By Lance Avery Morgan. Photography courtesy of AMC Television/Lionsgate
Largely influenced by AMC’s hit television series Mad Men, the suave, clean style of the late 1950s – mid 1960s era of Madison Avenue’s advertising world has sprung to life during the show’s seven seasons. The mid-century look has taken the runways, offices and streets by tremendous storm as we lamented the show’s ending last night. Here we explain it’s stylistic success.
The leading hero, and sometimes antihero, of the hip hit Mad Men series, Don Draper, would be 87 in 2015. Geez, the guy had style for miles and it is quite clear that the AMC television series Mad Men had the world in a state of fashion fixation. The drama that has garnered numerous awards has more been heralded as one of the finest shows in recent history. Mad Men, short for Madison Avenue Men, became an instant classic when it premiered in 2007. Set in the advertising industry at the dawn of the Kennedy-esque1960s and now up to 1965 where the world is about to exchange prolific changes, the show focuses on Draper—played by the square-jawed Jon Hamm—and his colleagues at the Sterling Cooper advertising agency in Manhattan.
“What ‘was’ in is ‘now,’” said former Neiman Marcus men’s fashion director Colby Williams in an earlier interview when Mad Men launched. “Looking back on fashion, this period was what we perceive to be modern. I love the series and certainly the clothes,” he states. “Especially the trim suits and ties. It’s very chic.” John Varvatos, Etro, Michael Kors, Chanel, Thom Browne and others are just some of designers across the world have also been reveling in the fresh take on a classic style.
Hello, returned elegance. Gents, gone are the days of rock-n-roll themed T-shirts, juvenile baseball caps, and flip-flops. Laid-back casualness may have been acceptable for those summer days spent on the beach, but spring and summer fashion encourages you be more grown-up. A tie bar, cuff link, and a pocket square proves to be the icing on the cake of the revised look of men, both “Mad” and otherwise.
The series playfully harkened back to the era’s movies such as The Apartment, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, From the Terrace and the 007 films where any man felt empowered, due to succinct media messages about masculinity. And with what he wore. With only the right after-shave/porkpie hat/tie bar/two button suit-you name it, our mid-century hero, too, could deflect international criminals and still be dressed in a tuxedo in time for dinner at eight with the most beautiful, chiffon-clad woman in the room. Mad Men makes it look that easy, too.
No confusion of gender roles in the world then. It was a time when a man was a man and a martini was, well, shaken and served ice cold by someone clad in fishnet stockings under a chiffon dress. Classic stars such as Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and those who played macho roles, always wore clothes that were integral to their Don Juan-esque characters. And they fit like a glove. Heck, it was part of their armor, whether in the boardroom or bedroom.
Critics and fans have fawned over the Mad Men social commentary, which is both nostalgic, yet still very much tackles current subjects such as sexual discrimination, adultery, racism, war and other hot button issues. All of it is veiled beyond a dusty cloud of cigarette smoke and too many twelve o’clock-tails behind closed doors at Sterling Cooper Price and Draper’s agency. Hamm’s as Draper was a smooth-talking opportunist and sly adulterer, while his boss Roger Sterling—portrayed by John Slattery—abided to a similar lifestyle minus the suave subtly. The other cast members were Ivy League grads, transplanted Midwesterners and small town boys with dreams of making it big in a man’s world, no matter what the personal price is to be paid. There’s a sly nod to the writings of John Cheever and even, Shakespeare in the series, where these everyday heroes suffer slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
So in spite of all their somewhat loveable shortcomings, it’s hard not to enjoy the one thing Draper and his colleagues dad: style, lots of style. Pizzazz, as it was often called then, seemed to be effortless. Brooks Brothers, Hickey Freeman or myriad local department store imitations suited the well-dressed man in his quest for gray flannel success. Until the peacock revolution of Carnaby Street’s swinging late-sixties garb that was seen in the series’ later seasons, any suit, tie, shirt and pair of brogues could be dashingly interchanged to accommodate the trim styles. “It is such a masculine look,” shares Stephanie Coultress, owner of Estilo, a trendy Austin boutique that carries the revised clothing approach. “Designers such as John Varvatos and Ted Baker London have infused a traditional look into a must-have look that will work for now and several seasons to come.”
Though based primarily in the 1960s, the world of Mad Men feels decidedly 1950s. If one thinks in eras in terms of world events, the 1950s started with the end of World War II in 1945 and had the longest run any era ever had, ending with Kennedy’s assassination in late 1963. The post war modernist smugness and sometimes oblique impropriety seemed more grown-up, more gentrified by being button downed and spit polished shine. All slick as a whistle on the outside and perhaps not as virtuous on the inside, once the carpet was pulled back on the air-brushed era, is the message that both the show and the clothes evoke.
This simplicity of the fashions of Mad Men has sent most menswear designers into a creative whirl, to say the least. Slim suits, skinny ties, and the occasional fedora—those dashing silhouettes once seen in droves from Madison Avenue and Main Street, have reappeared on runways and in the windows of clothing stores everywhere. And at a time when menswear has been desperately lacking creativity, it could not have made a more welcomed and timely comeback by top designers.
Keen Etro of Etro has its own “Mad” interpretation. He brings color and a bit more whimsy to the serious suiting point of view. Ralph Lauren, who could be said to have been “Mad” when mad was originally thought old news, shows that his Purple Label silhouettes are as neat and trim as the men who wear them. Ferragamo shows browns, blacks and serious shades of gray suiting that are punched up with sophisticated vests, overcoats and fedoras to evoke a modern sensibility to the looks of the Eisenhower and JFK eras.
The fabrics of the suits seen in the series are similar to those seen now on the runways and in stores, yet more comfortable and wearable. If you ever wondered why your dad’s wool suit seems smaller than you remember it being on him when it’s pulled out of the trunk, it’s likely because it has indeed shrunk. Rayon, Ban-Lon and other space age materials were just making their way into mainstream men’s suiting and accessories by the late 1950’s and 1950’s and were precursors to today’s microfiber blends that help to retain a suit’s shape, travel ability and sheer longevity.
The era’s glory and glamour can also seen in the collections of Italian Ermengildo Zegna and Roberto Cavalli, Hugo Boss and classic Calvin Klein, too – and they all have ties to filmland. Film stars have embraced the “Mad” look, too. From celluloid to read carpets George Clooney, Hugh Dancy, James Franco and Daniel Craig are sabre-like sharp as they influence their contemporary style peers. The Hollywood look complements a return to more elegant women’s dressing of voluminous skirts, flattering, lady-like necklines and important jewelry. The men’s look has as many female fans, too, and the series’ venture into the early 1970s remained flawlessly researched and displayed with the peacock colors and the fashion attitude that went with it…
And insider’s tip on getting both the Mad Men and Hollywood style right now even though the show is but a memory? Buy a size smaller size that you are used to. If you are a size 42 suit, you’ll feel ten pounds lighter-and look it, too if you instead slip into a 40. It will feel odd at first – snug and trim, and you might think you are bulging where you shouldn’t, but with the higher armholes, trimmer pant and more streamlined shoulder line, you will look like a million dollars. Hopefully, more. So, what are you waiting for? Go ahead and get “Mad” in your own style world. Even though the show has ended, you’ve only just begun.