Who would have thought a T-shirt could spark such a controversy?
Janie Bryant, costume designer for “Mad Men,” certainly didn’t when she put Megan Draper in a now-infamous red star T-shirt in this season's episode "The Better Half." Since Sharon Tate wore a nearly identical shirt for an Esquire photo shoot in 1967 and was murdered two years later, "Mad Men" conspiracy theorists were convinced Megan would meet the same fate.
It all spurred from series creator Matt Weiner's request that Megan wear a typical T-shirt in the scene in question.
“I did so much research trying to find women who were wearing T-shirts in the way we think of them now, but silk-screening didn’t happen in the way that we know it until the later '60s," says Bryant, explaining that T-shirts were often handmade and political and became hugely popular in the 1970s.
"I finally found the Sharon Tate T-shirt, and I showed it to Matt [Weiner] and he was like 'Yes, that’s perfect!"'
Weiner later assured viewers that Megan is sticking around -- cue the sighs of relief -- but the incident only emphasized Bryant's influence on the show.
“I’m glad there was so much attention on one T-shirt. It’s amazing the power of costume design,” says Bryant, who has been with "Mad Men" since its second episode.
“Mad Men” is treated like a great work of literature to be deciphered, and it should be no surprise that the costume design is put under the same, intense scrutiny. With the amount of preparation that goes into each season, Bryant is fully prepared to explain every tie, every scarf and every color choice.
Read on as she talks about Season 6, and look for a follow-up on Monday about the season finale. (The interview has been condensed and edited.)
I’m so happy to be talking about Season 6, which was filled with so much change as a reflection of the late '60s and design trends. How did you approach the season?
I love to start with having creative conversations with Matthew Weiner, where I can get good insight in terms of his general thinking about what the season is about. And then I start research, which includes watching movies, all the magazines, catalogs.
I do a lot of reasearch at Western Costume. From there I’ll start gathering and thinking about color palettes and fabric swatches. And then I’ll start the design process. My crew [of 12] and I start going to the costume shops, and pull there, or start calling vendors.
After that, all of those pieces have to be gathered, designed, built, redesigned and then I start doing my fittings.
How long does it all take?
Prep takes about six weeks.
That seems so short!
It would always feel tight, but I think six weeks is about normal.
How do you approach designing for a new character?
The place that I start is always with the script. It gives me so much information in terms of mood, tone, understanding the sets and also what the characters are saying to each other. That is the foundation of understanding of how do the costume design for each character. It’s like reading your favorite book. I can’t help but read the script and form the visual information for who they are and how you see them.
What about Megan, who hasn’t been on the show since the beginning, and really came into her own this season as an actress and wife and not just as a secretary turned new Mrs. Draper?
In Season 6, Megan has come into success, and she’s going out to dinner with Don and she has her own events to go to. It’s all these different elements in combination. Megan has had so many transformations!
Her costumes really translate, and I really wanted to be able to show her character in contrast to Don’s old life. I wanted her to be the more modern character, representing the freshness and newness of Don’s life. She’s modern, but there’s the extension of having a European upbringing, so also having the the simplicity of European design and the influences of the French.
And then there’s Betty, who’s back to her former self!
Betty Francis has had an incredible season as she’s gone through so many changes, we first see her still being overweight, to dying her hair black and then becoming beautiful Betty again. It's amazing to play with all of those story elements.
No matter who she is married to, Betty always tries to have that facade of perfection, and that’s what I really start with.
Megan and Betty almost represent two different ideologies. Megan is modern and shows how time keeps moving forward, while Betty retains that classic look viewers expect. How do you approach that convergence between classic and modern?
It’s so important to see those two woman being so contrasting from one another. It’s almost like Don is at the top of the triangle and then Betty and Megan are at the two corners. They are such extremes.
Don’s color palette and costume design has maintained throughout all seasons as the same. And this is sort of representative of his suit as his armor and protection from the world. It’s a minimal color palette, not at all ostentatious, never bold, and very classic.
[Roger] Sterling is a great example of someone whose costume design has to move forward. He's really embracing the look of the period with the suit separates, and the double-breasted jackets with the gold buttons, and he's very wealthy and refined. It's about creating those small differences.
The end of the season leaves so much potential for the future, especially with Sally potentially going to boarding school at Miss Porter’s. Dressing high school girls is like the ultimate in what’s hip and fresh.
I researched so much for Miss Porter's. I went to an all-girls boarding school as well, and we didn’t have uniforms, just like them. Something that was very popular [at Miss Porter's] was that girls past freshman year would wear a yellow blouse and a gray skirt. The younger girls were not allowed to wear the yellow and the gray.
Any favorite outfits from the season, surprises?
Nobody has commented on Megan's costumes. I've had such an amazing time, in terms of costume design, for the alternate characters. It's all about Colette [the evil twin Megan plays in a soap opera] and her jumpsuits.