Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Mad about Mad Men Style

Aren't we all anxiously awaiting Sunday when season 3 of Mad Men begins? Just what have Don and the gang been up to?

House Beautiful is running a feature on their website about decorating the Mad Men way. You can learn how to add a little 1960s dash to your home, view photos of House Beautiful homes from the era, and help Betty with the redo of her home. (Can we please get rid of her kitchen?)

House Beautiful
editor-in-chief Stephen Drucker was kind enough to answer some of my Mad Men questions, all for the sake of understanding that Mad Men allure.

What is it about the Mad Men era that still captivates us today? Is it the cavalier attitude towards drinking, smoking, and sex? The fashion? The cocktails?

First, we envy them: They could smoke, drink, and say inappropriate things without any guilt. And then there's the whole schadenfreude thing: Their world is about to fall apart, and they don't see it coming.

Design wise, which looks from that era still seem fresh today? Which looks should remain shelved?

I love the Sterling Cooper office with all those colored doors and Selectric typewriters. Nobody likes Betty's spinning-wheel-and-butter-churn Early American suburbia. Everybody thinks all the midcentury modern stuff seems fresh, but they got tired of it, and I think we will too.

What was with all of that orangey, stained wood paneling and cabinets in homes from that era? Betty has it in her kitchen, so I'm assuming it was de rigueur for the time?

Maple was the wenge of 1960. Let's not be judgmental. They'll be laughing at 2009 in a few years.

What three colors sum up Mad Men style?

Any of Joan's dresses.

Any idea of what that generation did to get rid of cigarette odor? Or did they not worry about it?

They didn't think of it as an "odor." It's just what everything smelled like. There was no stigma to smoking, and non-smokers were the minority, so if you didn't like that ciggy smell, it was sort of your problem.

If you were one of the Mad Men, what would your "pad" look like?

Get me the key to Pete's penthouse. His 1950s white brick building is down the block from my apartment in Manhattan, so I have a soft spot for it.

Were they really more sophisticated back then?

Back then, everybody aspired to being grown up and wanted a sophisticated, adult stage to live life on. Now everybody wants to be 25 forever. And we feel sorry for Don and Betty?!

(All images via House Beautiful's website.)


  1. Anonymous1:06 PM

    I'm almost certain that the wood in the Draper kitchen is pine, not maple. My parents' "rec room," from the same era, is paneled in exactly the same wood.

    The Draper house depresses me no end. I picture Pat and Dick Nixon decorating their house like this. Although the ivory sofa in the dark-gray living room is startlingly sophisticated for them. It's like Don let Betty hire a decorator to do a single room. (Which I could picture happening.)

    My favorite set is senior partner Burt Cooper's Asian Modern office. Once you see it, you'll never go back to conventional chinoiserie again.


  2. I love Burt Cooper's office too, and I like how Stephen mentions the colored doors throughout the main office.

    What about Betty's tufted blue headboard? It is blue, I think? And that set (house) from Palm Springs, amazing!

  3. PT and Courtney- Agree about Burt Cooper's office. And I love Betty and Don's headboard- my favorite piece in the show!

  4. My mother was so Betty, especially in terms of the decor.

  5. Anonymous2:39 PM

    Style Court:

    The house in Palm Springs was a real Case Study house.

    Agree it's amazing. Now that's modernism that no one will ever get tired of.


  6. Great to see House Beautiful's piece on the sets!
    If you are interested in the fashions, see my blog from a couple of weeks ago on Mad Men Style as well.

  7. btw - i thought this issue of house beautiful was amazing.

    i wonder if your discussion encouraged them to take it up a notch.

  8. How wonderful to get this interview! Very good questions, Jennifer! I can't wait for the new season to start!!!

  9. what a terrific upbeat fast paced funny interview! I love it. I think that appears to be a prunelle ottoman in the first photo. I have to admit I do not watch this show. I think I have missed something culturally important here. Should remedy this. la

  10. Hi Jennifer, The set designer for Mad Men did a write up on resources in Los Angles that appeared last week in the LA Times home section and the online site, also. Great Post.

  11. I love the look, but more for nostalgia than anything else; the world, at least our little portion of it, seemed so neat and tidy and well-ordered when we were kids. Does anyone remember the knotty pine, or more elegant, pecky cypress, panelling from the era?

    My mom, in a moment of unusual candor, said once that the era was still desperately trying to put behind it the lingering horrors of the Depression, WWII and the ongoing Cold War. The USA's new-found wealth made them all a bit self-conscious of their role in the world, ergo a sleek, grown-up sophistication to separate them from their parent's past and to prepare them for their seemingly God-anointed future, which really masked their insecurity and utter surprise at being the world's new leader and dominant force; kind of like kids who feel they must dress up for their first job, real date, etc. Since the power was lodged in business, the offices were a more accurate reflection of the era's style than many of the homes; Mom said the Europeans who visited smiled with deprecation at the naivete of our home's decor, while envying us our money and business acumen. The money that flowed so seemingly freely gave them all just the blinders they needed not to see the enormous social upheaval of the 60's heading for them like a runaway freight train.

    While smoking was endemic, as was drinking, etc., she said they all knew deep down that it was a cheap panacea for their deep-rooted feelings of insecurity and dissatisfaction with their regimented lives. Not sure if her hindsight is showing here, but since it is from the mouth of one of the horses who ran in the race...

  12. Great interview. I just caught this show for the first time and see the reason for the fascination.

  13. Have been looking at past episodes in preparation for Sunday's premiere.
    It's the office decor and the men's wardrobes that give Mad Men its appeal, don't you think? The women's dresses are frequently off the mark. Who wore huge crinolined skirts in 1962? And the decors aren't up to much, apart from Sal's apartment~but then Sal was what they referred to as "artistic" in those bygone days.

  14. Anonymous4:32 PM

    "And the decors aren't up to much"

    Disagree. Like Mr. Drucker, I love the Campbells' youthful, prosperous, proud-to-be-modern apt.

    "The women's dresses are frequently off the mark."

    Believe me, show creator/writer Matthew Weiner does not get big details like dress styles wrong. He is maniacally, obsessively thorough in his research, even making sure that the characters' outdoor-wear is appropriate for, say, the real second week of March, 1959.

    If the guy is taking pains to ensure that the cellophane wrapping on the lunch-cart sandwiches is correctly folded, I trust him with the dress styles.

  15. Anonymous5:36 PM

    Of course Betty wears crinolines! She lives in Ossining, not Manhattan. Her husband is a Nixon man. He openly admits he doesn't "get" JFK. Don does not want to see his wife all gotten up like Joan. He wants to come home and see crinolines and pearls, and Betty loves to please him.

    Betty's crinolines are the fashion equivalent of her terrible "traditonal" colonial decor. The whole household, including Betty and her costumery, is meant to be Don's escape from Manhattan and the fashionable wicked Bobbie Barretts and Midge Daniels. It's all Don's way of refusing to acknowledge that the 60s are bearing down on him, bearing Democrats and miniskirts and worse.

  16. Edward6:44 PM

    Looking at the bedroom you chose from House Beautiful, all you need to do is replace the custom made bedspread with matching bench with a duvet and shams from -say -William Somoma Home embroidered with the aqua of the carpet and you are done. Even the yellowy-chartruse ceiling is courant and the purple tufted chair is fab. In the library just get rid of the grillwork doors on the bookcases and most of the avocado green and it too is on the mark. I am sure someone is working on a copy of that tufted tub chair on legs. "Decorating is Fun" said Dorothy Draper and wasn't she right.
    Kitchens have always been laboratories for the new. Most people want the newest of mechanics and ensconce that in whatever is popular for that day - early american('50's) country french('60-70's) country english(Smallbone and variations -'80's) and dark-stained wenge and cheaper variations('90's-?) What's next? Pantries are on the rise. No upper cabinets - Italian lacquer-bamboo-wood floors-maybe early american will rise again? I love your blog.

  17. Alison7:20 PM

    My parents worked in advertising in Manhattan in the 1950s. Dad was creative, mom was in personnel. They met in the hallway, and married 4 months later.
    Were they really more sophisticated back then? I couldn't go anywhere as a child without white gloves on. In 2009, we've all seen Britney Spears' privates. Hmm, tough call.

  18. Edward8:42 PM

    Allison's right. I grew up in Manhattan in the 50's.uptown near Columbia. My mother would not go downtown without a hat and gloves ON THE SUBWAY. If anyone remembers, The glove department at Saks Fifth Ave. was between the entrance doors on the 5th Ave. side with all sorts of drawers for different styles and sizes. Does Saks sell gloves anymore?

  19. Anonymous8:56 PM


    Good point. But what if your dad had been black and your mom white? It's the 1950s: Would your dad have had a creative job at a Manhattan ad agency? Would your parents have been able meet, date, get married, rent a nice apt., and have mixed-race kids, all without being given a hard time, or facing real hatred and possibly violence? None of those things are about style (white gloves), but they are about a difference in sophistication.

  20. I'll weigh in- since when did it become a crime to dress up and make an effort with one's appearance? No more hats or gloves...only flip-flops.
    Edward, don't know about Saks, but thank goodness Neiman's still sells gloves.

  21. Edward9:43 PM

    Thank you Jennifer. Good to know. I have nothing for or against gloves. I equate them with hats for men. Now, I would only wear a hat for warmth not affectation. My father always wore a hat and when I came of age I was expected to do the same. I found them a nuisance. Put it on outdoors, take it off indoors, tip it when being introduced to a lady, where to hold it when it is off. forget it in houses and restaurants. I am glad thay are not important anymore. I am sure gloves for women have reached the same position.

  22. The women's fashions in Mad Men are wildly inconsistent. Betty Draper is sleek, tapered and Grace Kelly-esque in one scene, and in the next, she is wearing a dress that no executive wife would be caught dead in after 1960. A cursory glance at the magazines of the period (and I possess the full contingent.of Bazaar's and Vogues from the period 1961-65) would tell quite a different story. The department store heiress of Season One would be dressed in the manner of Trigere or Norman Norell~names plainly unheard of by the costume designers for the programme. Betty is admittedly suburban, but there would be an awareness of what Mrs Kennedy was wearing, whatever Betty's alleged political bent.
    This is all a far cry from the more pertinent question of that awful plaid wallpaper in Betty's awful kitchen.

  23. Anonymous11:18 AM

    Betty is gorgeous, but let's face it, she's also a thirty-something suburban matron with two kids. I don't think Vogue and Harper's Bazaar ever focused on representing women in that demographic, especially in her day-to-day life, making sandwiches for the kids, shopping for groceries, babysitting the neighbor's kid, shooting pesky birds in her backyard (as Betty memorably did), etc.

    As for the heiress/store owner, that character prided herself on picking and choosing from her store's inventory--treating the store as her own personal closet. She was written as idiosyncratic and independent-minded, and not to be told what to do. She would not let the store, which she ran, dictate what she should be wearing.

    Yes, all the regular characters appear in a variety of clothes, from dowdy to snazzy. That's how life is. Sometimes you have to look good for a business affair, sometimes you're shlepping around at home in the middle of the afternoon, feeling blue, and you cut corners.

    Good storytelling uses as source material more than magazines and catalogues; those are idealizations, not documentation. A good story also shows the characters' interior lives, and their contradications and complications. So a few inconsistencies make it that much more accurate, psychologically.

    And I think the nasty plaid of the wallpaper is part and parcel with some of Betty's dowdier choices in fashion. It's all of a piece. That rings true to me.

  24. Love reading this discussion thread. The "Jet Set" episode still reigns for me, but I am looking forward to new design inspiration on Sunday night. Can't wait!

  25. My goodness, I had NO idea that the department store heiress Rachel Menken had all that subtext and motivation built into her character, expressing her individuality by making unexpected selections among her store's inventory. You've certainly read a lot into that character, Anon 11.18, and put us all to shame with our superficial take on Mad Men.
    But I still contend that as owner of a Bonwit Teller/
    Henri Bendel sort of establishment Rachel Menken would be tremendously chic, a cut above the buyers and the department managers, she would wear Norell and Galanos ( a badge of excellence in those days). And she would never, ever have worn her hair down to her shoulders in that lank fashion.

  26. Now I know I will be watching just to see what Rachel and Betty will be wearing -and I thought it would be that guy what's his name- la

  27. Shall I assume that "Anonymous," in his or her steadfast defense of Betty Draper's fashion sense, is well under 40, has never studied fashion or costume design, and is eminently full of his or her self and opinions? (Yes, pot and kettle, but...)

    The line that got me was their assertion that Vogue's intended demographic in 1962 was not a thirty-something, well-to-do young matron. Oh, really? Who WAS it for, then?