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Will 'Mad Men' get groovy?

As the AMC series moves deeper into the '60s, it could see its trendsetting fashions change too.

March 20, 2011|By Vincent Boucher, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • In past seasons, "Mad Men's" women have dressed in full-skirted dresses, prim sheaths and tailored suits. From left, characters Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Faye Miller (Cara Buono) share an elevator ride.
In past seasons, "Mad Men's" women have dressed in full-skirted… (AMC )

When you think about it, the fashion revolution of the late '60s has had amazing staying power. Take the miniskirt. Though we're seeing longer hemlines for spring, the mini also held its own when designers as varied as Calvin Klein, Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana presented their spring 2011 collections on runways last fall.

Ditto that office staple, the women's pantsuit. Front and center for this spring season, it was Stella McCartney's first look out on the catwalk and the second at Thakoon. Trouser suits were also aggressively rebooted at Haider Ackermann, coolly provocative at Oliver Theyskens' Theory and all silky-slouchy at Bottega Veneta.

On the men's side, the Milan fall season shows in January kicked off with Burberry's kaleidoscope of orange, yellow and chartreuse, a palette straight out of the period. For power brokers, all it takes is a lush wide necktie — a staple of posh lines like Tom Ford and Polo/Ralph Lauren Purple Label — to signal that alpha combination of authority and luxury.

And for both sexes, though silhouettes swing wide some seasons and skinny down the next, the boot-cut jean (rooted in, yes, the bell bottom of the late '60s and early '70s) will never be out of style. In fact, the bell bottom itself is expected to be a popular wardrobe choice this spring.

So maybe it's worth speculating a bit about the '60s-era television show — "Mad Men" — that's been a major influence on much recent fashion. At the end of last season, the series closed the door on the first half of the decade, ending in late 1965.

Series creator Matt Weiner is notoriously secretive about the show, so there's no telling exactly where the action will pick up when it returns. "Mad Men" costume designer Janie Bryant was hesitant when asked about it over coffee as she was doing interviews for the publication of her book, "The Fashion File: Advice, Tips, and Inspiration from the Costume Designer of Mad Men."

"Of course it could all start the next day," she joked. She had no idea and didn't want to speculate.

But she admitted the change from the early '60s to later in the decade would be powerful, whenever it takes place. As the constricting Brooks Brothers men's suits and prim Jackie-era sheaths gave way, so too did the era's highly regimented social conventions.

"The beginning of the '60s is all about innocence, and then there is the downfall. The fashion was so relevant to the social atmosphere of that decade. The most fascinating thing to me is that loss of innocence," she said.

A good part of the "Mad Men" viewing audience is still in thrall to the post-'50s vision of grace and propriety, and many observers have attributed the current vogue for "ladylike" cardigans, full-skirted dresses and trimly tailored grey wool suits at least partly to the influence of the series.

"It's just given back a very feminine silhouette that's been lacking in the past few years, bringing back the more curvy, feminine, voluptuous look," series star January Jones said to WWD in Milan at the spring Versace show.

But where do we go from here? Don Draper, trying to stay "relevant" in a wide tie and floppy hair? Peggy Olsen, making her mark in a miniskirt and boots? Betty, with her cigarette, entertaining at home in palazzo pants? Roger, trying to keep pace with his younger wife, sporting a Nehru jacket? And perhaps Joan, rising in her managerial role, trading her figure-tracing dresses for a man-tailored trouser suit?

Whatever the back story, the styles that emerged from the era's chaotic Youthquake — as it was termed — remain surprisingly durable. A pair of bell bottoms in thin black silk recently riveted Bryant: "Just like late '60s bell bottoms, fitted at the thigh — just a gorgeous, gorgeous pair of trousers! That style is still so accessible for us today."

As for the miniskirt, another style from the mid-to-late '60s, Bryant said that in doing some research, she was surprised to find that the '60s versions were every bit as short as the ones currently seen on red carpets and in nightclubs.

You don't have to tell designer Stan Herman. The former president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Herman was one of the young guns of '60s Seventh Avenue — along with Chester Weinberg, Donald Brooks and "Annie Klein."

"I remember being in a fitting and looking at a dress that was so short and saying 'My God, where's this gonna go from here?'" he said. "In '68, hemlines went so high that designers started to put pants under dresses."

Those ensembles were mostly for casual wear, since women didn't wear pants to work or even to New York's fashionable restaurants. "Some of them, like Le Grenouille, had little signs outside saying they couldn't come in," Herman recalled.

Whether apocryphal or not, the story goes that the late socialite Nan Kempner, upon entering a restaurant in her YSL trouser suit, was denied entry. She simply removed the pants, clad only in her jacket, and said to the hostess, "I hope you like this better."

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