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Vintage, As Seen On Tv

The looks on 'Mad Men' and 'Swingtown' aren't outdated -- they're retro.

June 04, 2008|Ginny Chien | Special to The Times

SHELVE THE Vogues and put away the Harper's Bazaars. Turns out vintage Montgomery Ward catalogs are the fashion bibles of choice for two of the small screen's most clothing-conscious dramas.

Television's retro style resurgence started with "Mad Men" costume designer Katherine Jane Bryant's pitch-perfect interpretation of fashion circa 1960 -- all elegance and corseted waists for the ladies; tailoring and skinny lapels for the gents.

Now comes "Swingtown" from executive producers Mike Kelley ("The O.C.") and Alan Poul ("Six Feet Under"). The series, premiering Thursday on CBS, follows three suburban couples through their sexual and cultural evolutions in the 1970s.

Costume designer Jill Ohanneson -- working against a backdrop of shag carpeting and KC and the Sunshine Band tunes -- dresses a trio of leading women in frocks from clingy jersey numbers in Technicolor lime to flowing floral looks in muted lavender. Inspired by the pages of the Ward catalog, as well as Faye Dunaway and Jane Fonda in their heyday, Ohanneson estimates that 90% of the show's clothing and accessories is true vintage. She scours warehouses from Minnesota to New York and shops local outlets such as American Vintage for pieces by Hanae Mori, Mary McFadden and Holly Harp.

"The period we're dealing with, it's not really hippie anymore," she says. "It's more of an early '70s romantic feel, almost a little bohemian."

"Swingtown" hopes to do for the '70s what "Mad Men" has done for the late '50s-early '60s. The latter series, whose sophomore season debuts in July on AMC, has resonated with style-setters from the runways to retail. Vintage dealer Jonathan Kanarek -- who specializes in '40s-'60s men's fashions at his Los Feliz shop, Jake Vintage -- says that clients often name-drop the show. "That classic look is in magazines all the time, but when people actually see it in play on TV, that pulls it all together for them," Kanarek says. On the designers' side, after presenting his latest collection in February, Peter Som told a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter that he was "playing with 'Mad Men.' "

Bryant says it's not the first time she's noticed life imitating art: "It's strange because the same thing happened to me when I designed 'Deadwood.' A lot of designers then started doing all this Victorian-inspired stuff. Now again with 'Mad Men.' It's amazing to design a show with such eye candy."

Besides the Ward catalogs, films such as "The Apartment" also inspire the Emmy-nominated costume designer, who creates most of the principals' clothing herself (she buys and rents vintage to fill in the blanks).

Of course, it remains to be seen whether "Swingtown" will have anywhere near the fashion potency of "Mad Men." But the drama does arrive at a time when the style world is once again borrowing copiously from the '70s.

Vivienne Westwood and Hermes are among the houses that flirted with the era in their fall collections, and Miss Sixty even incorporated vintage Volkswagens into its runway show. In the last couple of years, four marquee brands of the '70s -- Ungaro, Halston, Loris Azzaro and Bill Blass -- were bought out by new, cash-rich owners (including Harvey Weinstein, who acquired Halston in 2007).

Still, Kanarek doesn't think the '70s comeback will be wholly embraced, particularly by the Y-chromosome half of the population: "It was a much better look for women. I doubt the guys are going back to those crazy print shirts. It took a lot of therapy to get through all that polyester."

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