Costume Designer Janie Bryant on the Rising Hemlines and Loosened Morals of Mad Men Season Five

If you are as obsessed with Mad Men as I am (which is a lot), then you know that Janie Bryant is the genius behind the costumes on the show. As the costume designer she sketches and plans costume ideas for each character, from Don to Trudy, some of which are custom made and others which are reworked from vintage pieces. I met with Janie just before the season finale to find out how she works her magic on Mad Men and get the scoop on all the best outfits of the season. Fashionista: What types of reference images do you use to inspire your designs? Vintage magazines? Classic films?
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If you are as obsessed with Mad Men as I am (which is a lot), then you know that Janie Bryant is the genius behind the costumes on the show. As the costume designer she sketches and plans costume ideas for each character, from Don to Trudy, some of which are custom made and others which are reworked from vintage pieces. I met with Janie just before the season finale to find out how she works her magic on Mad Men and get the scoop on all the best outfits of the season. Fashionista: What types of reference images do you use to inspire your designs? Vintage magazines? Classic films?
Photo by Palma Kolansky

Photo by Palma Kolansky

If you are as obsessed with Mad Men as I am (which is a lot), then you know that Janie Bryant is the genius behind the costumes on the show. As the costume designer she sketches and plans costume ideas for each character, from Don to Trudy, some of which are custom made and others which are reworked from vintage pieces.

I met with Janie just before the season finale to find out how she works her magic on Mad Men and get the scoop on all the best outfits of the season.

Fashionista: What types of reference images do you use to inspire your designs? Vintage magazines? Classic films? Janie Bryant: I love doing research, and it's always so inspiring to me. I watch movies from the period like North by Northwest, The Apartment, Breakfast at Tiffany's, That Touch of Mink, Dr. No, Sex and the Single Girl, A Hard Day's Night, Alfie, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf among others. Vintage magazines, catalogs, newspapers and photographs are also a huge part of my research as well.

Season 5 of Mad Men has been crazy for me as a fan and I’m sure for you as the costume designer--what has been the biggest change in the way that you’re designing for the show? It’s the same philosophy that I’ve always used since I started designing the show which is [that] the principal cast is really limited in what their character has been from the beginning. There have always been changes in each passing season for each character, but they’ve always been subtle. I’ve been able to show the passage of time more with the new characters, for instance, Megan, Ginsberg, and Jane Sterling.

Jane Sterlings outfits kill me. I wish I could walk into a vintage store and find one of those white jumpsuits! I know, I know. I love that piece. I bought that piece a couple of years ago knowing that Matthew Weiner was going to write a scene for some character to wear that amazing jumpsuit. It’s ivory silk crepe that is so divine and delicious, you can’t even believe the way that fabric feels...it’s just so Jane Sterling--very dramatic. I love that she’s the character who has nothing to do all day except work to plan her outfits, her outings, her hair and her makeup. I always imagine her sitting around eating bon bons. [Laughs] I do!

Which character is your favorite to design for? It changes all the time. This year has been so much fun and so challenging to do all of Betty Francis’ costumes. I’d say 98% of them I designed and we built from scratch, so that has been so much fun. Also just in terms of a character really changing from season to season...I mean, I think the whole world was shocked by, you know, Betty’s situation.

What about the new Mrs. Draper-–Megan (Jessica Paré)? It has been really fun to have that character transform from the secretary to Mrs. Draper. It’s like with Jane Sterling--their economic situation really does change, and so it was a real shift for Megan. She's been able to wear and afford spectacular costumes in the office, but I never saw her as a character that was frivolous in the same way that Jane is. I love the fact that she is not only Mrs. Draper, but that she is also the modern, the young, and the new. It also is really interesting to play with the age difference between Don and Megan--you can really see that contrast in their costumes.

Photo by Jordin Althaus/AMC

Photo by Jordin Althaus/AMC

Which character has experienced the most development and change in their costumes this season? Peggy. For most of the season we see Peggy working all the time and being undervalued and not appreciated. Her costumes reflect a bit of masculinity by most of the time wearing basic cotton shirts with her skirts and school girl jumpers. Then for the finale I wanted her in something strong and bold to reflect her new position at the agency.

How does a character’s emotional and personal development inspire you to design what they’re going to wear for a scene? In [The Other Woman] there was a perfect example of how the costume design can really help to tell the story of the scene and really help the actors get into the mood. [In the episode] where we see Peggy with Chaough...in her deep V, double-breasted coat dress with the scarf, it’s the first time that we really see her out of that schoolgirl-like Peggy Olsen. I love what that whole episode is about; it tells the story of women like no other. In that scene Peggy is trying to be a little sexy, but the thing is, that’s not what she’s selling. Chaough offers her more money [and] I love that whole exchange, where it almost is mimicking Joan’s situation in a different kind of way, and Peggy is really coming into the knowledge of her value. It's really exciting. The other scene is when Peggy goes to talk to Don.

I cried during that scene. I know, I did too. I was there for a short time when they were shooting that scene [and] I just loved the story of that dark aubergine and the sadness of that dress. There’s a little bit of a melancholy feel to it. It’s a serious color, and actually that dress was given to me by this amazing woman named Alice. She’s from Queens and she had many, many dresses made in that same pattern with a lot of different fabrics and so she sent them all to me. They are all from 1966. I was just waiting and waiting to use one. A lot of the moments in Mad Men are about waiting for it...the payoff is really worth it.

Let's talk about the men. One of the characters I love and hate is Pete Campbell. Seeing him in the office without a blazer on is almost shocking to me. People really hate Pete. I’m always so fascinated by that because, the thing is that Pete, in some ways, is becoming Don. This year has been a really interesting year for the men, especially in the office. Matt Weiner and I have many discussions about the breakdown of New York City during this period--you’ll notice the art department and the production designer have done a tremendously amazing job with all of the trash everywhere. We really wanted to do that same thing with the costumes, have them being more broken down, a bit more wrinkled. Pete, as well as many of the other characters, have had those wrinkles added to their costumes, so that’s why you’re saying it’s been interesting to see a lot of the guys in shirtsleeves. We are just trying to show the fact that there is more of a casualness and more of a textural element to the costumes this year through breaking them down, rolling sleeves, having more wrinkles, and not being so buttoned up.

Photo by Michael Yarish/AMC

Photo by Michael Yarish/AMC

There are some outfits or themes on Mad Men that have become iconic, like Megan in coral. How do you decide when to repeat an outfit or what ideas are going to be central to a character? There’s no hard and fast rule to that. I wanted [Megan] to wear something coral for the first episode of Season 5 because when we last saw her, when Don announced their engagement, she was wearing a coral dress, but a different coral dress. Coral is one of the character colors for Megan that I assigned to her, and so I wanted to start off the season with her wearing that color costume--coral for me really signifies Megan and Don’s romance. I wanted to introduce that costume in the first episode, but then when I got the script for the Howard Johnson episode, I knew she had to wear coral and that two-piece ensemble. I loved the idea of the chevron stripe of the jacket mimicking the architecture of the Howard Johnson and also, if you notice, the chevron stripe almost has like this kinetic kind of feel to it – like being anxious – and so it really tells the story of their whole fight at the HoJo.

In this season you've costume designed for a ghost (Adam Whitman in Episode 13) and a corpse (Lane in Episode 12)--how did you determine how Adam should dress and what Lane's final ensemble should be? Adam is actually wearing his janitor costume from when we saw him in Season 1. I wanted Lane's costume to be typical Lane in wearing his suit and non-matching waistcoat (vest) but the colors and patterns were quiet, subtle and dark.

In the season finale, Beth really spins back into the picture. What inspires her wardrobe? She has a cute yet conservative vibe that reminds me of Betty in past seasons in a way... That is true; she has similarities with Betty in that she is an upper middle class suburban house wife, but Beth is much more delicate and fragile. Her costumes really illustrate her sadness, and vulnerability. And what inspired Megan's fairytale costume for the Butler commercial in Episode 13? It is so amazing! Thank you! I was so inspired by Disney movies like Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was about creating a fairytale peasant princess. I designed the canary yellow chemise made of cotton voile inspired from the French Baroque period and the dirndl from Germany is a traditional folk dress. Her costume is a mix of different cultures and periods and the combination makes the perfect fantasy.

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It’s really amazing how much emotionality and power is in each character's wardrobe. For me this season has really been my favorite season. I say that every year though, right? It just keeps on getting better and better: the stories get better, the characters are richer, I’ve loved this whole season! It’s really the first time that we’ve seem a miniskirt on Mad Men. I thought it made so much impact to see Megan in that minidress doing the Zoo-Bisou-Bisou dance and see all the charcters in that apartment. You can really see all their characters in that moment. That was really an amazingly challenging scene.