Mad Style: Severance

Posted on April 08, 2015


We’re back for the final stretch, and while you can’t tell it from the above shot, this time it’s all about ladies in blue, oppositional costuming, and the creeping horror of earth tones.

But first…


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Sonny Bono, Bob Newhart, Captain Kangaroo, Rooster Cogburn and Jim Morrison would like to welcome you all to the 1970s.

Yes, this episode was all about the man hair – and the fact that it exploded in this decade, to the point that even men in their fifties were growing out their sideburns and shag. Yet another of the show’s examples of how the counter culture styles trickled up and out to the mainstream. But these are all minor and low-key examples of the shagginess to come. Except for Stan, who’s had several years’ head start, most of these hairstyles don’t even come close to the full glory of the male mane in the seventies. For Ken, Roger, Pete and Ted, this is merely starter hair. By ’72, they’ll all look like pimps. Bear in mind, that this is spanning a period in which former First Lady Jackie Onassis was gallivanting all over the world in micro-minis and former President Lyndon Johnson was sporting Crosby, Stills and Nash hair. The old ways and old styles had completely broken down by this point.

Any man who wore his hair short enough that you could see his whole ear was considered hopelessly out of touch – especially if he was still sporting the completely-out-of-style “wet look” at this point.

That’s your cue, Don.


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That blue shirt was like a bomb going off. While we’ve seen Don in colored and patterned dress shirts before, for the entirety of the 1960s, while he was in the office, he was wearing a white shirt. In fact, we’d argue his white shirt is something of an iconic look for the character. His first scenes in the office in the pilot showed him opening up a desk drawer full of identical white shirts and putting a fresh one on, while the show’s iconic credits image has him sitting on a couch, with his cuffs and collars standing out in high-relief. Don’s white shirt was like Bond’s Aston Martin or shaken martini. It’s as much a statement on the changes wrought by the 60s as Roger’s mustache – and probably a more powerful one, given how reluctant Don is to change. It also set a color motif for the episode.

She’s serving up pure 1970s Breck Girl realness; that particularly ’70s aesthetic of natural wholesomeness combined with voluptuous sexuality. It was the dominant advertising image of women for the period; thick-haired and glossy, with a veneer of “naturalness” in order to evoke the less structured and made up styles that the counterculture had brought to the mainstream. A halfway point between Marilyn Monroe and Farrah Fawcett.

The dom/sub vibe in this scene is a long way from the ad copy Don wrote about women in furs almost two decades before: “Why wait for a man to buy you a fur coat?” has morphed into “You’re not supposed to talk.”


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Valley of the Dolls meets The Golddiggers of 1970. In fact, the blonde in white is the spitting image of Sharon Tate in Valley of the Dolls, which makes us wonder if Janie Bryant and Matthew Weiner weren’t having a little fun at the expense of all the Manson Murder theories that reached peak frenzy earlier this season.

These are just your average good-time gals/models/actress wannabes. It’s not a coincidence that they look like they could be dancers in a variety show of the period. They’re showgirls, for the most part, and they dress the part. The red dress is very similar to Megan’s famous Zou Bisou dress (which tells you something about how cutting edge Megan’s fashion was during her marriage to Don). Given the derivative nature of two of the looks here (and we imagine we could find a corollary to that yellow dress if we had more time), we tend to think of these ladies as cheap imitations of the real thing. Wannabes.

It’s also highly notable that at least two of the women aren’t wearing bras. The highly corseted and girdled look of ten years before was in the process of being completely dismantled by a combination of counter cultural and feminist influences.

Note how Don is in a classic tux and Roger has embraced the ruffle-shirted glory of 70s menswear. To our 2015 eyes, Don looks like the stylish one, but in 1970, Roger would’ve been the one who looked more modern and “with it.”

Don doesn’t take his good-time ’70s girl home with him. Instead, he opts for a girl with a little more of a wholesome ’60s vibe to her:

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She’s very put together and almost professional looking in her little green dress and complicated up do; nothing like the sexy, braless Sharon Tate clone he had his arm around an hour before.  Certainly, little minidresses and go-go boots weren’t out of style in 1970, but they weren’t as cutting edge as going braless in a white jumpsuit and foregoing hair spray.

Note the pale blue of her underwear, which calls back to the pale blue of Don’s shirt and, more importantly, this:

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A woman in pale blue named “Di.” We’d like to say that the pale blue motif in this episode represents sex and death, but at this point, pretty much everything in Don’s life represents sex and death. In the world of Mad Men, a drunk stewardess, a glass of wine and a white carpet can be turned into a death metaphor.

It’s so weird how society forced these little nun-like caps on working women’s uniforms; not just waitresses, but nurses too. A very archaic holdover from a time when it was considered shocking for a women to leave the house with her hair uncovered. It’s like, “Fine. You can have a job, but you have to wear the CAP OF SHAME to tell everyone what a tempting harlot you are.”


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Nothing beats a great pair of L’Eggs. Notice how the shots are framed so Peggy’s and Joan’s hosiery-covered legs are always prominent.

What interests us most about these costumes – and we noticed this before the discussion of how Joan dresses arose – is how similar in style and shape these two looks are. The collars, sleeves, cuffs and skirt are all shaped alike. That they’re seated and later standing in the exact same position only heightens the effect.

Joan and Peggy are the seventh and eighth women to appear in this episode, but Peggy is, so far, the only one to wear a print. All the others, including Joan, have been rendered in solid colors. But Peggy dominated this scene and this meeting. Joan is, so far, from what we can see, not exactly a killer accounts woman. Her only contributions to this scene were to scold the client for not listening to her and ask Harry and Peggy what she should do. Her costume recedes into the scene while Peggy’s stands out. This kind of oppositional costuming was prevalent throughout the episode, but especially in Peggy’s and Joan’s scenes.


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The buzzing, loud quality of her competing prints helps complete the picture of her somewhat combative nature in these scenes.

One of our favorite things about Janie Bryant’s costumes is how “real world” they are. Other costume designers would probably fret over Peggy’s visible bra through her blouse, but out here in the real world, bumps and buckles and blouses more see-through than we’d like are all very common for people who aren’t dressed by professionals.

Meanwhile, Joan’s costume is off having adventures of its own:

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Note how the scene opens with a woman in a wild Pucci-style print, once more making Joan’s solid navy blue recede in the shot. In case you’re curious, she’s flipping through the May 1970 issue of McCall’s. We’d like the recipe for the orange pound cake with the orange slices on top on the back page, please.

Ironically, in an episode practically defined by all the oppositional costuming on display, the two characters whose relationship seems irreparably damaged are dressed almost shockingly alike. If someone asked us to come up with a way to dress Joan like Don while still looking like Joan, we couldn’t do it, but that’s why Janie Bryant’s got an Emmy.

Joan made a snotty comment about Don napping during the work day and then ended the scene with a somewhat annoyed look on her face upon realizing that the man she hates is still very good at what he does – and worse, that she has much to learn from him.

Note the gold chains. When she became partner, she started wearing a lot more gold to denote her upward mobility, but these chains are also going to serve a different purpose this episode.


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Meredith’s in a black-and-white print similar to Peggy’s. She wore this dress last season, but in this scene, it serves to underline a few things. Like Peggy, she’s suddenly very business-like and even a little sassy and oppositional with Don. And this is a scene where she has to inform him of someone’s death, so her relatively serious (for her; remember she’s usually dressed like a toddler) outfit becomes appropriate in context.

Don’s suddenly wide, ’70s style tie stands out, not just because of the new, modern feel to it, but also because it underlines the pale blue=death thing. This is the outfit he’s wearing when he fucks death has sex with Di in the alleyway.


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Oppositional costuming. Roger and the guy from McCann are both in blue jackets, white shirts and blue ties. Ken’s coming in from a completely different side of the color wheel, in his signature color schemes of brown, yellow and green. They’re unified and he’s out of the group.


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And now we get to the absolute height of oppositional costuming. Bear in mind that what we’re about to say has to do with the thinking behind the costume design. It is not a reflection of what the characters may have been thinking when they picked these outfits to wear that morning, nor is it meant as a way of justifying other characters’ reactions. And it’s definitely not meant to be applied to real-world dressing.

This scene and the one immediately following it were partially about the differences in the way Joan and Peggy present themselves, so in order to make that point, Janie Bryant really ramped up those differences.


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Joan’s outfit is very “bust-centric,” meaning you can’t help but have your eyes drawn to that area, both by the wideness of her lapels, but more importantly, by that long string of gold chains, which bounce and sway with every movement. It’s an outfit designed to make you notice her body, regardless of whether Joan herself would see it that way or even if what Peggy said about how she dresses is true or not. In the context of the scene, you are meant to notice how vibrantly she’s colored and how shapely her body is – especially in contrast to Peggy’s look. The costuming calls attention to her in each scene, which underlines (if not necessarily supports) Peggy’s contention that she should expect male attention because she dresses to get it.

AGAIN: this is about the costuming. It’s not meant to say that Joan deserved her treatment. It’s meant to highlight each character’s point of view and even how each character is seen through the eyes of other characters.

This is a picture of opposition. In their earlier scene, the shapes of their garments drew a connection to between the characters, but here, they couldn’t be further apart. Bold solid pink vs. muted gold and navy blue patterns. A white purse strap vs. a black one. Button earrings vs. hoops. Pussy bows vs. gold necklaces. A boxy suit vs. a form-fitting dress. Note also Joan’s gold coat, which helps to signal her wealth.

And once again, Peggy’s in competing prints in a scene where she becomes argumentative and oppositional.


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And again, here, where she’s being quite difficult with Mathis while trying to accept his offer. Prickly Peggy in her prints.


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She’s covered up, sporting a pussy bow, and wearing a print. Whether consciously or not, she’s dressing more business-like (and taking her cues from Peggy) in response to that meeting. But she’s still dressing in very bold colors, still wearing long necklaces, and still, after all these years, tying scarves to her purse, because as she told Peggy on Day One, “Men love scarves!”

The more things change…

Besides, her attitude here is more of “To hell with this, I’m gonna go out and do ME.” She may be more business-like in her dress, but she’s realizing that’s not really who she is.


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Does that mean this is who she is? We don’t know, but Peggy’s assessment that she’s filthy rich and thus doesn’t have to put up with any bullshit anymore clearly influenced her actions here. Given how passive she’s been depicted in her job as an accounts woman, we wonder if Joan isn’t toying with the idea of just walking away from it all. It’s ironic that she pointedly referred to Don’s naps, but here she is, being just as self-indulgent during her work day.

As for the dress, it strikes us as stylish, but grown-up. If she’s buying Oscar de la Renta knockoffs in 1970, then she’s looking at clothing styles for rich women and socialites, which is exactly who this dress is designed for. Those pointy-toed stilettos certainly aren’t trendy for the time. Joan will dabble in the latest fashions, but she”ll never put something on that doesn’t flatter her, no matter how trendy it becomes. Chunky heels and platform shoes? Not for this lady.

Loved the sales girl and her on-point, classic New York pronunciation of “Oscuh Day Luh Rentuh.” The part about the sales girl recognizing her seemed a little forced, though. It’s been seven years since she worked at Bonwit Teller and she only worked there for a few months. This girl doesn’t even look old enough to have worked there when Joan did.


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An overwhelming sense of brown hangs over this scene. Note that the only two spots of color in the entire scene are Rachel’s children – and the girl is in a pale blue.

We can’t help, because we’ve spent so much time cataloguing scenes and costumes over the years, to be struck by how poignant it is to have the same actors playing Rachel’s sister and husband from years before. And because the last time we saw either of these characters, they were with in scenes practically exploding with color and life, it makes the depressing brown-ness of this scene all the sadder.


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Obviously (we hope), that’s not true, which is why color theory only gets you so far in these analyses (and we say this as the guys who went a little nuts cataloguing all the blue-and-green=adultery costumes of season 6). We tried to figure out a way to make this fit with that theory, but since she and Don had no scenes or interactions together, nor did their stories call back to each other in any way, we feel pretty safe in saying that there’s no death represented in this scene. Sex, yes. Death, no.

She is, on the other hand, the third (adult) woman to wear light blue in this episode, and as Ted helpfully noted, “There are three women in every man’s life.” It’s nice to think that Peggy is one of those women for Don, but that means the other two women in his life are Sex and Death. Actually, come to think of it, that sounds about right. There are three women in Don’s life: Peggy, Sex and Death.

Anyway, we fully admit we’re stretching the pale blue motif to its absolute limit so instead, let’s note that not only are there no competing prints in Peggy’s outfit, but she’s more unified than ever. The circle motif of the dress is picked up by the pin…

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And she’s wearing a matching coat. He’s the one in the competing prints here. And his stripes and plaid bump up against her circles. The scene started off with them a little oppositional with each other, and ended with them just barely stopping before they ripped each other’s clothes off. In Peggy’s case, the pale blue is definitely signaling sexual desire.

This may be one of our favorite Peggy looks of all time, by the way.


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Whereas this is the Seventies Earth Tone Suit of Shame. That’s a hangover outfit if ever we saw one. This was picked up off her closet floor 20 minutes before she was due in the office. That collar hasn’t seen the loving touch of an iron in a while. Then again, this is probably some drip-dry polyester combo that – theoretically and never in practice – is supposed to be “wrinkle-free.”

This is an outfit that says “I had emotions last night that surprised me and I think I’m supposed to be embarrassed by them. Everyone stop talking to me.”


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And Don? Don just wants to sit at Death’s Lunch Counter and be alone with his memories. Peggy is looking forward while he seems inexorably drawn to the past.


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]

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