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It’s been exactly one decade since Mad Men first dazzled viewers with its glamorous portrayal of the advertising world in 1960s New York City. The show that made Don Draper a household name was a game changer in every sense of the word. Mad Men is widely credited with ushering in a new era for television — it was recently called the “Patient Zero of Peak TV” — and turned AMC, then a little-known basic-cable channel, into the juggernaut that would later bring us Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.
But the Mad Men effect reached beyond the confines of the TV screen. The intimate, moody drama popularized a certain way of life that was sleek and highly stylized. A new generation discovered the pleasures of pearls, well-tailored suits, and three-martini lunches (thankfully with less chain-smoking this time around).
As a period piece, what makes the Mad Men aesthetic so mesmerizing is the show’s dedication to getting every single detail just right. Throughout its seven-season run, Mad Men produced multiple iconic looks that became cultural touchstones in their own right. Below, costume designer Janie Bryant, who’s currently working on a 1950s-inspired collection launching in September, reflects on what made the show — and its style — so incomparable.
Does it feel like it’s been 10 years since Mad Men premiered?
It seems like yesterday and then it seems like forever ago. I remember the first season so well, because nobody knew who we were. Nobody. They were like, “Mad what? Are you on A&E? Are you on HBO? What is AMC?” Nobody knew the network. It was our own little secret.
After the first season aired, it was almost like Pandora’s box — the secret was out. And it was this magical experience. I always say that the stars were aligned. We all came together in this special moment. We made this creative thing happen, and we were all so passionate about it because Matt [Weiner] was passionate about it. He’s so passionate about the period and the characters. We all have that experience working with him — he inspired us. It was something we all knew was super special. But it wasn’t until after the first season aired that everyone knew. We weren’t a secret anymore, which was kind of sad too, because the first season felt so small, and then every year it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Our universe changed.
Tell me about some of your favorite looks from the show.
That’s a hard one, isn’t it? For Betty, I could list 10 alone. I love Betty’s yellow gown that she wore after she lost weight. [It was] this amazing chiffon gown, and these men are hitting on her. It was like Betty had come out again!
I also love Betty’s Valentine’s Day dress that she wore as she was descending the stairs when she was going to meet Don.
That is probably one of my favorite scenes from the show, but also from television in general.
I know. It was a great dress. It was such a great moment. I love all the romance of it and her descending down the stairs. I think part of Don and Betty’s attraction is that they’re both so beautiful that people are really rooting for them. People still get upset — why can’t Don and Betty be together? That moment is a perfect moment in the show that really describes their relationship. It’s all about the façade: Betty wearing that dress and going down the stairs to meet her husband. The audience is thinking, “Oh, they’re so in love!” But really, they’re not — and Don’s having an affair.
Yeah, watch out! [Laughs] My favorite costume that Don ever wore was in season 2. I designed the pale blue raw-silk sport coat for him. So dreamy. And he wore a different combination — but with that same jacket — when he and Betty went to Italy. I loved that because those were such rare moments when you got to see Don change out of his suit.
Of course, his gray suit that I had, like, 20 different versions done — that is classic Don Draper. I also love the pivotal changes in their characters and how the costume design really helps tell the story, [like] when Megan tells him to go put on his new sport coat that she bought for him. It was that crazy plaid sport coat that I designed for him. He just hated it. Oh my god, Jon [Hamm] hated it. But he was like, “I get it, yeah, I get it. No, it’s really fun.” He was always awesome. He really loved to have those character transformations, too.
I was going through photos and in every single image of Christina [Hendricks], she pulls off everything. She doesn’t look bad in anything.
One of my favorites is the red dress that she wore at the Christmas party, and they were doing the Christmas conga line. I designed that dress for Christina for that scene, and I showed the design to Matt. He was like, “Oh, there are bows on it, I’m gonna write a line in there. [Roger] Sterling is going to say something about ‘unwrapping the package.’” He changed the dialogue for that dress, which was so flattering and so great that he did that.
I also loved when she brings the baby to work. It was this moment where she was really trying to dress up to come to the office because she wanted it to look like everything was fine. I love the idea that she was so overdressed. It’s kind of ridiculous, but a really great moment.
I love those two dresses. They’re indicative of her character. They’re both super provocative and flirty, but a little old-fashioned, you know?
She was a good mix between provocative and old-fashioned.
It was sort of the philosophy that she really learned how to dress herself in the 1950s and never got out of that. Her hair was 1950s, her makeup was 1950s, her shoes were 1950s. She liked the way she looked in high school, and she just stuck with it. Although in the last season of Mad Men she had some groovy outfits too.
A lot of color.
Well, I liked the idea for her to be in strong colors because I always felt like she was such a strong character, even though she didn’t really realize what a feminist she was. Her personality was super strong. And I think that she just did not understand the power of her femininity until the end of the show. That was really her whole story throughout every season. She was super strong, and then she was kind of torn down by these men — her husband, her bosses, her co-workers.
[Joan’s] story is so much about how we let other people take our power away. And then, ultimately, she understands that transition when she tells her boyfriend, “I’m working, I’m a professional woman, I’m not going to run off with you, I love my job.” She makes that choice. I love her character. I love all the transitions and strides that she made throughout the seasons.
Transformation is such a strong theme in this show — the way the characters transform as individuals as a result of all that’s happening in society in the 1960s, which was such a transformational time in our history. Which character had the most dramatic transformation in terms of personal style and how they carried themselves?
Peggy had a lot of transformations and a lot of changes. She basically went from a college girl to a professional woman with all of the angst, the trials, and the experiences of being in the workforce and working with men. [She was] trying to fit in, trying to date, trying to be successful. Every single season there were consistently costume-design changes for her.
She really encapsulated that weird transitional time when you’re out of college — in early adulthood — trying to figure it all out.
Yeah, exactly. Peggy’s pantsuit — it’s my favorite. Well, there are two, and it’s funny, because they’re both checked. In season 1, she wore that drop-waist 1950s dress with the little Peter Pan collar and the little black bow. I love that dress. It was super old-fashioned, long — it was not ’60s at all. I also loved Peggy and her pantsuit, which she wears with the vest, the turtleneck, and the trousers. And for me, that is just [the] full circle of Peggy Olson. You see this whole arc and this entire character change from this little girl to this grown-up, professional woman.
What about Megan?
Megan. Oh my god, Megan. My dream.
She had some of the most glamorous looks on the show.
For sure. Because she was the new, the with-it, the ’60s. She was mod. She was the perfect character to help make that time and style change. I love her “Zou Bisou Bisou” dress. It was the first minidress that Mad Men had ever seen. And their apartment was this white apartment, and black is always one of Megan’s colors because it’s so French and classic. That dress was so impactful. The next day after the [season] premiere, it was on the cover of every single newspaper.
It really was.
I was like, “I can’t believe this is happening! Her dress!” It’s the arms, it’s the sunburst pleats in the air. It was all over the place. That’s the crazy thing — Mad Men had such an impact on the world, on culture, on style. It’s kind of amazing that one show can do that. But yeah, I love that dress.
One of my favorites is the pale blue dress with very similar sunburst-pleated sleeves. That was when Megan had moved to California, and she picks Don up from the airport. She’s in the convertible with her sunglasses. It was such an incredible moment. I see that scene, and I just think, “Oh my god, Valley of the Dolls.”
Are there any supporting character looks that stand out in your memory?
One of my favorite moments of all time on the entire show is when Pete and Trudy board the plane. She’s wearing the pink suit with the chinchilla hat and the chinchilla trim. My whole inspiration for that scene was Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. I just love it — she’s in the pink, she’s so happy. She had some amazing costumes, too.
How did a look come to life for you?
The beginning point is always the script. That tells me about the mood, the feel, the images that I have when I read the script. Then I’ll start doing my research and my sketches, or I’ll start pulling images from different resources — movies, catalogs, newspapers, the internet. I’ll start putting a visual collage together for each character. And then I think about the colors that they’re going to wear, what color best helps move this scene along, or what is the mood of the scene — all those factors come into play when I’m thinking about the costume design.
Which cast member’s personal style was most different from their character’s?
I would say Jon Hamm. In the beginning, his personal style was way different than his character. The first time I met him, he was wearing a baseball cap, a big T-shirt, sloppy cargo pants, and sneakers. We had a huge transformation — I taught him way too much. After a few seasons, he was like, “Janie, look at my new Tom Ford suit. Janie, do you like my Brioni?” Over time, he really knew and learned how to wear a suit. But in the beginning, no. It was baggy cargo pants, baggy T-shirts, baseball caps — still very cute, but totally different from how we’re used to seeing Don Draper.
Were there any looks you loved but that never made it on air?
Yes, in the episode when Roger invites his ex-lover who owns the dog food company to come by and he talks about how she shouldn’t advertise that they’re using horse meat. She wears this beautiful, almost Chanel bouclé suit. But what I really wanted her to wear was this 1960s suit with this huge fur collar. I am talking about a huge collar with cuffs. I was just dying over this thing. And Matt was like, “Janie, we can’t have her wearing this huge fur collar while she’s talking about dog food!”
What was your best vintage find for the show?
[One was] Peggy’s dress — it was the plaid polyester top with the navy skirt. I found that dress at Jet Rag in Los Angeles for $35. I bought it because I loved the plaid. It’s so Peggy. It was huge. It was, like, a size 20. It was a rag. The skirt was shot to hell. The only reason I bought it was because it had the amazing polyester plaid.
I took it to my tailor and I said, “I want us to recut this dress and make it a Peggy dress. And what I love about this dress is the polyester plaid. We’re going to rebuild the skirt. I’m going to get buttons for it.” I think I did yellow buttons on the skirt or something like that, and we just remade it into this amazing, iconic piece.
Whose wardrobe do you wish you could raid?
Megan’s. I relate to that character the most, probably. It’s always Megan’s. Or Betty’s. Both of them. The wives are so different. [It’s] sort of the old versus the new. I love Betty’s design because it’s so beautiful and feminine and romantic. And then I love Megan’s because it’s groovy and new and fashion-forward, and, you know, French. I love both of their closets for different reasons.
What do you remember from filming the finale and putting together those final looks?
It was so bittersweet — from being ready to move on to do another project to feeling so much nostalgia and appreciation for eight years of working on that show, and it being so epic in so many different ways. We were a family. We knew each other so well. I still see a lot of people from the show, which is amazing. We had a lot of fun together, and we worked hard together.