The New Ugliness of Mad Men

Out with the glamour, in with the kitsch. What the show's new look could indicate about its seventh and final season

In 2010, The Guardian cleverly gave a name to an epidemic that was sweeping the Western world: “Madmenalaria.” According to an advice column published in November of that year, the key diagnosable symptom of Madmenalaria was an obsession with emulating the hairstyles and fashions worn on AMC’s Mad Men, then in its fourth season. In 2011, the outbreak of Madmenalaria worsened when Banana Republic launched its Mad Men line, which helped bring early-‘60s business wear—like tailored narrow suits, skinny ties, and fedoras for men, and scarves, pearls, belted dresses, and pencil skirts for women—back into vogue.

But after the credits roll on this coming Sunday’s premiere for the show’s seventh and final season, Madmenalaria may be eliminated forever.

As series creator Matthew Weiner famously insists on keeping even the least-spoilery details of his show a secret, I can’t specify what year this season’s beginning is set in. But suffice it to say that last season’s finale took place in the closing months of 1968, and Weiner himself has said the series won’t make it to 1970. Arithmetic suggests that there’s an approximate 12-month window in which Season Seven could take place. And much of the urban fashion in that 12-month window in England and the United States included fringe, fur, facial hair, paisley, plaid, tiny dresses, big bell bottoms, and bold, funky patterns in candy colors:

Cake cutting celebration for the opening of Record Plant Los Angeles on December 4, 1969 (Wikimedia)
Freshman girls at the University of Tennessee, 1973 (Wikimedia)

Season Seven of Mad Men, then, sits squarely in an era that pop culture often remembers as inherently cheesy and ridiculous—the late 1960s and 1970s. See: That ‘70s Show, Anchorman, Boogie Nights, American Hustle, Dazed and Confused.

Even non-fiction works like Tracey Turner’s 2007 book The 70s: The Decade Style Forgot assert that “the true horror of the '70s lies in the many and various crimes against style,” and a 2005 coffee table book called Interior Desecrations: Hideous Homes From the Horrible '70s devotes 176 pages to snickering at “eye-jangling photos in full color that actually appeared in well-regarded design magazines of the era.” In a 2000 review of David Frum’s The 70s: The Decade that Brought You Modern Life—For Better or Worse, New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman doubted how anyone could possibly wax nostalgic over a decade that brought, among other things, Watergate, Kent State, and double-digit inflation—“not to mention leisure suits, men’s ties wider than the Lincoln Tunnel, [and] some of the worst hairstyles since scissors were invented.” Even a 2010 Wall Street Journal article proclaiming the return of 1970s disco fashion admitted, “the ’70s have developed a bit of a bad rap for flammable fabrics and even worse music.”

So it could be a little harder to take Mad Men quite as seriously when it’s increasingly dressed more like Austin Powers (circa The Spy Who Shagged Me) than James Bond. Already, the promotional photos for this season seem to be triggering revulsion; on The Wire, Esther Zuckerman wrote that the days of aspirational Mad Men fashion were now fully over. “You can't imagine Banana Republic looking at Harry Crane's look [which includes a teal plaid sport coat and a loud paisley ascot] and deciding to add it to their line,” she wrote.

But there may also be some method to the ugliness—or at least, some method to where the ugliness is visible on the show.

For much of the last season, the vital parts of the Mad Men world were largely insulated from the kitschy fashion of the late 1960s. The most memorable styles of the day showed up on the younger, less influential characters in Don Draper’s orbit (like his trendy actress wife Megan; Sterling Cooper creative team members Stan and Ginsberg; and the many youthful, interchangeable secretaries at Don’s office) or in settings outside of Mad Men’s most familiar environments (on a visit to Los Angeles, for instance, Don’s associates Roger and Harry dress up in ascots, double-breasted sport coats, and plaid pants when they have to mingle with the locals).

Season Five brought a few glimpses of Megan's sunny influence on Don's wardrobe, like when he wore the much buzzed-about plaid sport coat to dinner at Pete and Trudy's. Importantly, though, in Season Six, Don came back to his dark, tailored suits, and most of the show’s recurring locales—the sites of Don’s domestic and professional life—were still populated by people dressed in crisp, classic attire like Don’s. Only the occasional paisley tie, muted plaid, or slightly overgrown sideburn crept in.  Thus, late-‘60s fashion often served as a marker of who was an “us” and who was a “them,” from Don’s perspective—a marker of who was and who decidedly was not part of the old guard.

Which makes sense, given that the moral and social order of the world as Don knows it is disappearing, too. When Weiner spoke to The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin for an interview published last month, he explained that Mad Men, at its heart, was about what it was like to be an adult watching the events of turbulent 1960s take place. The grown-up characters’ engagement with the youth-driven cultural revolution consisted of cynicism, then alarm, then conflicted soul-searching. “The first premise is, nothing new is happening,” Weiner said. “The second premise is: Oh my God, I don’t like this. And the last premise is, I have to go on, and this is the way it’s going to be, and it can’t be undone—so am I going to join it?”

This season, however, it seems the changing culture isn’t just outside the door anymore. Style spoilers ahead: In the premiere, it’s clear that both SC&P’s offices and Don’s home have been infiltrated. Peggy Olson, she of so many modest, boxy working-woman outfits in previous seasons, jaunts into work in a plaid minidress, a crocheted beret, and knee highs. A scarf Don gives his wife as a gift ends up tied around her head rather than worn around her neck. The usually clean-shaven Pete Campbell sports a fluffy pair of mutton-chop sideburns. Don even owns a home that’s now somewhat foreign to him—it’s full of trendy furniture that lacks the elegant retro charm of, say, Don and Betty’s sturdy dining room set in Ossining. The visual world of Mad Men, as Don knew it and as viewers first fell in love with it, is rapidly disappearing.

Will the grown-ups of Mad Men ignore the cultural changes happening outside their SC&P bubble, or will they confront or even embrace them? That’s the question as the show moves into its final season. But if the fashion choices in the premiere are a clue, it seems more and more people around Don have accepted the new order—in which the man in the plaid leisure pants, not the man in the fedora and polished cuff links, rules.