Mad Style: Dark Shadows

Posted on May 16, 2012

With families and family trees being so central to the story this time, it’s not surprising that the two branches springing from the Hofstadt-Draper union are both being defined through their clothing, and that subtle points about the differences in each household are being made.

Here, the Draper family is picture-perfect and in harmony as they all model the latest in 1966 knitwear. Don and Megan are both in shades of green and that’s the only use of color to illustrate ties. This is, after all, “their” house and the kids only visit twice a month. It’s also notable that Sally and Megan have almost-identical hairstyles.

Contrast the relative visual harmony of the above scene with this one:

Sally’s “other” family life is cluttered and noisy and not at all harmonic, which speaks less to the quality of, say, Betty’s parenting as it does to the fact that the day-to-day work of raising kids does not allow for white carpets, clean surfaces, and expansive city views for most people. Note that none of the costumes of the three figures call back to each other or to the surroundings in any real way. Family life is typically not harmonious and coordinated on a daily basis.

Given Bobby’s outfit, it’s a safe bet these kids are in private schools. We only fear that poor kid’s going to get shipped off to a military academy soon, considering how little anyone pays attention to him.

And while Sally and Megan are not coordinated here (indeed, they’re on opposite sides of a color wheel, as well they should be, given the text), they do tie directly into their surroundings. The Draper apartment is decorated entirely in autumnal shades of brown and orange, punctuated here and there by pops of blue. Even when there’s family conflict in this apartment, it’s clean and coordinated; as unlikely as a clean, white carpet with a toddler on it.

Meanwhile, as she so often is, Betty’s on a journey of her own.

Everything in this scene, from lighting to set dressing to props to that drab brown costume, are all in service to exactly one sentiment:

“This really sucks.”

Of course Betty would never use those words – or even think of her life in those terms – but these shots are a neat visual representation of the low level of annoyance and depression that both comes with dieting and kind of defines Betty’s general state to a T.

Had Betty had even the slightest inkling as to how this evening was going to go, you can bet she never would have worn this large, sturdy coat. When you think of Betty from the first 3 seasons, you remember an incredibly stylish young wife and mother, but here, she’s dressing in a more standard suburban-housewife style of the period. She looks both older than her age and larger than she actually is. We could say this all represents her state of mind, but the fact of the matter is, women over a certain size and over a certain age had little in the way of style options. This was the uniform, like it or not, and it was expected to span a range of ages from the late 20s to the late 50s.

Megan is, of course, completely free to wear the latest styles. Betty’s resentment and subsequent actions may not have been very nice or very fair, but this one scene illustrates her frustrations so effectively that it’s hard not to see things from her perspective. She does all the hard work of raising Don’s kids, but Megan gets to be their friend and live in a clean, modern, uncluttered home while wearing the most stylish of clothes. Given all that, it’s surprising Betty didn’t just throw her through the glass doors in fury.

And speaking of the suburban housewife uniform…

… you’re soaking in it.

What struck us about these scenes was just how put-the-hell-together most of these outfits are. These ladies are dressed up. Even more notable, and in line with what we said above about the uniform, is the fact that all these women are dressed very similarly and yet the youngest in the room looks to be late 20s or early 30s and the oldest in the room look to be closing in on 60. These are establishment women; upper middle class (there’s not one cheap outfit in the room) and married to men with very good jobs. They don’t have a lot of room or options to wear clothes that make them feel or look youthful. No bell-bottoms and paisley blouses for this lot. It’s moneyed, Republican housewifery, straight down the line. Respectable and restrictive.

This was probably the healthiest interaction these two have ever had. Not surprising, then, that they are a unit of blue in their costuming.

We have a vintage copy of that Better Homes & Gardens cookbook in the background and squeal a little whenever we see it.

In other corners of the Mad Men world…

It’s hard to tell from the story this season exactly what Peggy’s status is in the office. She’s been shown working as hard or harder than she ever has before, but she’s had no successes this year (none that we’ve seen, anyway) and at least one major failure: the Heinz account. On the other hand, no one, including herself, seems particularly bothered by this and in fact, the amount of respect she receives from her co-workers is greater than at any other time. We suppose she’s just plugging away, waiting for brilliance to strike her again, and fully entrenched enough in her career that no one (yet) has made any noise about her being on a downward trajectory. She’s been a copywriter for over 5 years at this point, after all; with a great deal of success under her belt. If no one else is worried, maybe we shouldn’t be either.  Everyone coasts from time to time in their career.

Still, it’s alarming to see her in this scene, practically invisible in a creative meeting. Janie Bryant uses costume and set to interact with each other, but we don’t think we’ve ever seen someone sit down on a couch wearing a dress that matches it almost exactly. Don and Michael got into a little creative dick-measuring in this scene and Peggy simply bowed out of the competition, leaving it to the two of them.

You could show these pictures to someone who knows nothing about the show and they’d easily be able to tell you a great deal about these characters and this scene. This is clearly Roger’s office; he is clearly in the superior position; Michael is clearly an outsider to his world; and yet it’s clear that they are collaborating. Who needs a script when the art direction does so much work to tell the story?

What did we say about her last week? Dark Betty:

Scary; right?


Accounts and media people wear business-like greys; creative people wear color and pattern. What does it say about Don that he’s dressed like a businessman and not like a creative one?

We so love it when we get something right. Last week, when Megan went off to acting lessons wearing a leather-trimmed coat, we noted that her acting friends weren’t going to react well to such inadvertent displays of financial security. And this week, while her acting friend tears into her for being a dilettante, what is Megan wearing? A leather-trimmed sweater. There are ways a costumer can indicate a character’s wealth without necessarily festooning them with jewelry and designer clothes. Little touches like leather trim can make the same point in a much more subtle manner.

Her friend, by way of contrast, is wearing something that’s obviously not expensive (and is a little ugly to 2012 eyes). Look at the striped coat over her arm. She’s nothing but pattern and color, fitting in with the burgeoning hippy styles of the period. With her struggling-actress lifestyle, she’s more in tune with what’s happening on the street than Megan is up in her penthouse with her leather-trimmed sweaters.

This is one of those costuming touches that give us a little tingle when we figure it out. Of course both figures are drawn in relation to each other and Don’s establishment suit defines him and his role just as much as Michael’s clothes (full of color and pattern) signal both his creativity and his lower status. But what made us smile was the fact that Michael’s jacket is clearly brand new, and since he’s been floating around in what look to be some hideously ugly hand-me-downs since the day he got hired, we’re thinking he took Roger’s Manischewitz bribe and treated himself.



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