Monday, March 14, 2011

Mad Men Mondays: Let's Talk Fashion

"Fashion is always going to be a reflection of what's going on in the world," remarked fashion designer Peter Som. Consider his words, as we look at the fashion that appears on Mad Men in the early 1960s as compared to now.

"The rise of the cold war led to a fearful atmosphere in America and at the same time you had a booming economy so the result for fashion was a look that was conservative but also highly consumerist," observed Valerie Steele in a Mad Men season two DVD extra. She noted Anne Fogerty invented the term "Wife Dressing," which was defined by complete femininity, and was about dressing to please your husband and to help boost his career (personally I find that all hooey; the clothes were just fabulous). It also involved "going back to strict gender rules, so women were supposed to dress like women and men were supposed to be like men."

Jonathan Kanarek observed, "It represents a time when optimism was high and anything can be accomplished." Men donned the classic gray suit and white shirt. "In order to be taken seriously you wore a suit. That still holds true today." Does it? That's debatable. Have you seen The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a novel about a WW2 veteran that became a film with Gregory Peck? It's now on my to-watch list.

President Kennedy, it was observed, single handedly killed the hat when he took it off for his inauguration, and from that day on, hat sales declined. It's a testament how we take our fashion queues from others and how impressionable the public is.

Are you as enamored at the fashion on the show as I am? Everyone looked like, well, grown-ups, where today in offices in New York City, it seems to be "anything goes" even if it's jeans and a baggy sweatshirt more suitable for a day of grocery shopping. I adore the more modest skirt lengths, the smart looking dresses, the scarves, the hair and makeup - just the glamour, period. Even Betty Draper's night gowns are feminine and flirty. And the men? There's nothing more attractive than a man in a nice suit, if you ask me.

I love the age-appopriateness dressing on the show. When Peggy wanted to advance in her career as a copy-writer, someone suggested she started looking the part instead of dressing like a younger girl. How much of fashion today is more targeted toward youth, which is so coveted by our society? Does age-appropriate dressing exist anymore?

What era of fashion do you look back longingly on? This era aside, I also love the flapper style of the 1920s and the glamour in all of those Busby Berkeley films of the 1930s. As a young girl, I loved Lucille Ball's style on I Love Lucy.

Looking at fashion today, I absolutely agree it does reflect what's going on. We're an even more consumerist society with cheap fashion at the ready and increasingly shorter attention spans and an obsession with labels. I don't find anything fashionable at all about all the cheap knockoff handbags (I am always amazed when I've traveled in Barcelona, Florence, or Paris, or walking in New York City, vendors are selling completely gaudy, cheap handbags, and women are buying them in droves). Even for the real deal, I don't think slapping a label on something and charging a lot of money makes something "stylish." Style isn't about a label, it's about a look.

It seems no one dresses up for anything anymore. At church, many of the older parishioners, some of whom have various health problems, come dressed to the nines, while the youngest ones look like they just rolled out of bed. I spot people on a regular basis walking around in pajama pants. So much for Sunday's best. Have we become a nation of slobs? At the risk of offending anyone, I kind of think so.We're definitely not dressing for optimism and anything is possible, quite the opposite, it's a bit of "I don't care."

What do you think? Do you long for more glamorous days? Should we dress more the part? Or do you embrace our fashion culture, which seems to emphasize comfort?

For women, are you an aspiring Betty, Joan, or Peggy, or men, do you love Don Draper's style?

For more Mad Men fashion, visit the Fashion File series of the AMC Man Men blog.


  1. I too love the look of the 1920s and 40s, but it's virtually impossible to find anything in my size. Fat women's clothing is HORRIBLE and if you wear above a size 24, you can pretty much forget it (and even to a 24, it's mostly awful).

    Despite the fact that I long for better clothes and days when we all looked so fabulous, I do appreciate the freedom that comes from not feeling like you *must* dress in a particular way to participate in life, particularly religious life. Although I love "Sunday's best," I loathe the idea that one comes to a place of communion with the divine feeling that they must be anything other than simply present.

    Fashion is a tough one for me. I hate the gaudy, skanky looks that celebrities make so popular. I love the clean lines and feminine details of days gone. But I also bristle that we spend so much money and so much time on something that I think, in the end, is ultimately meaningless (people who dedicate their lives to fashion: Forgive me). When we support child labor in an effort to look glamorous, spend more money on our cosmetics than our schools, I have to wonder where the hell our collective moral compass is pointing.

  2. Sorry to hear about the horrible clothing! For all sizes, everything just seems so disposable. Will our clothes now survive to end up in thrift shops decades from now?

    Not contributing to the child labor (and landfill waste) is precisely why I acquire as much as possible through clothing swaps, thrift/consignment shops and hand-me-downs. My latest vintage finds (jewelry, gloves and scarves) came from my mother's drawer, and I've started using my grandmother's purse.

    Good point about the church dressing. It was more an observation about the generational differences in style of dress.

    Our collective moral compass points toward our wallets, I believe. It's very odd because we're always looking to acquire the cheapest products (clothes, food, etc.) but are at the same time so wasteful and excessive.

    My great hope (and something I want to continue to promote on this blog), is that we seek knowledge and creating a better world as fervently as we do quests for vanity and possessions.

  3. The universal acceptance of jeans in the '70's + The Gap ruined fashion.
    At least in the US, shlumpiness is the general rule.
    I love the fashion on Mad MEn but they ultimately seem like paper dolls to me. Of course paper dolls did dress that way, so no wonder!

  4. I'm sure everyone didn't look quite as fabulous in real life as the actors and actresses do with the help of the costume designers/stylists on the show.

    I have never felt more underdressed on a vacation than I did in Paris. While I don't think we need to dress up to throw out the garbage like David Lebovitz did in The Sweet Life in Paris, I think we should agree to leave the pajama pants for the bedroom and watching tv on the couch. I still remember seeing someone in an orange Hooters t-shirt strolling along the Seine.

  5. "Our collective moral compass points toward our wallets, I believe. It's very odd because we're always looking to acquire the cheapest products (clothes, food, etc.) but are at the same time so wasteful and excessive."

    Agreed! I wonder what it will take for folks to realize that cheap clothes most often are a false economy? Hmmm..

  6. I love fashion and especially the fashion on Mad Men. I agree that people in the 1960s probably didn't look nearly as good as all of the actors on the show, considering everything, but I still love the style of the times. I try to make an effort to dress nicely each day, and it really makes me feel better about myself in general.

  7. "The cult of low prices has become so ingrained in the consumer culture that deep discounts are no longer novelties, they are entitlements," John Dicker writes in his book, The United States of Wal-Mart. When something becomes a feeling of entitlement, it's hard to shift consumer behavior. I think of plastic grocery bags vs. cloth bags, or cheap oil to fill fuel inefficient cars. Examples are everywhere.

    Cate, I agree. Julia Child declared to Avis DeVoto in a letter, "My, I get so depressed after a poor meal." I feel the same way about feeling dispirited after eating something blah, and also with fashion. If I'm dressed more nicely, it raises my spirits. I think daily life is worth looking your best for (it doesn't have to be super-dressy), not just the special occasions.

  8. It's funny to hear this comment about the copyeditor needing to dress appropriately. Do you know I received the same comment from one of the Vice Presidents at a prior job. She told me that I would have moved up if I dressed better. Honesty I prefer to wear what is closer to men's clothes for style and comfort, but enjoy looking at color, silk, ruffles and the more creative designs. Thanks for this intersting commentary.

  9. Thanks Jennifer. It's interesting how Peggy progresses both in dress and hair (from younger looking clothes and pony tail to more sophisticated apparel and cut). She also gets bolder asking for advancements in salary and her own office (shouldn't all women demand their worth as their male counterparts?) Of course, this was the early sixties and on the show there's a lot of "I'll have your girl call my girl" when referring to secretaries.

    While dress standards have relaxed in work places, one wonders how we are perceived on career paths (often, we won't know unless someone tells one frankly like in your example).

    There's a lot to be said for comfort, which is why I wear ballet flats instead of the smart looking high heels worn on the show that I'd admire.