By Julie Miller
Photo courtesy of Michael Yarish/AMC
Over the past five seasons of Mad Men, costume designer Janie Bryant has so impressively outfitted Jon Hamm, January Jones, Christina Hendricks, and the rest of the cast in elegant styles evoking 60s Manhattan that she has inspired viewers to revisit fashions of the era. Since the drama's inception on AMC, Michael Kors has cited Mad Men as a runway inspiration, Prada has taken a sartorial cue from the series, and the Tennessee-raised designer has collaborated on three collections with Banana Republic, making Sterling Cooper's vintage office-wear accessible to contemporary consumers.
In anticipation of the show's sixth season VF.com phoned Bryant earlier this week to discuss the many character transformations that the Emmy winner has assisted with her indelible costumes.
Julie Miller: Matthew Weiner is notoriously tight-lipped about upcoming seasons of Mad Men. At what point does he tell you what will be happening during the season so that you can start preparing?
Janie Bryant: What happens is I usually get a five- or six-week period for prep time, and that's when I start doing the costume designs. During that time, I have my creative discussions with Matt, and we talk about what's going to happen for the upcoming season. At that point, I'll know the time line, sort of. [Laughs.] It's an ongoing process, but at the beginning, that's where I start doing my research for whatever year it is. I'll start by watching old movies of the period. I do a lot of research. I have a lot of costume- history books. I look at a lot of catalogues, like Montgomery Ward, Sears, and J.C. Penney, that are really about everyday living during that period. That is really important, because Mad Men is about portraying the lives of all of these different characters. It is not about a cat walk or trends of the 1960s. . . . It's about developing characters through costume design that are real and natural to those specific people.
Some characters do experiment with trends, as we saw last season with Megan and Harry, for example. As the trends of the era approach more synthetic and Lurex, how do you toe the line of acknowledging the time period's styles without veering into cheesy territory?
For me, it's always by being inspired by the script and being really inspired by the characters. It's so much about the mood of Mad Men as well. I always think of it as being very sophisticated and extremely intelligent. The tone can be dark and a little humorous. It's never cheesy. I always keep that in mind for the costume design.
What's the most difficult aspect of designing for the show?
For me, it's always about going from season to season and gently moving forward. And making sure that the seasons are tied together, but to show that time has passed as well. That always seems to be the biggest challenge. Going back to real life, it's understanding that in our real life we know that the styles and the trends may change. Not all of us keep up with them. And not all of the trends may be best for our figure. There are certain characters that have changed. Megan is a character that could definitely change her style, between being an actress and leaving the office. There were all of these different roles for her to play. She was Don's new wife and had a whole new income from that. She was able to afford very stylish clothing (left). So that was fun, to think about how her character could really change and grow.
Harry is another character who has really changed throughout all five seasons. I was just looking at some of Harry's Season One and Season Two costumes. To look at him in Season Five and to see how his character has changed and grown from this newbie, insecure guy at the agency with the nerdy glasses and bow ties to . . . if there's one character that is kind of cheesy and douchey [now], it's Harry. In Season Five, we see him as Mr. Hollywood, getting into that modern style for men's wear.