Selling Style: Mad Men and the Fashioning of Femininity
“The Rejected” has quickly become one of my favorite Mad Men episodes. Those through-the-glass-doors looks between Peggy and Pete! Peggy peaking through the window into Don’s office! Allison glancing furtively (or is it pointedly?) across the two-way mirror during the focus group and then shattering the glass frames while telling Don, “You’re not a good person”! This is an episode filled with glass surfaces, reflections, talk of looking at oneself and shots of looks between characters both open and secret. It is also an episode in which how the characters look was central to the meanings on offer.
Mad Men is a series frequently praised and sometimes criticized for its lush visual style. Foremost in the attention paid to the program’s style is its mise-en-scene—the sets, the props, the hair, make-up, and costumes. While this retro style is certainly one of the fun elements of Mad Men viewing, its presence is never mere style for style’s sake. A basic lesson in the analysis of media texts is the awareness that all on-screen elements are there for a reason; they have been chosen deliberately and they thereby communicate meaning. Mad Men’s vintage setting and generous budget may make its style particularly compelling, but for me—and perhaps for many other of the show’s admiring viewers—the attention to how things and people look is key to the show’s exploration of gender roles so precariously perched on the edge of disruption and change.
“The Rejected” in particular uses the way the characters look to map out some of the ways that femininity, and the kind of sexuality normatively associated with it, is on the verge of change. The young SCDP secretaries that make up the focus group are garbed in the dresses, jewelry, updo’s, and hair height we associate with the “fifties” part of the 1960s. Sure, there is a range of looks amongst them—the more juvenile Dotty and Allison in their plaid, the Joan-wannabe Megan in her curve-enhancing jewel tones—but together they represent a traditional young femininity. This femininity sees marriage as the ultimate goal. Or so concludes Dr. Faye Miller, the educated, professional, (married) market researcher. But Faye sees herself as a different kind of woman. She changes her clothes to lead the focus group, abandoning her more businesslike jacket and scarf for a look more akin to the secretaries, hoping to induce a greater degree of revelation from her test subjects.
But the really new femininity introduced in “The Rejected” belongs to Joyce Ramsay, the new friend who takes Peggy into a hipster world of Warhol-worshipping, pot-smoking adventure. Joyce does not look like any of the other women in the Mad Men world. She wears a men’s style blazer and button-down shirt, her hair parted in the middle, laying flat against her head and secured in a low ponytail, her one piece of jewelry an “ethnic” looking turquoise necklace. And she wears pants. Pants. Joyce’s “unusual” vibe is further secured when she kisses (licks?) Peggy at the party. As usual, Peggy is the point of negotiation for these differing depictions, a position made clear as she stands amidst a triangle of options: Megan, the SDCP men in suits, and Joyce and her hipster gang.
While Mad Men uses its characters’ sartorial style in these thoughtful and revealing ways, AMC and the show producers are also aware of the marketing magic of the program’s fashion-savvy. Capitalizing on a broader cultural embrace of the program’s retro style, AMC has partnered with national retailer Banana Republic to sell “Mad Men Style” to the (upscale) mass market. In weekly vlogs, costume designer Janie Bryant chats with Banana Republic Creative Director Simon Kneen, who links the Mad Men look for both women and men to BR’s contemporary stock. Meanwhile, a weekly “Fashion File” blog post deconstructs that week’s looks, much as I have done here.
We can certainly see these sorts of marketing efforts as savvy exploitations of one of the program’s appeals. But I’m not convinced that these efforts detract from the value of the show’s use of fashion and style to explore femininity and masculinity in flux. A show that takes fashion seriously is also taking seriously a cultural arena long dismissed for its association with the feminine. To discount it as mere surface appeal or promotional wizardry risks duplicating that troubling rejection of the feminine. But to take fashion seriously in a way that also explores the limits of conventional gender roles and the welcome potential for feminist change, that helps us share in the looks of the Peggys, the Allisons, the Megans, and the Joyces as they try to find their way? Yes, please.