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Designing 'Mad Men': The Stories Behind Joan's Dresses and Don's Suits

Janie Bryant, costume designer for the AMC show, describes her creative process.


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Long before she was the costume designer for AMC's Mad Men, Janie Bryant was known at her Tennessee high school as Miss Vogue, and it seemed she was destined for a life in the world of high fashion. After studying fashion design at the American College of the Applied Arts, she moved to Paris to learn the art of couture, and then to New York's Seventh Avenue. But the screen always beckoned, and after meeting a costume designer at a party, she transitioned into a career designing for television rather than the runway. In 2005, she won an Emmy for the HBO Western series Deadwood. As the costume designer for all five seasons of Mad Men, she has both captured a particular period—men in grey flannel suits, women in lacy dresses, everyone, for the last time, in hats—and the incremental sartorial revolution that brought the starchy '50s into the Modish '60s. Her designs have captivated everyone from Michael Kors, whose Fall '08 collection bore her influence, to Banana Republic, which recently launched its Mad Men line. Here, Bryant shares selections from her sketchbook, including an early rendering of Joan's eye-catching dress from the Season Five premiere, and explains how a costume travels from a napkin doodle to the screen.


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I begin every season with six weeks of prep to create an overall closet for each character. Having been the costume designer for all five seasons now, I have an idea of who these characters are. My job as the costume designer is to tell a story about these characters through their costume design. But it's not like I get all 13 episodes from Matt [Weiner] at the beginning of the show. I don't think that's possible. Specific scenes come up that have just been written. It's a process throughout the whole season.

I might sketch on a napkin, or in a meeting, or in my studio, or even on a little coat-tag card while I'm talking to my manufacturer / tailor. There's no routine. I can wake up in the middle of the night—that's when a lot of my designs occur, especially when I'm designing a show. Then it's all in the middle of the night.

My first scratch illustration, that may take a minute. A real sketch takes me about half an hour, 45 minutes. First I use a mechanical pencil, then colored pencils, and then a black felt-tip pen. Sometimes I use gouache. But I have to be fast—especially for Mad Men, where there's no time to do anything—so I'll usually use my colored pencils. They're the fastest.

Then I'll go to the fabric store—I go to a variety of contemporary and vintage ones. I like to feel the fabrics, I like to see what's out there. I'm also going to the rental houses, I'm pulling from costume shops, I'll buy vintage pieces and redesign them. Whether I design from scratch or buy from a vintage store or a rental house, it's costume design. It's not just throwing some shirt or dress on somebody. There is significant meaning for every piece worn by each actor.

Once I get the fabric cut, I'll bring it back to my tailor, and then she starts her process. She's the one who drapes it on the dress form, and converts it to a paper pattern, and then cuts the fabric. Then I'll do my fitting. Usually the actors aren't there until I've already built the garment. If I'm having a sitting with Christina Hendricks [Joan] and I'm thinking about building more dresses for her, I might put the fabric around her and see how it's going to work with her skin tone. But usually I'll drape the fabric on a dress form.

Presented by

Alex Hoyt is a freelance writer and digital illustrator whose work has appeared in The AtlanticNational Geographic, and Architect.

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