As Mad Men comes to an end, there are thousands of articles being written about “The End of an Era.” I’ve always been drawn to the costuming work that Janie Bryant has done on the series, because it goes above and beyond anything that other television shows are doing. I could write for days on each and every costume created for the show, but I’d like to focus on the journey that each of our main characters made from the first episode to the last one. While the characters grow and change, we can still see bits and pieces of who they once were ten years ago.
In the first episode, we see Don changing in his office from the white shirt he was wearing the day before, to a new crisp shirt, one of many from his desk. We see him in his self chosen “uniform,” his dark suit and white dress shirt in the premiere and he wears variations on the same theme throughout the whole series. In the last episode, we see him wearing everything that isn’t his usual outfit, including jeans, a jean jacket, a dirty white t-shirt, a plaid flannel button down, and a pastel polo shirt. In the last shot of the series, we see him meditating on a cliff, finally finding understanding in his life, as he finds his way partially back to his old “uniform,” with that crisp white button down.
Peggy shows up in the first episode wearing her favorite color: yellow. Over the next ten years, we see her wear this color over and over again when she is looking for strength and courage. usually it is in her work life, but even occasionally in her love life. This color brings success in varying degrees, until she finally gives up her color in the last season. In the last episode, as parts of her life she has been striving towards for years falls into place, she doesn’t need that mustardy yellow color anymore. But we do see the lines of her first outfit reflected in her last outfit on the show. She is still wearing collared dresses and the buttons down the front in the first episode look similar to the white lines on the front of her blue and white dress. And she still has those cute little curls in her hair.
Oh, that blue suit. Pete’s signature outfit the first season was that electric blue suit. It doesn’t look very bright in the first episode, but that same suit made so many appearances and always stood out next to the black and gray suits that most of the other creative and account men were wearing. So it only feels appropriate that the last time Peggy and Pete are together, saying their goodbyes, he is wearing that blue suit again. Obviously, it’s not the same exact suit, the fabric has a different weave and the lapels are larger on the later episode, but the similarities are striking none the less. Also, check out that amazing hair loss…
Trudy isn’t one of the main characters on the show, but she is one of the few supporting cast members who appear from the first season to the last. That is a feat all by itself. The first time we see her, she is wearing a busy coat with matching purse and gloves. In the last episode, she rides off into the sunset wearing a feminine coat with the large collar, similar to the first coat. She also has a coordinated purse and those white gloves. By the 1970s, those gloves wouldn’t be the height of fashion anymore, but she is hanging onto those traditions, all the way down to the pearl earrings.
As Mad Men starts out, Roger looks like he might be the most traditional of all the characters. He comes to work every day in a three piece suit with pocket square. Though as the show continues, he branches out into more and more modern outfits. We get to see him in fantastic double breasted suits, bright colors, and ascots. But the final episode of the series has him hearkening back to his roots from the first episode. He wears a dark three piece suit with coordinating tie and pocket square. Roger has been searching for youth most of his adult life, but in the end he finally accepts his age and the legacy of his life, embracing the way we saw him dress ten years ago. Later in the episode, he still wears an ascot, but it’s while wearing a pretty traditional suit otherwise. It seems he finally is accepting his age.
Joan shows up a force to be reckoned with in the first season. She slinks around the office in a slim fitting, deep green dress. She has a lot of power in the office, even though she is only considered to be the top of the secretarial pool. As times changed, Joan had trouble navigating the new world, while being recognized for her intelligence and not her curves. At the end of the series, she uses everything she learned all those years in the advertising office to create a production company, Holloway-Harris. She is able to finally become her own boss and not have to deal with always being under the thumb of the men in her life. She wears another deep green outfit that hugs her curves but she doesn’t have to wear a turtleneck to cover as much skin as possible. And, she’s wearing a pants suit to top it all off. With her running her own company, she doesn’t have to dress to suit the men she was always propping up in her previous job. And we can’t forget that green usually signifies money and success.
Betty Francis nee Draper:
Betty doesn’t show up until the very end of the first episode, and when we do finally meet her, her whole persona is wrapped up in motherhood. She wears a soft pink and white nightgown while watching Don tuck their children into bed. She doesn’t work outside of the home, finding all her value in the lives of her children, until she decides to go back to school in the last season. It seems appropriate that the last time Betty and Don talk, she is wearing pink sleepwear just like she did in the first episode. As the talk about their children together and where the future leads, she wears the color of femininity and motherhood. Oh, and look at those perfect nails! Still painted bright red, even when she isn’t wearing makeup and hasn’t done her hair.
This scene isn’t the last time that we see Betty though, we see her in the kitchen, which has always been her room of power in the show, while her daughter, Sally, does the dishes. It isn’t Betty that we see in pink anymore, it is Sally. As Sally takes over the duties of caring for her little brothers and keeping the family together, she starts dressing like her mother, in this pink sweater.
From the first episode to the last, Janie Bryant’s designs give us insights into the characters that we couldn’t get from the dialogue alone. Even as all of the characters change, there is always a through line in their costuming. It doesn’t matter how much they’d like to move on and forget about their previous life decisions, they can’t ignore the choices that got them to where they are. This circular connection in the series is carefully mirrored in the costuming from the “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” all the way to “Person to Person.”
If you’d like to read more about the Recorder’s thoughts on the series finale, including more on the costuming, check out The End of an Era: Reflection of the Mad Men Finale.