Mad Men is coming. The date has been announced for the premiere of Mad Men season six, and you can feel the excitement building. Fans are begging for details, but AMC has only allowed the release of a few glamorous cast photos. Who is behind the industry-changing costume design on Mad Men? Janie Bryant.
Last week, I was fortunate enough to sit down for an exclusive interview with Mad Men’s Emmy® award-winning costume designer. Throughout our 25-minute conversation, Bryant took a few moments to answer some questions that may be of interest to fans of Mad Men and readers at Talent Zoo. She reflected on her costume design choices, adding the '60s style to clothing options in today’s ad agencies, and thoughts on a new clothing line.
Don: How does it feel to be responsible for changing the fashion industry with your Mad Men styling?
Janie: I’m glad we’re talking about this because, just so you know, I am not a stylist; I am a costume designer. It is about creating a story about the characters through costume design. They are completely different jobs. A lot of people don’t know there is a huge difference in professions. Styling is about developing someone’s own personal style. Costume design is about creating and telling the story of a character through their costumes. On Mad Men I design the costumes and I build from scratch, I rent from costume houses in Los Angeles, I work with vendors from around the country to purchase vintage clothing, and I often redesign vintage garments as well.
Don: Got it. I had no idea there was such a big difference. When you’re telling these stories through this costume design, you really changed how some people are dressing out there. Since the show started you’re seeing a lot more skinny ties, and a lot more of the tailored suits for the guys at least.
Janie: And for the women, too. It’s been incredible to see this whole fashion movement and designers being inspired from my work. I come from a fashion design background. That was my first career and I moved into costume design. I have always felt like costume design was one of the characters of this show in particular, because in the 1960s so many things happened during the decade, not only in terms of fashion but also socially and politically.
Don: That would definitely be a lot of pressure.
Janie: I don’t mind the pressure. I love period design. I really do I love it. And I love that people have been so influenced by the show. I love that the fashion industry has been inspired by the show. I love that there has been a whole movement in men’s and women’s wear that is based around the costume design of the show too. I love it.
Don: That is absolutely great. We were talking about how your clothing choices in Mad Men really speak as much for the characters as their dialogue. Do you ever second guess any of your clothing choices, and which characters are the most difficult to dress?
Janie: Well, it is all about careful balance. Of course there are at times when, yes, I do change things around but it’s also about instincts and really using those instincts. We shoot each episode of Mad Men within eight days so there is not a lot of time for changing or rethinking things. Also, it is just about knowing the character. I’ve been the costume designer on Mad Men since season one so I really know them well. I have lived with these characters for a long time, but not quite as long as Matt Weiner, the amazingly brilliant creator of Mad Men. With six seasons in, I have my color palette for each of the characters and their silhouettes set. I like to maintain some kind of continuity of their silhouettes and carry that through each episode, but again, it really depends on what is going on with the script. It all starts there. It’s about reading the script. It’s about breaking it down. It’s about understanding what the characters are saying to each other. It’s about understanding the mood or the tone of each script and how that character is going to best show the emotions of each scene through their costumes.
Don: Out of all of the characters, which one is the most difficult to dress?
Janie: I don’t really approach it that way because it’s not really about that for me. It is more about the challenges of what I want to say with each scene. Also, it’s more about the pure volume of people. It is more about figuring out how all of these pieces are going to fit and work together. I like to approach it essentially when there are all the principles in one scene and all of the background characters in one scene as like it was a painting.
Don: That is a very intriguing thought. The landscape of office attire today is very casual compared to the Mad Men era. What do you think the impact would be on today's workforce if the same standard of professionalism and style existed today?
Janie: [laughs] I wouldn’t call the Mad Men guys very professional — grabbing women’s asses and drinking in the office. I don’t think one era is better than the other; I think it is an evolution. We definitely live in a more casual and comfortable period of time. Do I think it looks better to be dressed up and all put together? Yes, but I don’t know if we can ever really go back to that way of being so put together and not being comfortable. People are used to being comfortable now.
Don: I understand completely. That is a very good point.
Janie: It can be compared like this — would people in the 1960s wear corsets like they did in the Victorian era? No. If you look at all of the different decades, each really gets more and more casual. Then again, I think people have also been inspired lately to dress up more and really do understand that different way of how they feel when they’re really dressed up. They understand the feeling of looking great as opposed to when they’re not taking as much care. I think it’s about education and I think it’s about knowing how to dress up. There is a time and place for everything, you know.
Don: So along with that, when you’re looking at the characters, they look so put together. It’s definitely a different style and era.
Janie: That’s called permanent press fabric. The fabrics of that period were engineered to not wrinkle. It’s a whole permanent press era. That’s why so many of the fabrics were blends. That was the whole trend to stay pressed all day long in that period. Our fabrics are different today.
Don: That is very true; most clothes today are 100% cotton. You don’t see many blends out there.
Janie: Yes, and thankfully not. They don’t breathe. That’s why manufacturers stopped making them. The trend is different now. It’s more comfort. It’s breathable fabrics that are not focused on being permanently pressed. It’s about being permanently distressed [laughs].
Don: So, how do you recommend advertising professionals today add Mad Men vintage flair to their work attire?
Janie: Well, I’m a huge fan of menswear, and whether I am designing the suits for the cast or I’m renting vintage suits, it’s all about proper tailoring. As far as the ’60s era, it’s the skinny ties, the skinny lapel, and flat front trousers. Men were also wearing a lot of accessories in that period like tie bars, cuff links, monogrammed belts, beautiful watches, bracelets, pinky rings and so much more. For the men, it was definitely a time of accessories. And for the women, again, it’s about having clothes fit to your body. I always recommend people having a good tailor or seamstress. For the women, the design has really changed from when we first started the show to season five. Then [season one] it was all about the sheath and now [season five] the times have changed and definitely more of a square and architectural shape became the fashion. The thing is for women it is really hard to say what exactly is that Mad Men look. Iconically, I’m sure everybody thinks of Joan in her tight-fitting sheaths and her wiggle dresses. Now it’s about Megan in her Zou Bisou Bisou minidress.
Don: Sure, it’s all about finding your niche and seeing what works best for you.
Don: Do you have any future plans of creating your own fashion label? Would it take a page from the Mad Men era or would it be completely unique?
Janie: I do. It will be unique to my designs. As a costume designer I am working from the Mad Men scripts and I love the period. I love the ’60s. It’s a great period, but as far as my own design aesthetic, my brand is much more modern glamorous and sexy with an edge. But hopefully soon you’ll see that. [laughs]
Don: Soon, yes. I know a lot of people are asking you questions about upcoming things. On Twitter I see a lot of people are asking you questions about season six of Mad Men.
Janie: I know, I can’t tell you anything about that.
Don: I understand. I actually think it is funny that people ask because everyone knows how tight the set is and everything.
Janie: We’re all hush-hush around here. As for other current projects I’ve been working with some amazing brands. I’ve worked with Banana Republic on the Mad Men collection and we have just announced our third collaboration, which is really exciting. Last year I worked with Maidenform on designing their 90th anniversary capsule collection and I still work as their brand ambassador. Also, I’ve been working with Hearts on Fire®, a diamond company which I love. Then I’ve been working with oneCARE company on a product called Downy Wrinkle Releaser® for fabric care. I love textiles and fabrics and have been working with them a lot, which has been great.
Don: It sounds like you’re staying pretty busy then.
Janie: [laughs] Well it has been busy, but it’s been really fun and really creative. I’m just working on it day by day.
Day by Day is the only way for someone as motivated as Janie to work. Her costume design on Mad Men is so spot-on that it almost feels wrong to call them costumes. It is almost more believable to think she took a DeLorean back to 1962 and filled the trunk of with as much clothes as she could. If you didn’t think working on the set of Mad Men was enough, she is brand ambassador to three brands, wrote a book called The Fashion File, designed three lines for Banana Republic, and is working on her own future line. There are four big takeaways from our conversation: find a good tailor; approach challenging situations like artwork, making every brushstroke count; to be successful like Janie you must have passion and love for what you do, and; as much as you ask, you will never get a spoiler on Mad Men.
Janie is clearly a large part of the genius behind the success of Mad Men. How has her costume design affected you? Discuss.
[Photo Credit: Palma Kolansky]
Don McLean, MBA is an account supervisor at Airfoil Group, an independent marketing and public relations firm serving tech companies and innovation-centric brands with offices in Detroit, New York and Silicon Valley. Follow Don on twitter at@mclean_don.