‘Mad Men’ shares a lesson on beauty

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The fourth season of “Mad Men” starts Sunday, and with it another round of opportunities to both marvel and gasp at how much things have changed since the early 1960s. Much of the genius of the show, of course, lies in its ferocious attention to period details. From the entrenched womanizing and nonstop drinking and smoking (even while pregnant!) to children who play with plastic dry-cleaning bags and family picnics that end with a flourish of litter shaken insouciantly onto the grass, “Mad Men” leaves no antediluvian stone unturned.

That includes body types. Watch some of the commentary features on the DVD editions and you’ll hear the show’s creator, Matt Weiner, refer to “period bodies.” What he means is that just as the show applies painstaking care to finding sofas and kitchen appliances exactly like those you would have seen in that era, it also seeks bodies — particularly female ones — quintessentially of the time. That means no ripped abs or fake breasts, no preternaturally white teeth. (A lot of people wear eyeglasses too — the horror!)

Despite such buzz kills, “Mad Men”-inspired fashion, with its pencil skirts, skinny ties and cashmere sweater sets, is all the rage. The show’s costume designer is developing her own line for QVC, and Banana Republic, which has “Mad Men”-themed window displays, is even sponsoring a contest in which a customer will win a walk-on role on the show next year.

To put it mildly, Madison Avenue’s mid-’60s dress code is quite a bit more formal than most of what we see on the street today. With the sort of snug tailoring that demands industrial-strength undergarments, the clothes seem at first glance like a direct reflection of the punctiliousness, even the oppressiveness, of the era. We may appreciate those cinched waists and gloved arms aesthetically — and it’s fun to incorporate a little old-school glitz into wardrobes that increasingly suggest the whole world has become a yoga class — but the average 21st century woman isn’t about to wear a girdle and stockings to the office every day.

But for all the ways those clothes remind us how far women have come, they also shed light on how fast we hit another wall, one that may be even more constricting than everyday girdles and pointy bras. The post-feminist sensibility eschews such gear yet demands flat bellies; it prizes large breasts but also expects them to stand up miraculously.

In other words, if “Mad Men’s” uber-curvaceous Joan Holloway were working on Madison Avenue today, she might visit a plastic surgeon rather than rely on a highly engineered bra. Instead of enduring summer days in stockings, she might endure time in a tanning booth or pay for a spray-on tan. In other words, the Joan Holloways (or Peggy Olsons or Betty Drapers) of today are likely to be goaded into attempting self-transformation on a much larger scale than in the 1960s, when no one bought into the notion that beauty was effortless.

For that you can blame the other 1960s. A friend who came of age then — actually in the early 1970s — talks ruefully about how she used to dye her (naturally dark) leg hair blond so she could then not shave her legs. The goal was to be in step with hippie-centric fashion and its mandate to “be free” but only within certain bounds. Sure this sounds crazy now, but it’s a first glimpse of today’s tyranny of apparently natural gorgeousness that is anything but.

Maybe that’s why we harbor just a tiny bit of envy toward the women of “Mad Men.” Deprived of “advantages” like Pilates classes and fat burners and ever-more common surgical procedures, estranged from the feelings of inadequacy that come from “failing” to achieve physical perfection despite the vast array of tools at hand, their “period bodies” amount to something that, especially when it comes to our idols, is rare today if not downright taboo: normal, regular proportions.

And you thought kids playing with dry-cleaning bags was shocking.