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Page last updated at 11:26 GMT, Monday, 9 February 2009

The look of Mad Men

Don Draper

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

As the US TV drama Mad Men returns to British screens, viewers are steeling themselves for a series in which the narrative is often overtaken by the sheer style of the show. What is it about the look of early 1960s Manhattan that is so appealing?

The 60s were cool. No, not the flower power, tie-dye, beads in your hair end of the decade, but the beginning of the 60s, when people worked in stark, smooth modern offices, and wore sharper clothes.

Or so Mad Men would have you believe.

Since the show was first shown on the American cable network AMC in the summer of 2007, it has caused a flutter among style aficionados on both sides of the Atlantic.

And although this tale of hotshot Madison - the "mad" in Mad Men - Avenue advertising execs in 1960s Manhattan has only been watched by a small proportion of the possible primetime audiences in the US and UK, it seems also to have sent ripples through the world of fashion.

But what's so noteworthy about the look of Mad Men?


If there is a spiritual predecessor to Mad Men, it surely comes in the form of Hitchcock's North by Northwest, released at the tail end of 1959. The protagonist is also a Manhattan adman, Roger Thornhill, but his suit features in so much of the film it nearly qualifies for a nomination for best supporting actor.

Slate grey with a slender, but not skinny, slate grey tie, the suit has thin lapels and is fitted.

Don Draper

It's not dissimilar to the suits worn by Don Draper, the complex and brooding chief Mad Man in Mad Men.

As well as the slender ties and the tailored but not tight suits, there are handkerchiefs folded into pocket squares, trousers worn high, collar pins, and unusual fabric patterns like windowpane - a wide check - materials like mohair and colours not seen as often in the modern palette, such as petrol blue.

"In the 50s and 60s men became body conscious, wearing suits showed off your figure," says Jeremy Langmead, editor of Esquire.

"The advertising industry really blossomed. That is why they looked good. They were selling a dream so they had to look as though they were part of that dream."

In today's slightly scruffier office environment, where smart and even semi-smart office attire faces a constant war of attrition, there are many who are pleased to see a harking back to a more formal era.

"We have all got scruffier and dressed down over recent years," says Langmead. Suddenly seeing a TV series where everybody is smart is a reminder of how good we do look in a suit. There is a return to it. The power of what a suit can do for you. Smarter, healthier, younger."

Trudy and Pete in typical garb
Skinny ties were in for the last few years

In the current straitened times, people in fear of redundancy may be consciously dressing smarter to help them in their battle to avoid the axe, says Langmead.

And having just been to the latest round of fashion shows, he says the Mad Men's influence can be seen in the domination of the suit. But more significant is the influence at the other end of the market, where High Street and Main Street traders brand their suiting as "Mad Men".

"It has obviously had a big influence and permeated from the top to the bottom."


Then of course there's the extraordinary outfits some of the women are wearing in Mad Men.

There are two competing female style icons in the show. At one extreme there is Joan Holloway, the scheming, Machiavellian alpha female of the office, dressed in figure-hugging dresses that even Jayne Mansfield might feel were a little on the tight side.

Joan Holloway
Joan Holloway's outfits and body shape are very much of the era

At the other end of the spectrum, there is Betty Draper, the protagonist's troubled blonde wife, veering between hard-pressed mother and prom queen.

Holloway in particular, has generated acres of column and blog inches. She is the antithesis of the size zero trend, a red-headed Amazon.

"There's all that exaggerated femininity," says Langmead. "Most men really like that. We have got her in the current issue because she's the favourite woman in this office. Not just because she is cocky and confident, but because she looks like a woman, confident in her curves."

Apart from the super-glamorous Holloway, there's a fair slice of how women dressed in 50s and 60s America. There are pyramidal bras, puffed out dresses, and acres of bright lipstick.

The Mad Men office

The look of the sets is dominated by the style known as mid-century modern, says Wallpaper* features director Nick Compton, with designer George Nelson being one of the dominant figures in the rendering of the period.

From the coloured glass ashtrays to the wacky cigarette dispensers and the gold-banded tumblers, it's hard to spot anachronistic items in any shot.

"Every single thing in it has to be period correct," says Amy Wells, set decorator on the show. Along with production designer Dan Bishop, Ms Wells is responsible for the look of the sets.

"We were not trying to idealise the period in any way. We didn't want it too clean, we didn't want it too stylised."

While the office was super-modern and swish, the Draper home is a realistic slice of early 1960s well-to-do interior decor.

"These are people who live in Connecticut - upper middle class, Waspy," says Ms Wells.

So one sees a colonial reproduction kitchen, a lavish living room and some items that are older than the period.

Betty Draper in her house
While the office is icily modern, the Drapers' home is very different

"People kept things much longer than they do now. Every item in your house had a great value. It was not easily replaced. When I was growing up we had cupboards like that, linoleum floors."

And the reason the look has been so much talked about is partly because interest in the design of the period has been intensifying in recent years, says Mr Compton.

"Over the last 10 years people have become more and more interested in that period. Designers like Eames from that period have become pretty popular. The show does it really well, it looks very convincing. They get beyond the cocktails to the furniture

"It is very clean and it is a rejection of everything too fancy and ornamental and stuffy."


Much comment has been passed on the smoking and drinking in the series.

The characters get up, they smoke, they finish breakfast, they smoke, they have a meeting, they smoke, they smoke in between mouthfuls of lunch. They smoke a lot.

And when they're not smoking, they're usually lining up a whisky to go with their elevenses biccy.

The portrayal comes at a time when anti-smoking activists are starting to take a dim view of characters smoking in mainstream television drama. But the realism is welcomed by Neil Rafferty, of smoking rights campaign group Forest.

"It looks really authentic - they have captured the look and the feel very well.

"Obviously, smoking, whether you like it or not was an absolutely integral part of life in the 1960s. They smoked in offices, they smoked pretty much all day. Television and film-makers shouldn't have to pretend life was different."

It leaves the casual observer thinking that a lot of the appeal of the show is the naughtiness of the portrayal of the smoking and drinking, as well as the appalling sexual politics.

"A lot of men can't help but wish that today wasn't a bit more like that time," says Langmead. "[Even though] we know it was wrong."

Roger Sterling and Don Draper (Picture courtesy Carin Baer, AMC, Lionsgate)
1. Collar bar holds points together and raises knot of tie
2. Handkerchief folded into pocket square
3. Coloured glass ashtray
4. Glass tumbler with gold band
5. Slender, but not always skinny, tie
6. Thin suit lapels
7. Trousers worn fairly high, suits very tailored

Mad Men is on BBC Four on Tuesday, 10 February at 2200 GMT

Below is a selection of your comments.

I've just recently started watching the show and find it to be a refreshing counterpoint to today's sanitized television. I love seeing a time period I remember fondly reproduced so well.
Jonathan, Edinburgh

I work for a design agency. Most days my boss looks like he's just about to go surfing. I have never seen either of our directors in anything even remotely resembling a suit. I wouldn't mind looking smarter for work, it gives you more of a distinction between work clothes and casual. Unfortunately it would look like I was going for an interview somewhere else if I turned up in a fancy dress and heels!
Philippa, London

Not sure if describing a picture of Joan Holloway smoking a fag as being cool is really responsible at the moment.
Alex, Dorset

The article says that "Mad Men" "has only been watched by a small proportion of the possible primetime audiences in the US and UK". In the case of the UK, perhaps it is because it has been tucked away on BBC4? Given its critical acclaim and the popular interest in it, could it not be re-run on BBC1 or BBC2?
Sandra Manning, London

My husband and I have seen both series of Mad Men and are in love with the sets and period detail as much as the fantastic storylines. We are in our mid-twenties but both feel we belong in fifties/sixties America, when style and good design went hand in hand. We have always loved vintage clothing and love to decorate our house in a midcentury look. I don't think I would've wanted to have lived in that era as I would not want to have to choose between being a bored Mrs Beaton housewife and being a secretary whose main function is not to work, but to provide eye candy for the bored, philandering husbands. Really hoping there'll be a third series.
Jodie , Maidstone Kent

It looks fabulous, but, I suspect rather more for the male of the species.
Anne Murphy, Durham

Writing as someone who lived through the 1960s it wasn't that marvellous a time for many. The people who make these programmes seem to be locked into a nostalgic time warp.
Donal O'Brien, Guildford

This is all really just a restatement of 1986 when "Absolute Beginners" helped set off, and reflected a trendy craze for early-sixties looks and music in Britain. Although the acting and plot in "Absolute Beginners" was ropey, I thought it evoked the period (to different effect) just as well as "Mad Men" and is a much-underrated film for that reason.
Dan Rubinstein, London

I fail to see why this item is on the news page. It certainly would not be on the BBC news page if it was an ITV show. I wonder if ITV have this item on their news page? I think not because quite simply it's not news, just the BBC shamelessly advertising it's own shows, mascarading as news. The BBC did it with Strictly and now this. The BBC really is going to the dogs nowadays.
Ben Swinnerton, Sheffield

I also notice that they wear Rayon Socks or silk socks even to the office (especially when they take their shoes off to see the boss).
Carl, Nottingham

Joan Holloway can smoke all she wants - Responsible or not, that picture oozes cool.
Owen, Croydon

My late first husband was a print salesman in the sixties, dealing with various Ad Agencies in London - Mad Men bring it all back - it is true - what happens in the States, happens here later - all the smoking , drinking, etc etc - wives at home, expected to look good, but kept on the back-burner, with the children. some of it was great fun - but not all of it - the men died too young - and women stayed in unhappy marriages too long.
Birdog, Isle of Wight

Mad Men does an excellent job portraying the unhealthy, yet fashionable, habits of the 1960s, which so many of still engage in today in one form or another. This show did more to get me off cigarettes than any corny non-smoking commercial or health class lecture. We see the "cool" lifestyle of three-martini lunches and two-packs-a-day, but the writers inevitably follow up these scenes with consequences, whether it's Roger's heart attack or a room full of execs coughing in sync during a meeting with tobacco executives.
Karim Nathan, Boston, United States

I can remember a spell working in an ad agency in the mid 80's. It wasn't anywhere near as glam as mad men but all the senior staff wore double breasted suits, smoked all day and had decanters of spirits in their office. A very different time.
Fraser, Glasgow

I love this show so much and wouldn't miss an episode. Apart from the amazing acting and the brilliant storylines, the look and feel of it takes me right back to my childhood in the 1960s. OK so the smoking and drinking are considerably un-PC in the current climate, but the authenticity is what makes Mad Men such a bar-raiser in TV drama. When US television gets it right there is no contest.
Ginger, Birmingham,UK

"Mad Men" not only looks great but the dialogue is as sharp as the suits and the stiletto heels. It is refreshing to watch intelligent drama that also looks good, and I think the smoking and drinking is an essential part of its faithful recreation of period detail. In nearly every photo of my mum and dad (both young in the late 60's) they have either a cocktail glass and/or a cigarette. I don't think it appeals more to men than women, as a piece of excellent drama it is, I think, universal in its appeal, with the requisite 'eye candy' for both sexes of course!
Liz Wallace, Cambridge

In response to Ben Swinnerton, I think as a society we should be prepared to review and look at the way we live, because essentially this not only defines us people, but also gives us a sense of direction i.e. where we are going? How we live also has quite a clear impact on what other countries think of us, I mean, it would be immoral of us invade say Iraq, when we ourselves are unjust and have no "sense" of "democracy"? We live in a world of public perception, wouldn't you agree?
Adeeb Ashfaq, Bradford, United Kingdom

The series has been utterly brilliant. As engrossing as Deadwood as far as characters go and the look and style is uber cool. The anti Smoking brigade should know that the incessant smoking has actually put me off smoking rather than make it look cool. I look at how much they smoke and retch, I think of how much the rooms must smell and how those super cool suits must smell.. awful. I'm really looking forward to this series and finding out how they're lives change as the decade progresses.
Andy Ward, Brighton

I LOVE Mad Mean and easily one of my all time favourite pieces of TVv. The Style plays a massive part along with the amazing dialogue. I'm way to young to remember this time period but I have fallen in love with the look due to this show. It's nice to see the 60s painted as something other than flower power and hippies. In response to Alex from Dorset I agree that smoking should not be portrayed as cool but if you watch the show it looks at the ignorance of smokers at that time towards health issues. As for Ben from Sheffield. This page is in the features part of the news page just like every other form of TV, radio and newspaper news coverage would contain. News doesn't always have to be aggressive.
Tommy Stoic, Glasgow

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