-and-sky meeting:

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Again, we gasped. Not because of what they’re wearing, but because this clearly references two important scenes that took place on Pete’s office couch. First, when he unloaded all his fears and frustrations on her and they wound up having early-morning sex on it, but more importantly, when he once again unloaded all his fears and frustrations on her (not to mention declaring his love for her) and she responded by telling him about their child. Peggy, Pete and couches? They’ve got history.

This is one of those costuming moments where we feel like, after all this time writing about how Janie Bryant illustrates connections between characters through color and pattern, we need only point at the pictures and ask “See?”

Pete is wallowing (in mostly brown) and turned to the skyward-facing (blue and white) Peggy for comfort due to their longstanding and mostly private relationship (matching blues and stripes). Once again, the costuming reinforces what’s happening in the script.

Bear in mind, when we’re talking about browns this episode, we’re talking about the entire range of seventies-era earth tones, which dominated fashion and design for the entire decade. These shades can range from tans and taupes to chocolates and clays with hints of red and orange. This was the palette for the decade.

It’s also notable that Eeyore Diana, whose ghost hung over the episode, wore two waitress uniforms; one in blue and one in brown. As we’ve noted before, whichever woman Don is currently infatuated with tends to have a ripple effect on all the characters’ costumes.

Anyway, there was no such connection with Pete’s next encounter:

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Dear Mom,

Please don’t disinherit me for pointing this out to thousands of people you don’t know, but this is exactly what you and every other suburban mom looked like in the early 1970s. EXACTLY.

Love,

T.

Dear god, housecoats were a terrible thing. We understand the comfort and convenience factors, but the shape is horrible and they always seemed to be rendered in the most depressingly cheap fabrics.

Anyway, for this scene, there’s no connection between these two characters. Not one color repeats in the other’s costume. Pete’s wallowing in work drama at the moment and she’s stuck in domestic drama. There’s no earth and sky in her outfit; just an enforced sunniness imposed on her through an incongruously cheerful (but still depressing somehow) print that shows she’s completely removed from the drama of the office.

Speaking of incongruously cheerful, let’s all take a Meredith Moment:

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Like Trudy, her color signals a remove from all the drama. She’s on the outside of it, in an unbusinesslike pink (as opposed to all those secretarial blues). But as silly as this look is, she’s not really dressed like a toddler any more. That hair may look pretty ridiculous and “child pageant” to modern audiences, but that was a grownup’s hairstyle – and one you could only get in a salon.

There’s been some real behind-the-scenes growth with this character and it’s a big reason why the audience seems to be suddenly intrigued by her. Her costuming has become more adult than it ever was before while still retaining a lot of its typically Meredith-like affectations, like the bow in her hair.

And speaking of grownup ladies:

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She went home from work and changed into this outfit to meet with the headhunter, which makes sense because you wouldn’t want to meet with him in a shitty doubleknit you’ve been wearing all day while children give you unasked-for hugs. This is sophisticated and stylish; very “Mary Tyler Moore,” which is appropriate, because Trudy’s about to go very Marlo Thomas. Also note how relaxed her hair is now. She’s still dumping a ton of hairspray on it every morning, but it’s not the helmet it used to be and it’s starting to look more ’70s in style.

 

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Could these two be any more of a perfect team? Shallow, phony, and constantly pouting about their lot in life; no one has ever understood Pete as well as Trudy – and vice versa. Just look at those plastered-on smiles. They should have gone into politics.

We know it’s reductive to call every woman in white a bridal reference, but we really couldn’t help thinking it here, especially when you put a hat and some complicated hair on her and seat her next to a man in a dark suit. This episode (this whole season, really) has been exploding with color and print, so dresses like Trudy’s very simple one here really tend to stand out to us. Note that their color scheme is a conservative and patriotic red, white and blue while they try to portray as normal and united a front as possible.

 

Mad-Men--Season-7B-Season-11-Mad-Style-Television-Series-Costumes-Tom-Lorenzo-Site-TLO (16)This is a perfectly stylish look for her, but it’s definitely conservative in a Cos Cob kind of way. Even Betty dresses more adventurously than this, but she’d have more reason to, since her life as a political wife seems to be filled with way more galas and parties than Trudy’s, whose life sounds kind of lonely and depressing the way she recounts it to Pete. Even if she is dating mysterious men in mustaches, the fact remains that a Connecticut housewife of means is going to dress like the wilder parts of the sixties never happened.

 

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A bunch of blues and one brown. You can tell Ted Chaough isn’t a founding SCDP member. He’s also the only one who will turn out to be somewhat happy about what happens this episode. In this case, he’s the happy grounded one (earth) and they’re all still grasping for the sky.

Take a moment to take in all the details of Joan here, from the competing scarves to the giant brooch to the large rings. We’ll come back to that.

 

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The only one who doesn’t look miserable is the one in brown. And yes, this final shot calls back to the one of the partners standing on the newly purchased second floor of SCDP back when things were looking much rosier.

Notice Jim Hobart’s black (or near black) suit, white shirt and red tie; a little bit Satan, a little bit Coca-Colaaaaaaa.

 

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We just wanted to include this shot because it’s been a long time coming and because both actors played it extremely well. For Joan, it was one of those “I still have issues with you, but our long history and current melancholy make me want to hug you” moments. Not affectionate so much as conciliatory – and a recognition from each person that the other one still means something to them.

As for Joan’s style, we want to point out again that it’s mature and starting to look a bit fussy, what with all the Joan-like detailing, like the aforementioned scarves and jewelry. We also want to point out that her style got more conservative immediately following that humiliating meeting with those McCann guys. Darker colors, looser silhouettes, and much more demure necklines have been worked into her rotation.

Roger goes home to Marie, Joan goes home to wait for Richard’s arrival, Ted has plans with his girlfriend and Pete announces his intention to call Trudy because she had a bad day. And Don?

 

Mad-Men--Season-7B-Season-11-Mad-Style-Television-Series-Costumes-Tom-Lorenzo-Site-TLO (24)Don takes a stroll down the Depressing Hallway of Doom, Death and Diana. Because of course he does.

 

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Remember how we talked about Jon Hamm’s amazing acting trick? Scroll up and look at him again in the Mommy Elevator. He’s aged ten years since then.

At any rate, Tom and Lorenzo here represent what life was like for a certain class of gay man in New York City in 1970. This isn’t much more than a flop house, so we assumed we were looking at a couple of hustlers, but then they had their own furniture to bring in, which doesn’t sound like any hustlers we ever heard of. And of course they’d have the most darling little quilt. Even in a shithole and with no money, the gays come through.

They’re gay men of limited means who chose to live as a couple, which makes where and how they can live somewhat limited. Two guys, one bed? Especially two clearly gay guys? You’re not going to have a ton of options for living together unless you have a ton of money, which these two clearly don’t. We’d say they’re probably a couple of low-on-the-totem-pole performers, drag queens or chorus boys of some type, or maybe just a couple of bartenders or waiters in a gay-friendly area of town.

Back to the office:

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Blue and brown, but this time, the colors on each are reversals from the day before. Peggy’s now in brown and Stan’s in blue. Notice how much that little girl sticks out in the scene. She’s wrong and she shouldn’t be there, not to mention, she’ll be the catalyst for Peggy’s meltdown. As such, you can’t take your eyes off her. This is costume as foreshadowing for the emotional event to come.

 

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More office couch truth-telling. Note how Peggy’s in brown on the right and Stan’s in blue on the left, a reversal of the scene on Pete’s couch the day before. Pete reached out to her to let her know about the dissolution because she means something to him on some level. She turned around and did the same thing for the same reasons with Stan. And like the tete-a-tete with Pete, his costume calls to hers with one brown detail.

 

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Look how conservatively Marsha is dressed. Look how low-key Peggy’s outfit is. Then here comes Mom, with her tight red pants, low-cut top, huge hair, and showy jewelry to pick up her acid-colored daughter and spit in Peggy’s face. The costumes here render them in as distracting and invasive a tone as possible while drawing a bright line between Peggy and the other woman. Additionally, there was an undertone of judgmentalism on Peggy’s part, made all the much easier for her if she could convince herself this woman was a shallow and attention-seeking bad mother. You could see the brief look of disgust on her face when the woman walked in. All of this is underlined by putting her in that Harper Valley PTA costume. It gave Peggy a reason to judge her.

In the end, Peggy needed to sit on that office couch alone, with no man beside her, and let the truth come out.

 

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We were never big on pairing these two characters up. It seemed a bit too on the nose to us to have Peggy’s true love be someone in the office when she’s had so many office-based romances (Pete, Duck, Ted) blow up in her face. And we always liked the idea of them as best buds rather than romantic partners. But we changed our minds on this question because it seems clear after this scene that Peggy’s going to need a partner who knows about and understands why she made that choice. It’s not something she can pretend never happened, despite Don’s advice to her of a decade before. And the way Stan reacted to the news made us realize this is the only man she’s ever known who would react to her story in the kind, affectionate, non-judgmental way he did.

And another thing:

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They ended up in more or less complementary earth tones. No more blue sky. I’ll stay here on the ground if you stay here with me. Let’s go to McCann together. And stay on the phone, would you?

This is the second time this season we’ve seen her in a floral talking to Stan. Since they’re so rare in her wardrobe, we tend to think it’s significant.

Peggy’s desk looks like a church. Why have we never noticed that before? We could say this is in reference to her Catholic roots, but we think it’s more along the lines of Peggy thinking her career is her religion.
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Previously, the secretaries were all presented in a row in shades of blue. Now, they’re all wildly different from each other – and very noticeably so because all of the costumes have suddenly gotten very loud. And for once, Shirley’s not in one of her trademark looks. This dress has a different neckline and sleeves than the one she always wears. And that bright, form-fitting chartreuse is slightly off-model for Dawn as well.

But neither of them went as wildly off-model as Meredith:Mad-Men--Season-7B-Season-11-Mad-Style-Television-Series-Costumes-Tom-Lorenzo-Site-TLO (27)

Sure, there’s still a child-like tone to this look, but it’s rendered in a grown-up navy blue that not only has military undertones to it, with the sailor collar, but also picks up the polka dot theme laid down by Joan in her first scene this episode. Suddenly, Meredith has become militaristic (she all but led a revolt) and assertive on a Joan Harris executive level.

(As a -very exciting – aside, we got to interview Stephanie Drake, who plays Meredith and you can hear it when our podcast drops on Friday.)

And as we note that the secretaries are no longer rendered in shades of the same color, take a look at the partners, who walked into McCann the day before looking far more unified than they do now:

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All four men are wearing different cuts of jackets in pretty wildly differing shades. Only Joan and Roger have the slightest connection in their blues, but it’s clear they’re no longer a unified team anymore. It’s interesting to note that Joan’s dress is a near exact copy of the pink one she wore in California. Even with money, she knows the value of finding something that works and sticking with it.

Look at the whole staff, for that matter. So many colors. There’s no earth and sky motif anymore, no connections being made by any of the characters, no sense of uniformity. They’re breaking up that old gang and they’re all quite literally going their separate ways.

“This is the beginning,” Don says futilely, to an empty room, dressed exactly like the Satanic figure who tempted him the day before, in a Coca-Cola red tie.

Stop struggling. You’ve won.

Surrender.

 

If you’d like to hear our interview with Mad Men’s Costume Designer Janie Bryant, you can go here (4/3/15 podcast).

For more discussion on your favorite shows, check out our TV & Film forum.

[Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC- Stills: Blood, sweat, and tears of tomandlorenzo.com]

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