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Mad Men's Janie Bryant on Subliminal Messages, Peggy's Rise

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The cast of Mad Men in season seven, which premieres April 13. Image via AMC.
The cast of Mad Men in season seven, which premieres April 13. Image via AMC.

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After six seasons on air, Mad Men's costumes are falling apart. As she sat laughing in New York City's Gansevoort Hotel café, the show's costume designer, Janie Bryant, bemoaned one of her biggest challenges on the job: the vintage she works with is constantly ripping at the seams.

"There are always wardrobe malfunctions. The vintage rips on the actors, often while we're shooting. I have an amazing crew and my set costumers have to sew, tape or pin them in. But the show must go on," the Emmy-winning Bryant said. "In season two, when Peggy is smoking pot in a red vintage blouse, the shirt ripped down the side seam and arms and then the other sleeve ripped. The set costumers were panicking because they were shooting the scene. They tried to repair it and did the best we could. I don't think you ever even see it."

Harry Crane's seersucker suit, which split during filming. Image via AMC.

"Also in season three, during Kentucky Derby day, Harry Crane's pants split because he was wearing a vintage seersucker suit. The set costumers had to sew it up real fast. Good times!" she added, laughing. "But that's what costume design is about, taking care of problems and being knowledgeable in how to repair clothing."

The first part of the final season of Mad Men airs on Sunday, April 13; AMC is unveiling season seven in two parts, Sopranos' style. Bryant wouldn't divulge any secrets about the upcoming season, and that's probably because she collaborates with Mad Men creator, Matthew Weiner, who's infamously tight-lipped about the show.

"Sometimes, in the script, he can get very specific," she admitted, "But we work together. I wouldn't say he's a control freak, I'd say he's passionate and loves his show and it doesn't come from that place. Everyone has a different take on it, I guess."

Bryant has spent the last seven years making the impeccable costume choices for Mad Men show. After working on HBO's Deadwood for two years from 2004 to 2006, where she won an Emmy for Outstanding Costumes, a recommendation landed her a meeting with Weiner, who granted her the job.

Bryant dresses Don Draper, left, in two-piece suits, and Roger Sterling, right, in three-piece. Image via AMC.

Bryant makes all the suits for the male principal characters on the show—Don Draper, played by John Hamm, Roger Sterling, played by John Slattery, and Pete Campbell, played by Vincent Kartheiser—and she said she gives each character's suit wardrobe its own little touch. Roger Sterling, for example, only wears three-piece suits, while Don Draper wears two-piece suits.

Many of her costume choices come with subliminal messages about the character, a technique Bryant describes as "getting into the psychology of the person through their clothing." The wacky choices of quirky copywriter Michael Ginsberg, played by Ben Feldman, are intentionally bad, for example. Bryant said she sees Ginsberg shopping at the Salvation Army or borrowing grandpa sweaters from his father and his poor styling choices reflects the character's inability to really put himself together. The style of Peggy Olson, played by Elizabeth Moss, displays an intention of character evolution. Peggy dresses with more confidence and sophistication as she climbs the corporate ladder, and at the end of last season—when she sits in the chair of her former boss, Don—she sports a plaid pantsuit, the ultimate sign of female empowerment during that time period.

Peggy, in the plaid pantsuit. Image via AMC.

But not all costumes on Mad Men are meant to have explicit meaning. Last season, the Internet was in uproar after Don Draper's wife, Megan, played by Jessica Paré, wore a t-shirt with red star—the same t-shirt, conspiracy theorist and/or Mad Men fanatics believed, that murdered actress Sharon Tate wore. Fans saw the shirt as a symbol of a bloody ending for Megan, a theory that Bryant found quite flattering.

"That was totally not my intention but I was really inspired to see that with all the thousands of costumes on the show, people are going crazy over a t-shirt!" Bryant said. "The t-shirt showed a Vietnam star, it's part of the timeline. I love that people are so fanatical, it was amazing to watch."

When Mad Men first debuted in 2007, the New York Times remarked that, "a fashion addict [would] surely note that the show's aura of pulled-together formality is in step with the look of the runways, which returned this fall to mannerly 1950s-inflected tailoring." Bryant's on-screen style touch has since garnered her many new fashion opportunities. She has collaborated with Banana Republic to create three different Mad Men-inspired collections, and she also unveiled retro shapewear with Maidenform in 2012.

For influences, Bryant said she looks to all aspects of the time period, like Sears catalogs, television shows and fashion magazines. For January Jones' character, Betty, Bryant took inspiration from Grace Kelly when Betty was married to Don, but once she married politician Henry Francis (played by Christopher Stanley), Bryant switched to the style of Jackie Kennedy. To find style inspiration for Megan's character, Bryant turns to fashion magazines and the collections of Valentino, Dior, and Pierre Cardin. For Kiernan Shikpa's character, Sally Draper, Bryant looked to English teen model Twiggy.

Betty Draper in a housewife look in season one. Image via AMC.

Perhaps the biggest fashion success on Mad Men is the character Joan Holloway, played by Christina Hendricks. Bryant shows off Joan's curves by dressing her in perfectly fitted, colorful dresses, in which she confidently struts around the office. Bryant said she did not except the character to be so widely celebrated.

"I don't think women are knowledgeable on how to dress themselves if they are curvy. But then they see Joan and how amazing she looks and how beautiful the hourglass can be. It's all bust, hips, and waist and she is that character that understands the power of how to work it," Bryant said. "It's all about understanding what looks good on you and what fits. A $10,000 dress could look terrible if it doesn't fit right and a $20 dress can look like $10,000 if it fits. You have to know your size and know your body."

Joan Holloway in season seven. Image via AMC.

Mad Men's last episodes will air in 2015, but Bryant's fashion collabs won't stop there: so far, she's been chosen by handbag company Koret as a brand ambassador and is working on her own reality show with the creators of NBC's Fashion Star. It will focus on Hollywood's next great costume designers.

Bryant is also working on her own line of legwear to debut later this fall. After spending so much time using pantyhose in her costume choices on Mad Men, it's not entirely shocking Bryant would start designing her own tights, but she says her line will be "amazing, unexpected, and will change the way women wear legwear."