Every once in a while unexpected opportunities come along which beg one’s participation. Such was the case on Tuesday evening, November 18. Winterthur Museum in Winterthur, Delaware has been hosting a number of costume designers in a lecture series, as a complement to their “Costumes of Downton Abbey” exhibit, on display through January 4, 2015. When I read that Janie Bryant, costume designer for Mad Men, would be one of the featured speakers, I quickly made my reservation.
Off I went in the frigid cold on Tuesday evening for my 45-minute trek to Winterthur from my home in Pennsylvania. I took with me my copy of Janie’s 2010 book, The Fashion File: Advice, Tips, and Inspiration from the Costume Designer of Mad Men. Taking it off the shelf was like reacquainting myself with an old friend (well, not so old, but it had been a while since I had read it!). Perhaps, I thought, I might get a chance to have her autograph it.
In many ways, I credit the costumes of Mad Men as inspiring my return to fashion sewing. It is no secret that the widespread, renewed interest in Mid-Century fashion and design has been a direct result, at least in part, of this television series. The first season was set in 1960, so the elegance and glamour of the 1950s was still very much in evidence. In fact, Janie said she started her research by exploring the late ‘50s’ designs, and used the end of that decade to set the tone for the introduction and development of each of the main characters. In addition, Janie had been fortunate to learn to sew at an early age, making her first dress at age 8. And – she grew up in Tennessee in a family where a true appreciation of fashion, beauty, and ladylikeness was generations long. She brought this sensibility with her as a foundation and inspiration for her position with Mad Men.
Janie covered many topics in her hour+ presentation, but the following made a particular impression on me:
1) I was intrigued with her disclosure that she actually used some vintage clothing from her family for some of the Show’s costumes. Betty’s aprons – many aprons! – had belonged to her grandmother! Little details, such as Roger’s monogrammed cuffs, were based on her observations of family members as she was growing up. And did you know that Don Draper’s belt buckle has the initials DD engraved upon it? As Janie said, no one will probably ever see it, but in a very subtle way, it helps to define and enhance his enigmatic character. Sometimes it is the little things in one’s style (and sewing!) that make all the difference.
2) The importance of color in costumes cannot be underrated. For example, the soft color palette (pale blues, pinks, beiges) for the character of Betty helps to reinforce her icy persona, while the deep jewel tones for Joan’s costumes emphasized the power of her femininity. By extension, the power of color in clothing for the rest of us is also a key element in dressing well and in having our clothes work for us, not against us.
3) Several times, Janie mentioned that costumes are so vital in helping to “design” the character. For example, Peggy’s chaste, somewhat prudish demeanor was enhanced by costuming which was reminiscent of schoolgirl dress (bows tucked under collars, pleated skirts, lots of plaid). The power of clothing is such that one can change his or her outward persona by altering one’s style of clothing. The flip side of this is that, often, as one grows and becomes more confident, clothing choices become more sophisticated and worldly.
4) Janie said that it is much easier for her to design costumes for characters than it is to dress herself! She admitted to “outfit anxiety” at times, which is probably multiplied for her because of her career and the personal expectations which accompany it. (Hm-m-m-m, I think that’s a problem I wouldn’t mind having!) She has obviously given this idea much thought, and this where I would highly recommend her book. A quick look at some of the chapter headings will tell you some of what you can learn from her observations, her experience, and her expertise: “You as a Leading Lady”, “Defining Your Silhouette and Secrets for Dressing Your Shape”, “The Dressing Room”, “Dressing Chic for Every Occasion”, “The Importance of Being Accessorized”.
5) Which brings me to probably the most important take-away from the evening, at least for me. Without equivocation, Janie wants women to appreciate their own femininity – and their curves! – and strive to feel beautiful in the clothing and accessories they choose and wear.
What a fun evening this was – and a great opportunity for me to meet someone I have long admired. Janie is delightful, funny, kind and engaged, as well as absolutely lovely! I felt very fortunate to have a few moments with her after the lecture when I asked if she uses vintage patterns in her research and design work. “I have bins and bins of them!” she said. She was, indeed, happy to sign my book for me, and in a lovely, stylish flourish, she wrote:
“To Karen, With Glamour & Love XXX Janie Bryant”