THE BIG four fashion weeks may have drawn to a close but a new season of sartorial eye-candy is only a wiggle dress away. With the fifth series of ABC’s Mad Men due to air on March 27, fans of the popular television series are already gearing up for Saturday nights in with Don, Betty and Joan.
But it’s not just the gin-swilling lascivious advertising milieu of the ’60s that has the denizens in thrall. In fact, one probably doesn’t even need to be a fan of the show in order to understand the oh-so-stylish ‘Mad Men Effect’.
Since the series’ inception in 2008, the visual grammar of the characters, implicit in the translation of costume designer Janie Bryant, has wielded the type of impact not felt since HBO’s Sex and the City.
At New York’s Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, it’s the clothes that maketh the characters, from creative director Don Draper’s pebble grey suits to ex-wife Betty’s floral tea dresses, not to mention the va-va-voom sweater girl glamour of office manager Joan Holloway.
Given the fashion industry’s predilection for newness, the popularity of Mad Men’s decade-specific style cannot be underplayed, not least its celebration of hyper-feminine glamour. In the words of fiery redhead Joan, played by Christina Hendricks, “You want to be taken seriously. Stop dressing like a little girl.”
It would appear designers got the memo, as season after season of curvaceous catwalk cavalcades would attest.
Designer Michael Kors famously based his A/W 08 collection in part on Mad Men’s ‘grown-up sexy’ look, while Prada’s A/W 10 kitten heels, nipped-in waists and full-skirted femininity acquired new meaning as ‘womanly’ models reinstated the godly right of curves.
S/S 12 sees the dress sanctified in all its hourglass glory, with A/W 12/13 continuing the trend of comely recidivist silhouettes. This nostalgic appetite is insatiable, as is its attendant reprieve from size zero culture. Could it be that contemporary fashion is looking to be taken more seriously?
Perhaps. Designer Heidi Higgins explains: “Mad Men impresses with its femininity and class — a type of early girl power. Women knew then how to use clothing to enhance their assets, how to follow trends without jeopardising their own style.” This is something today’s woman strives to reacquire “in a world where beauty and style have somewhat lost direction”.
True enough. You wouldn’t catch Jackie O or Grace Kelly in Converse and a tracksuit, let alone without a perfect coiffure and full ‘face’.
According to Kathy Sherry, co-owner of vintage atelier Dirty Fabulous, “the show oozes a polish that, unfortunately, we don’t always have the time to pull off ourselves today”.
Although part of the appeal resides in the perfectly touted beehives and floral frocks, scratch the surface and you’ll find a more heady charge embedded in the male-dominated office politics of the ’60s.
With the demise of power suiting and a workplace culture of ‘business casual’ and ‘dress down Fridays’, the idea of using clothing as a pawn in the gender game seems at best trite, let alone hiding an agenda in a fulsome cleavage. Despite that, the opportunity it poses on the show for individuation is evident.
Take Peggy Olson, an ambitious girl (Elizabeth Moss) who rises from Draper’s secretary to a copywriter at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Looking to be respected for her creative mettle, she opts for high-necked pussy bow blouses, twinsets and neck scarves — always in a sensible check. On the other hand, Joan, head of the secretarial pool, uses racy red tones, touch-me textures and body-hewn shapes to emphasise her weapon of choice, thereby establishing her status within the company.
In total contrast is Betty whose suburban isolation is characterised by Doris Day-style sunray pleated skirts, garden party dresses, white elbow gloves and pearls.
While the characters may be a world away from New York’s equally famous small-screen characters — Sex and the City’s Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha — they all share an undeniable escapism that has blurred the lines between art and life.
“We definitely find more and more people asking for a Mad Men look,” says Sherry of her customers. “All of the dresses used on the show are original vintage and we’ve actually seen a few dresses on the series that we’ve had in the shop which has been amazing.”
Although Sherry’s business is more occasion-based than daywear, the intention of those who visit the store is the same — “they’re all looking for that point of difference the era has to offer”. With vintage references increasingly peppering today’s fashion patois, the chance to step back in time has never been easier.
Getting the balance right is another issue. So how does one successfully reinterpret the Mad Men look?
“If you want your Mad Men style to look modern and not like you’ve walked off set, then you have to mix up your vintage with your high-street pieces,” says Sherry. “Nothing says ‘now’ more than clashing and mixing it up.”
Higgins supports a more minimalist approach. “Sometimes less is more and finishing touches are always in the detail: the twist is to create interest but not to overstep the mark.”
Think thoughtfully-chosen accessories like an antique brooch, an elegant heel or a silk scarf tied on the handle of a bag.
You don’t have to have to rummage through rails of retro clothing to get the look. High street chain Banana Republic recently launched its sophomore Mad Men collection with costume designer Janie Bryant — a 40-piece capsule for men and women. It’s US-only availability makes it a big ask for those of us on the other side of the pond but there’s always the Mad Men Barbie (available online) which hit the market last July. Betty Draper comes complete with floral party dress, nylons and her own vanity kit, while bombshell Joan Holloway boasts an auburn beehive and conical shaped boobs under the guise of a demure wool suit.
We may no longer be dressing like little girls but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of womanly escapism — especially if that involves getting dolled up.
Get the look
Channel your inner Betty or Joan with some retro-inspired retail therapy.
Asos Premium jacket with quilting and floral print, Asos.com, €83.85; Dandelion prom dress, Monsoon, €110; 1950s Classic dark nude gloves, Hayworthvintage.com, €14; Clutch with clasp frame, Zara, €49.95 and High heel slingbacks, Zara, €39.95
Miu Miu cropped cashmere and silk-blend cardigan, Net-a-Porter.com, €360; 1950s Trifari pearl and gold brooch, Hayworthvintage.com, €45; MoMuse necklace with onyx leaves, Style-tonic.com, €95; Pleated dress, Next, €50; Box bag with metal clasp frame, Zara, €39.95 and Leather court shoe, Zara, €49.95
Asos — online at www.asos.com; H&M — Opera Lane 021-4278086; www.hm.ie; and other branches; Hayworth Vintage — online at www.hayworthvintage.com; Monsoon — Patrick Street 021-4279488; www.monsoon.co.uk; Net-a-Porter — online at www.net-a-porter.com; Next — Opera Lane 021-4204000; www.next.co.uk; and other branches; Style Tonic — online at www.styletonic.com; Zara — Mahon Point SC 021-4972320; www.zara.com; and other branches.