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Catching Up With Mad Men Costume Designer Janie Bryant

April 14, 2013  |  11:08am
Catching Up With <i>Mad Men</i> Costume Designer Janie Bryant

Mad Men has long been touted as TV’s best-looking drama, and that’s due in no small part to costume designer Janie Bryant, who has been nominated for three Emmys for her work on the show. As the series finds itself firmly in the late ‘60s now, some of its characters are in for major style evolutions. Paste caught up with Bryant the day after the Season Six premiere to talk about which ones are the most fashion-forward and how she plans on taking their style into the end of the decade.

Paste: I was wondering if I could talk to you a little bit about some of the styles in last night’s premiere. There was a lot of light and dark symbolism going on, and I thought it was cool how the wardrobe played off of that theme.
Bryant: Yeah. The whole sort of theme of Don and Megan in Hawaii, especially Don, is that we’re seeing both of them in a completely different world from New York. And it’s all about that theme of them being relaxed and on vacation, and definitely there is a whole different color scheme design-wise between Hawaii and New York, you know? And we wanted to make those two worlds of Hawaii and New York super contrasting. Again, we see that with Don and Megan and their completely different world in Hawaii, and we see Betty going into this other completely different world of being in this abandoned brownstone, you know? And portraying that different world of New York City that we’ve never seen before. So yes, this was a great episode I think just to portray all the different worlds of Mad Men like we’ve never even seen before.

Paste: I really liked that scene where Don’s giving his Hawaii pitch that doesn’t really go over so well and he’s in this great blue, and I thought “oh, he’s still kind of stuck in that Hawaii mode.” Is that what you were trying to convey with that?
Bryant: It’s true. In that scene in particular, I think he wants to feel that sense of lightness, and he really wants the client to see what he sees. And I think for him, it’s a little more optimistic than his usual approach. And it’s all about him wanting to go back to Hawaii, wanting to go back and have that feeling of being on vacation. So for his costume for that scene, it was very important for him to have that feeling.

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Paste: One of the other big style changes from last night’s episode was obviously Betty deciding to go brunette. Will you be dressing her differently now that she’s a brunette? Is that something that factors into her whole look, beyond just hair color?
Bryant: Yeah, well you can see from last night’s episode that Betty was in a color that she’d never been in before, which was those deep jewel tones of like dark purple and deep, really dark pink. It was interesting to be able to play with the color scheme for Betty because I’ve always had her in pastels or whites or beiges or grays. She’s always had that super, super cool palette. And with her new hair color I could venture out a bit and have her be in jewel tones for that scene.

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Paste: What did you consider when you were choosing her outfit for when she visits that brownstone in the Village?
Bryant: Actually, that was a coat that Betty had worn last year, and for me, I really love for the characters to be able to repeat some of their costumes from previous seasons. That’s a really important element of the costume design because that’s what we do in real life. We have a few new pieces that get added to our wardrobe, but for these characters and their costumes, I really like to be able to do that for them as well because not only is it important for their characters, but it’s also nice for the audience to be able to see that these characters have a certain reality as well. So the coat is actually from past Betty costumes last year, and she’s actually wearing the sweater and skirt that she had on for the day. She didn’t change her clothes to go try to find Sandy. She just left in a hurry and wears the same thing she was wearing, but it was very important that she contrast from the runaways because it’s this whole world of dirty, gritty, seedy distress, filthy environment, and it’s in contrast to how Betty has lived an entirely different life. And so she really does. It was really successful, and I loved seeing perfect Betty in this terrible, awful place. And you can really feel the dirtiness and the grittiness with the contrast of Betty’s clothes. And it was also amazing to be able to do the costumes for all those kids. I thought a lot about what was going on in New York at the time with these runaways, and it was just amazing to be able to work on the costumes and make them so dirty and distressed. It was incredible, and it worked for showing that environment.

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Paste: I think another big style change from the premiere is that as we get closer and closer to the ‘70s, we’re seeing a lot of louder prints and facial hair on the men and stuff like that. What does that mean for you in terms of choosing which characters are going to be the fashion-forward ones and which are sort of stuck in that earlier ‘60s style?
Bryant: Well, that’s always a huge challenge for the costume design for every single season because as I was saying earlier, Mad Men is not about being a fashion plate. It’s not about these characters being fashion plates. It’s like how we are in real life, and it’s as true now as it was then that some people are very fashionable and others are not. And there are those certain characters who are going to be more with the times. Certainly Megan is one of them—you know, she’s young, she’s an actress, and so certainly she’s very trendy. But Joan’s changing as well. Last night I wanted her to have a little bit of an update. When we think of last season, she has a new position at the office, she has a new tax bracket so to speak. She has a higher income, and so I felt that she was a character who had the means to be a little bit more of an update, even though she would still maintain her Joanness, her beautiful hourglass silhouette, but that she would have something that would be more in style and with the times of what was going on in fashion. So I found a three-piece costume for her—blouse, vest and A-line skirt—and I wanted to design something for her that was a perfect balance between a little bit of masculinity and a whole lot of femininity. I thought the vest was a perfect opportunity to play with the fact that she has a new position in the office and that she does have a little bit more money. And it’s out with the old 1950s chic that Joan was forever, and she’s back in a purple blouse that was very indicative of the period and an A-line skirt and that very pretty vest, so I thought that whole ensemble worked out perfectly. I loved that costume. And that really goes back to your question of some people keeping up with the times and some people not. Mad Men is so incredible that way, and I love being able to do the costumes for the show because it’s all about that variety. It’s not about these characters being on a catwalk—that’s never the intention or never the purpose or never the motivation behind any of those characters.

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Paste: Tell me a little about Peggy’s style evolution. She had some really good looks in the premiere that, for me at least, made me feel like she’s in this new position of power, kind of like Joan.
Bryant: I think Peggy is a character that always maintains that modesty and that seriousness about her job, and these last few seasons she’s gotten more and more comfortable at work, and so this season I wanted to maintain that more confident design for her. She is being taken a lot more seriously at her new office. And I think last night Elisabeth Moss, she was Peggy perfect. She’s so amazing, and I love seeing her, and I really thought that the costume design really told that story of where she is now and where she belongs. I thought it was great. I loved seeing her in her position at the office, and I thought that the costume design really was about Peggy telling that story. I mean, nobody’s even asked me about her knee-socks though! [laughs] She has these like, perfect knee-socks! That’s Peggy’s casual costume! [laughs]

Paste: Definitely. I thought it was funny too that she’s got this more professional look going on and meanwhile Abe has this total…I don’t know, almost Charles Manson look going on.
Bryant: I know! [laughs] Well, you know, they’re two very different people.

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Paste: I know it’s probably impossible for you to choose, but do you have a favorite character on the show to dress?
Bryant: You know, so many people ask me that question, and I think it’s because everybody, all the audience, has their favorites. I mean, who’s your favorite?

Paste: You know, I gotta go with Joan. I’m a sucker for a good pencil skirt.
Bryant:Yeah, she’s great. But everyone has their own favorites, and I think a big part of Mad Men is the variety, and I’ve always loved the costume design for the variety. It always changes for me because the story is always changing and the characters are always changing. So really, it could be Megan, it could be Joan, it could be Trudy, it could be Jane, or Harry Crane. And I mean, I love Pete. I love them all so much, and I know that’s not like, a politically correct answer, but for me it’s just so much about the story and what’s happening to them. And I love that my favorite changes all the time. It’s not just about that one character for me. It’s probably different than the audience, but I have a different kind of experience with the characters.

Paste: Is there a character that you would say most represents your own personal style?
Bryant: Yeah, I would definitely have to say Megan. For sure.

Paste: Let’s talk a little bit about Don’s sport coats and his casual wear and how that’s sort of evolved over the course of the show, because last season and then in the premiere as well, he’s really going for more of the checkered sport coats and stuff that we wouldn’t necessarily see him in in the early seasons.
Bryant: Yeah. Well, the plaid and textured sport coats were such a part of menswear during this period. I mean, even in the earlier years you see for sure, the madras and all the tweeds and the herringbones. That’s always been a part of menswear during the ‘60s. But with Don, it really started with the influence of Megan. I loved last season. I designed a sport coat for Don Draper, and I got huge, huge reviews on that one I think just because people were so surprised to be seeing him in such a loud piece. I mean, for me I just thought, “Oh, it’s gorgeous Don,” you know? But also I wanted the sport coat to tell the story that Megan was having an influence on him and that she would buy him something like that. So I think that theme sort of continued into Hawaii and into much of the episode as well. Not for his uniforms, but definitely for his more casual wear. But I think such a big part of the episode, the theme of it, was about being more casual, being more relaxed. You know, we see him on vacation. We really see him in that environment. And then that also continued through the episode when we see Don and Megan at home entertaining for New Year’s Eve and again, Don being out of that uniform and seeing him in a sports coat. But I think even though Don is more casual, he definitely, definitely exudes this elegance about him as well.

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Paste: Tell me a little bit about your typical process for an episode. How far in advance do you get a script, and then when do you start brainstorming ideas for it?
Bryant: Well, I usually get the script a few days before, and then I’ll have my creative discussions with Matthew Weiner, the creator of the show, and then I’ll start doing my research and talking to my assistant costume designer and my costume supervisor about what I’m looking for for the episode’s principal cast and the day players—for sort of the guest cast, I’ll have my creative discussions with my assistant costume designer and for my background cast, I’ll have my creative discussions with my costume supervisor who helps me with all of the background fittings. Because not only do the speaking parts have to be costumed, but also the non-speaking parts. Everyone has to be costumed. So there’s a lot of different pieces that go into the costume design of just one episode. And then from there, after we offer our creative discussions, then I’ll start the design and fitting process. And sometimes I’ll design a costume for a specific character and then discuss that with my tailor and will also have to find the fabrics and decide on like, the buttons, the trim, every single piece of that garment that I want to use. Or my assistant costume designer and I also find amazing things at the costume houses here in Los Angeles, or I’ll buy vintage from my vendors. I work with vendors from all across America, and I’ll buy vintage pieces. Sometimes I’ll buy a vintage piece but I’ll want to redesign. It really depends on the character that it’s for and what I want the costume to tell. So it’s always a mixture of that process. And then from there, my assistant designer and I will start having our fittings with different actors. Once all the costumes have been fit, if alterations need to happen they will go to my tailor for alterations. When the costumes are completed, being altered, we do what’s called setting the line, and that means each costume from head to toe has to be put together, pulled together—from accessories to costumes to shoes to belts, ties, all the different pieces—and then they have to be sent in in the individual characters’ bags so that from there my set costumers can take the complete costumes and make sure that all the actors are perfectly dressed and ready for their scenes to be shot. But that’s just a little bit of it. [laughs]

Paste: Do you have a favorite costume that you’ve designed over the course of the series?
Bryant: Oh gosh. That is so hard. Definitely one of my favorites is Betty’s lace dress that she wore to Derby Day when she was pregnant and she first met Henry. I mean, I’m obsessed with lace anyway, but I’ve always loved the significance of that costume. I needed to design something for that character that embodied beauty, romance, a fantasy almost—and without it being strange that Henry would be attracted to Betty while she was pregnant. It had to really say so many different things. And I always felt like that costume really just embodied so many different elements and really spoke perfectly to what the whole scene was about. You know, you have Betty and Don’s scene at the end, and so I wanted her to look beautiful. I wanted it to be romantic. It’s almost like this imagery of the eternal bride, but without being bridal. So it was a very complex costume that I had to design for her for that scene, and I have to say, Mr. Valentino, he definitely inspired me for that one. I’ve always been obsessed with Valentino and all of his beautiful work that he does with lace. It’s one of my specialties.

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Sketches and image courtesy of JanieBryant.com

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