Go Behind the Styles With Mad Men’s Emmy-Nominated Costume Designer

Janie Bryant talks about her design process, her upcoming reality show and Bob Benson’s shorts

Joan Harris
This professional look for Joan Harris was inspired by the character’s new position at the beginning of season six. Image courtesy of Janie Bryant

There’s a lot to love about AMC’s “Mad Men,” not least of which is the fashion. Since 2007, the critically acclaimed television series has dazzled viewers with its attention to period detail, bringing the 1960s back to life with an extensive wardrobe of nipped-waist dresses and longline bras, fedoras and skinny ties. The show has become a modern style guide, launching fashion trends and even a popular tie-in clothing line from Banana Republic. “Mad Men”‘s fashion takes us, as Don Draper would put it, “to a place where we ache to go again.”

The person behind this style revival is Janie Bryant, the show’s costume designer. Bryant researches, designs and curates all the looks on “Mad Men,” from Joan Harris’ curve-hugging sheaths to Bob Benson’s beach-ready shorts. Bryant has won numerous accolades (including six Emmy nominations and one win) for her period work on “Mad Men” and the 2004-2006 HBO series “Deadwood,” and frequently collaborates with brands and retailers to create contemporary fashions. She will be interviewed by historian Amy Henderson at a Smithsonian Associates seminar next week.

Janie Bryant is an Emmy Award-winning costume designer
Janie Bryant is an Emmy Award-winning costume designer best known for her work on AMC’s “Mad Men.” Photo by Palma Kolansky

We caught up with the designer to talk about her work on “Mad Men,” her personal style, her upcoming reality show and, of course, the shorts that launched a thousand rumors and a parody Twitter account:

How much of the fashion on “Mad Men” is vintage, and how much is your original design?

It’s always a combination. I design garments for the principal cast, and that always depends on the episode and the characters that are in the script and how much time and money I have. I buy vintage and I do a lot of rentals from the amazing costume houses here in Los Angeles. I will also buy vintage and redesign it, depending on what needs I have for each particular character.

How do you get inspired?

It really starts with the script. It’s inspirational to read what the characters are saying to each other, what actions they’re taking, where each scene is being set, so the script is really the beginning place for the costume design. From there, I start my research process by going through catalogs, old photographs, all different kinds of magazines—anything from a Sears catalog to a Vogue fashion magazine from the period and everything in between. That’s why I particularly love old photographs, because you truly get a sense of what people were wearing and how they wore it and where each wrinkle was. I will research newspapers. I’ll watch old movies. I do a lot of research because it’s always that visual inspiration of, “Oh! This reminds me so much of the character Betty,” or “This photograph reminds me so much of Don.”

Walk me through your design process for Joan’s purple suit (sketch below) from the first episode of “Mad Men” season six.

Season five was such an interesting character arc for Joan because she had a new position in the office and came into a new position economically. I felt like that was a great opportunity for Joan to have a little bit of an update. She’s been stuck in that late-fifties wiggle dress, hourglass look for many, many seasons. Joan will always wear clothing that totally accentuates her curves, but at the same time I felt like she could use a little fashion update. I wanted to incorporate a more A-line skirt. The vest and skirt combination was a very modern thing at this point in time, and the ruffled blouses were really coming into style as well, so I wanted to incorporate those elements for Joan, especially in the first episode of the season.

But Christina and I still laugh—we’re like, “Oh, Joan, she buys clothes and then she takes it to her seamstress and has it tailored two sizes too small!” It’s a funny little character thing that I love about Joan. Joan wears her clothes too tight—it’s fabulous.

Do you have a favorite character to design for? A favorite garment that you’ve created?

favorite characters, it changes so much because it really depends on what’s happening in the script. The fun thing about being the costume designer of the show is that there is such variety. Probably one of my favorite costumes of all time is Harry’s costume from last season, when the guys go to California. He’s in his long dramatic scarf, the yellow double-breasted sports coat. I love that costume so much! I love the whole aspect of the show moving along in time, and that was just one of those moments that you can really see things changing. . . . If stayed at 1960 for six years, I think that I would grow tired of that.

Betty Draper’s glamorous blue gown
Betty Draper’s glamorous blue gown, featured in the season two episode, “The Gold Violin,” is one of Janie Bryant’s favorites. Image courtesy of Janie Bryant

I also loved the blue brocade gown that I designed for Betty in season two, with the blue silk organza overdress and the inset pearls and rhinestones. I love that dress. There’s so many! I hate choosing favorites—it’s so hard. I can’t even decide because it has varied so much. Megan was one of my favorite characters last year and Jane was one of my favorite characters in season five. One of my favorite costumes of all time was Jane’s ivory silk crepe jumpsuit with the rhinestone cutout.

You mean the Princess Leia look, from when she and Roger took LSD?

That’s the one, but it’s funny that you call it Princess Leia! She was over-the-top, dramatic Princess Leia then.

How much input does the showrunner, Matthew Weiner, have on the costume design?

I talk with him about what I’m thinking and sometimes he will have specific desires for a character, but I never feel like he’s micromanaging me. We’ve always had a great, creative working relationship. I run my department and I have my creative discussions with him, and that’s how we work together. I have always felt like it’s very balanced and there’s a lot of independence.

This conservative flannel look
This conservative flannel look from season two represents an early stage in Peggy Olson’s style evolution from schoolgirl drab to career woman chic. Image courtesy of Janie Bryant

How much interaction do you have with hair and make-up to create a character’s complete look?

We have lots and lots of discussions. I show them what the costume is going to be for each character and hopefully we have time to talk about it. They are very creative too. They see the costume, the color, the design of it, what I’m going for, and then they can do their thing.

It’s usually the women’s fashion that gets the most attention. What are some of the subtleties of men’s fashion that we should note?

These looks for Don Draper
These looks for Don Draper and Roger Sterling illustrate the nuances of menswear on “Mad Men.” Image courtesy of Janie Bryant

I pay huge attention to the men. They all have different shirt collars and different cuff links, or may not have cuff links—like Roger Sterling, each one of his shirts is embroidered with his initials on the cuff. They each have a different color scheme. Each of the male characters wears a different kind of suiting. The variation really is endless, and I do love to make each one of those characters different. I think it’s really important for them to be very character-specific and character-driven.

The obvious way of seeing that is Harry. He’s so different from the rest of the male cast. But Pete is too, and his costume design has changed a lot over all the different seasons, which has been really fun—from his menswear being mostly made up of different hues of blues to his palette being much more refined and somber and serious as he has gotten older. That has been very interesting—the transition for that character, to go through all the different character arcs with him.

I want to ask you about one men’s look in particular: Bob Benson’s shorts from this past season. How did you settle on those shorts?

There were several details about those swim trunks that I loved. One, it was a fish print, which I thought was really important because he’s a character that everybody was sort of like, “Hmm, we don’t really know who this guy is.” I felt like the fish print gave that sort of slippery accent to his character. Also, his color palette was always just a little off. The shorts have an interesting color scheme going on—the fish are a little odd in color. just really spoke to me as far as “OK, that’s a Bob Benson swim trunk.” And it was also kind of nerdy too. I loved all those things about them.

Was it a challenge for you to dress Betty as the character gained and lost weight? How did you deal with that?

Yes, that is always challenging. It’s also an aspect of the show that I wanted to look perfectly flawless and natural to the audience. For season five, I designed 90 percent of her costumes and had them made, just because it was like designing for a totally different, new character. This season, her weight loss was very challenging too—to go through all those different periods. We had a lot of fittings to figure out the proper amount of weight loss how the costumes were going to fit with the weight loss. And not to mention, her hair color changed too. All of those factors went into the different costumes. I love that part of the show as well—the challenges that come up within the show.

How has Sally Draper’s style evolved as she has become a teenager?

I loved researching teen fashions for this period. It’s been really fun to go through the character changes with Sally. I always felt like when she was in the Francis home, it was very preppy, very east coast, almost like Sally dresses like Betty. But since she’s had the influence of Megan, she’s more fashionable, she’s into the go-go boots, the miniskirts, the hippie chic. All of those aspects have been really fun to play with with her character. I think it’s been fun for the audience too.

I got an email from a fan of the show who sent me a picture of herself in 1967 wearing the same exact dress that Sally Draper wore to the Thanksgiving dinner. It was amazing! I couldn’t believe it. I do a lot of research and so does my team—it is pretty extensive. But to have that visual confirmation of being so spot-on, that was a beautiful moment.

Does the fashion on “Mad Men” reflect your own personal style?

No, it doesn’t. I am all about sexy, modern glamour. I love pretty with an edge.

You’re now known as a vintage designer. Would you like to branch out into more contemporary fashions?

I am obsessed with period costume design. I love it. I guess I am known for vintage, but I really see it more as period costume design, as opposed to vintage. As far as my own brand, there are definitely aspects of vintage in my design. I am inspired by vintage, for sure.

Do you raid the closet at “Mad Men”?

I have a couple of times, but not always. If I wear vintage, I like to wear one dramatic piece and not be in a costume. I’m obsessed with brocades, I’m obsessed with laces. A lot of those fabrics were very popular during the sixties. There are a lot of things that I truly love about the period, especially in the winter time. There’s nothing like going to New York City in a full-length leather cape with a fur trim.

Pete Campbell spotted Joan Harris
Pete Campbell spotted Joan Harris wearing this purple sailor-collared number at Bonwit Teller in the season three episode, “Souvenir.” Image courtesy of Janie Bryant

When do you start working on the next (and final) season of “Mad Men”?

I haven’t gotten anything official yet, but I think I’ll go back probably sometime in the fall.

“Mad Men” is ending soon. Do you have a dream project that you would love to work on?

I am working on my own TV show, and that is my dream right now. It’s a reality design competition that merges costume design with fashion design. I love this whole idea because fashion designers are truly inspired by costume designers. I wanted to bring costume designers more to the forefront, but also about how the garments that we see in film and TV really do show up on the runway. It’s a competition show that really merges those two worlds together, and I think as time has gone on, the two career paths have become more and more closely linked to one another.

We are in the process of getting it sold, which is really exciting. I’m working with the amazing producers from “Fashion Star,” and that’s where we are right now. We are working with the title of “Janie Bryant’s Hollywood.”

How have you been influenced by other costume designers?

I’ve always been obsessed with Gone with the Wind, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Sound of Music, An American in Paris, Jezebel. I really got into watching classic movies because I loved the costume design so much. But other designers like Sandy Powell, Catherine Martin, Colleen Atwood amazing and I love their work.

I loved Sandy Powell’s work on Far From Heaven.

I’m obsessed with Orlando. I could see that film a million, trillion times. Her work on that is just breathtaking!

Janie Bryant will speak at the Smithsonian Associates seminar, “Mad Men Style: Janie Bryant on Fashion and Character,” on September 9, 2013. Tickets are available at smithsonianassociates.org.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.