Mad Men Designer Janie Bryant on Peggy’s Power Suits and the ‘Pretendland’ of Costume Design

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Peggy’s power suit, Joan’s red dress, Don Draper’s fedora — these are some of the inseparable parts of the Mad Men aesthetic. Costume designer, Janie Bryant, quickly became a fashion influencer by creating the fashion the characters wear to work from scratch or from vintage collections. Over six seasons, Bryant has dramatically inspired the way designers design and the way the public dresses. And the projects continue to flood in: There’s Janie Bryant Leg Couture, her sock line with Mack Weldon, and her work with Banana Republic, Hearts on Fire DiamondsBrooks Brothers, and cult classic Koret New York. She’s now getting her own reality TV show, which will aim to give the costume designer’s work a powerful dose of publicity.

I spoke to Janie Bryant after Season 7 premiered. She’s a Tennessee native, and while she doesn’t have a Southern accent, her words drip through the phone like a smooth golden Tennessee whiskey. She discussed her design process, and gave insight into the style evolution of Megan, Joan, and Peggy.

You have a lot of presence and you’re glamorous. Ever been onstage? Or have you ever been asked to read lines or anything like that?
Ah thank you. Oh I love you… I love you. You know what? I acted a lot when I was a kid, for a short time, that was possibly going to be my major in college. I worked on a few plays, and I was also a ballerina. I started dancing when I was four. I always had the [jokingly] “flair for the dramatics” and the love of being dramatic, but no I have not been an actress on the show or read lines or been an extra. [Jokingly] Well I always ask Matt…[honestly] no, I’m terrible at memorizing lines, I’m terrible, but thank you for asking.

The lingerie that the women wear to bed on the show is so intricate. That must be interesting.
(Laughing) It’s such a funny thing in the show – you know it’s such a funny thing, it’s an amazing period for not only foundation garments, but also the nightwear as well, I mean the peignoir that Betty wears or Megan wears, they’re all made out of the nylons and it’s absolutely the most uncomfortable fabric you ever could imagine, but oh, it looks so beautiful. The layers and layers of nylon and lace, it’s a funny period for the synthetic fabrications that we don’t wear so much today, but they really did. I’m totally obsessed with all the colors of the nylons, the super super pinks and oranges and greens, to the really subtle beautiful pastels like the pale yellows and whites and blues that Betty wears… so pretty pretty, but a nightmare to sleep in. It wraps around your legs. It’s all about how things how things feel.

How do the women deal with that?
Well they’re not actually really sleeping in them for eight hours anywhere. It’s all in our pretendland. It’s our fantasy pretendland and we love our fantasy pretendland. It’s all about the longline bras, the girdles, the stockings, the slips and the garters and the garter belts. You have to be creating that very controlled silhouette. The foundation, that is why I truly do love foundation lingerie, the underpinnings. Depending on which period you may live in or have lived in, I do love how foundation can really shape your figure and really manipulate the human form. That’s really what we do with modern shapewear, it’s about controlling and smoothing and shaping.

I have to talk to you about Peggy’s power suit in the premiere. When she was working for Teddy, she got very bold, but she hangs on to some of her school girl plaid. What’s the story behind some of the choices?
In all of Peggy’s costume design she’s one of my favorite characters because I think that she is one of the most complex and intricate characters on Mad Men. So taking that idea of that complexity and translating that into her costume design, I loved the idea of her wearing plaid or checks or pleats or polka dots to really add that extra layer in complexity. It mimics what the psychology of her character is. It’s taking that two-dimensional character on the page and translating that into costume design. And for me, it’s about really showing those layers of costume so that’s why I love the plaids and the checks and the pleats and everything the costume embodies. It’s about that. It’s about her working girl spirit, it’s about her intensity, it’s about her being earnest, and it’s about her work ethic. She’s a super strong character. I love all of her paths and journeys and it’s been amazing to work with Elisabeth Moss and see her story arcs throughout the years. I think that she’s the character who has changed the most. We’ve seen so many things happen to Peggy during the first six seasons. With the premiere, I wanted to go back to one of her signature colors which is mustard, and then the plaid suit in the mustard. It was just…it’s a garment that’s strikes me as Peggy being professional. I said, ‘oh my god that’s Peggy! She has to wear this vintage thing.’

About dressing Joan, she’s getting used to not being such a sexual object. How did becoming a partner change her style?
I talked with Matt about her being more professional and more updated, having more money. All of those elements that are happening story-wise affect how she’s going to dress so we’ve really seen that.

Megan looks very glamorous, but she talks about her starving artist friends in the premiere, and looks nothing like Don. What’s going on with her style?
I think she’s really uncomfortable that Don had bought her the TV, and also you can see from one of her costumes, she’s wearing a man’s tuxedo shirt and jeans and it’s very bohemian and it’s not ostentatious. It’s very actor-y for that time. It’s very simple you know what? I think Megan is a character that has always been very chic, so she’s not really an ostentatious character. Anyway, but I do think she’s a character who does understand fashion and style and she definitely is a character that is definitely a part of the very chic thing, but not in like an overt way, but she’s a character who’s fashionable. She has that sensibility. I gave her that sensibility. Her character, not Jessica Paré.

On the premiere, we saw that Don is still dressing like he’s working even though he’s not what defined him anymore. What would dressing down on a hiatus mean for someone like that?
I mean that’s really about the uniform and also he had been flying that day so of course it would be customary for that period, and also I love the idea that Don’s uniform is a suit. It’s like his armor.

Dressing Shirley has to be exciting and revolutionary. What are some things that women tried for the first time in 1969?
I know oh god, Shirley, she’s cool, you know she’s cool, and I love those Mad Men moments when the characters come and we get to see that times are changing. A perfect example of that is the premiere of Season 5. Megan’s in her mini dress singing “Zou Bisou Bisou”, and that’s the first mini dress that we ever saw on Mad Men. Those are the fashion moments that really show the transition of time. It’s like with Shirley.

We saw that Nixon’s in office now. What are examples of the show’s political fashion moments?
One of the incredible moments we saw last year was Peggy in a pant suit. That was something that started to happen. I loved that moment in the show also, and the white knee boots like gogo boots. Love! I love the gogo boots and you know the skirts were super short, super super short. It was like the micromini. Micro micro, and I love the layering of all the long necklaces.
I love the amazing faux furs of the period, all of the double-breasted coats. Everything was double-breasted even womenswear. You can see a lot of that at the end of last season. My three characters were Harry, Roger and Ted. They all wore double-breasted jackets.

People love to catch references in the show. Who were the women of the 1960s whose fashion you admired?
Well I love love the models of this period like Veruschka and Jean Shrimpton and Peggy Moffitt and Twiggy. I also love love Angelica Huston and in terms of actors, definitely Raquel Welch, Mia Farrow, Elvis Presley and Priscilla Presley. Who else do I love? So many, so many, I do go to see you know some of the actors for inspiration like Elizabeth Taylor or Sophia Loren or Marilyn Monroe in the beginning seasons of Mad Men as well as Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Steve McQueen… Faye Dunaway. There’s been many. I also love to root myself in reality. That’s why I’ll look at newspapers from the period or photography from the real real street scenes, not just looking at the famous people and the fashion people because I think that’s a skewed look in terms of what people really do, you know what I mean? Today yes, maybe that’s an inspiration, but that’s not how people really dressed, and so that’s why I love to do research.

Any funny reactions to costumes this season from the actors?
Yes constantly (laughing) I mean I can only say I have my funniest fittings with Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and we have a very good time. I have fun with all of them though I can’t say that one fitting is better than the other. I have a hilarious time with John Slattery and with all the girls, we have fun and with Jon Hamm. The fitting process is really fun when they get into costumes. That’s when the transformation to the character happens and that’s the fun part for me even if I make them try on too many things. I love seeing that transformation.

Do you have to make multiples of them?
I do depending on the story and the script. Somebody could be getting hit. A few seasons ago Pete Campbell had that fight with Lane Pryce. I had to have multiples for that. And in Season 2, with Betty throwing up in the car, I had to design multiples. Oh and Bobbi Barrett when the car got wrecked, I had to design and make multiple costumes for that scene so it happens.

Do you see people walking down the street referencing Mad Men?
Oh god absolutely you know, I see people dressed in Mad Men fashion all the time. When Bonnie and Clyde came out, everybody was wearing Faye Dunaway’s beret and a longer skirt and we can thank the costume designer, Theadora Van Runkle, and also when the first Great Gatsby movie came out, the costume designer was Theoni V. Aldredge. Everybody was wearing, you know, bias-cut dresses and even the menswear transitioned during that time. It was not the work of Ralph Lauren, It was the costume designer Catherine Martin who created the design of that film, and I think about when Moulin Rouge came out and inspired a Victorian movement. When I was at Deadwood, even Vera Wang, she was inspired, and her collections were inspired by Deadwood.

Related Links:
Mad Men Season Premiere Recap in 10 GIFs: “Time Isn’t On My Side”
11 Ways to Channel Mad Men‘s Joan Holloway at the Office
Bras, Bustiers, and Panty Girdles: Mad Men‘s 19 Best Bedroom Looks

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