Behind “Mad Men’s” Fashions

Even though I live in DC – so judge me or not – I never really go to the Smithsonian. With that being said, I’ve never had the chance to visit their Natural History Museum after hours in the company of an Emmy award-winning costume designer with specialty cocktails by Jack Rose Dining Saloon added into the whole mix. So for a style and pop-culture enthusiast like myself, it was an exciting opportunity to experience the discussion between Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant and Amy Henderson, cultural historian at the National Portrait Gallery. And I had to check out the drinks too, of course.

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Bryant has been recognized for costume design through a variety of different productions, including period pieces like Deadwood and Mad Men to horror films and comedies.
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A native of Cleveland, TN, Janie spoke of her love for Barbies hello we’re twins and classic films. Claiming to have “been born with high heels on,” Janie learned to sew at the age of 8, and later moved for her career to Paris, New York, and Los Angeles, where she now resides.
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Janie takes much of her creative visions from the past, stating at one point that the style of Mad Men’s Betty Draper is a mix between her own grandmother’s and Grace Kelly. Along with historical research and intense script analysis, Janie collects inspiration from old catalogs, vintage photographs, and a variety of magazines.
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What was most fascinating, however, was learning more about how Janie has made – and continues to make – Mad Men’s amazing costumes come to life. She took a chance on Betty’s lace maternity garden dress, and Joan’s famous pen necklace was found in a heap at the Rose Bowl Flea Market. Though Janie certainly shed light on the men of the show, I’m always inclined to hear more about women’s fashion. However, I did find it interesting that Janie purposely dresses Don Draper in dark palettes to reflect his mysterious personality. It’s clear that she dedicates a lot of time in researching the psychology of characters, thus playing a major role in each design.
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In Megan Draper’s much-talked about Zou Bisou Bisou scene, her black dress was the first mini to be featured on the show. Janie’s historical research leads to the patterns, shapes, and yes – even lengths – of each character’s look.
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Post seminar, guests were invited to enjoy Mad Men-themed cocktails and light appetizers while perusing original sketches from the show.
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If it were based on the names, I’d be the Blonde and Bitter, but I was more of a fan of Peggy’s namesake drink. It was the perfect mix of spicy and sweet, though so was Don Draper’s cherry-inspired mix.
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Each costume is archived as part of detailed continuity books, but it was such a privilege to even see a few original sketches by Bryant herself. Unlike many techies these days, her sketches are not computer-based, but instead hand-drawn with colored pencils and markers.
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To check out other cool programs hosted by The Smithsonian Associates, click here. And don’t forget to take a look at Janie Bryant’s personal website right this way.
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