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Nylon, paisley and bell bottoms: Mad Men is true to 70s fashion

The seventh and final series of Mad Men is back on our screens tomorrow, which sees the drama set in a New York ad agency transition neatly from the 1960s to the early 1970s. The cast have survived a decade thick with war, infidelity, breakups and Kennedy and are entering a new decade in which Nixon will ban smoking ads on TV, a potentially catastrophic move for the already brittle firm. But how will the new shift be reflected in the costumes?

Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), Stan Rizzo (Jay R Ferguson), Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton) and Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) – Mad Men series 7. Photograph: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Janie Bryant, Mad Men’s costume designer, has described the characters as being “on steroids” in this series. Indeed, the promotional imagery exhausts every hackneyed trend we associate with the 70s: paisley, bell bottoms, white tights, go-go boots, fringing and a largely flammable wardrobe. In an interesting (and presumably accidental) comparison, the 70s is also one of the biggest catwalk trends this year, from Gucci to Prada to Louis Vuitton to Saint Laurent, the latter cherrypicking the decade’s gentler hallmarks (think wearable flares, suede and bohemian chic).

When Mad Men first aired in 2007, it introduced a new wave of vintage obsessing (Beyond Retro experienced a sales explosion) that percolated on to the high street. In short, the costumes were pretty and wearable. Bearing in mind these are promotional images, the realistic style direction of the new series feels like a sea change for costume drama.

Fashion writer NJ Stevenson specialises in the relationship between film costumes and fashion, but thinks this hyper-real styling is a game-changer: “It’s unusual to see this sort of realism on TV, especially when you think how directional the first few series were, how everyone looked very glamorous and how fashion mimicked that look – we all started dressing in twinsets and tight skirts as a result”.

“The 1970s was an ugly period and Mad Men has quite bravely done very little to change our perception of that,” she says. “I’d say it’s one of the most effective portrayals of that decade, it’s very accurate, very realistic – and that’s very brave. It’s all paisley and dry nylon, which is what the 1970s looked like.”

“Equally, the costumes are part of the narrative – they reflect how the character has developed over the years. They’re meant to be historical but also a projection of where the character is at that time. They have the power to augment the script.”

Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper, January Jones as Betty Francis, Jessica Pare as Megan Draper and Jon Hamm as Don Draper – Mad Men series 7. Photograph: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Megan’s lace two-piece, designed by Bryant, is a case in point: “It’s forward-thinking and extreme. It conveys a real raciness, and suggests she is interested in up-to-the- minute fashion – it’s quite Russ Meyer, late-1960s.” The design itself – a challenging two-piece – also suggests some sort of “independence” she says, or indicates some sort of relationship split later down the line.

Compare this to, say, art director Stan Rizzo in a beige safari suit (below): “That’s an unexpected look for a programme so consciously aware of style. Safari suits have always been a slight joke, worn by older men who wanted to look casual – yes, it says big shot or a loser.”

Aside from the shift in decade, the arch-feminine styling of Joan and Betty’s Queens housewife look haven’t progressed all that much: “Once again we have that romanticised glamour. Period dramas are meant to reflect an imagined nostalgia. It’s fantasy. And whether or not that’s where they got the costumes from, what these women wear is a close approximation to Saks 5th Avenue look which women of that ilk would have aspired to.” Stevenson namechecks Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass: “American women bought American designers, they were very patriotic.”

Jay R Ferguson as Stan Rizzo and Kevin Rahm as Ted Chaough – Mad Men series 7 Photograph: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

This is interesting when you compare it with the current 70s-influenced catwalks at Louis Vuitton, JW Anderson and Gucci. “Yes, this stuff is ugly. It’s all a world away from the Gucci denim on the catwalk. Last time you saw dry nylon was in that wonky prada look in the 1990s. It’s geek chic; it’s not meant to look cool now. Fashion tends to take a trend like a decade and make it more wearable, more serious.”

As to what will roll out in the rest of the series? “I’ll be interested to see if they pop Joan in a Diane Von Furstenburg wrap dress when the time [1974] comes. It was designed for women of Joan’s shape. Given the realism on display here, I imagine we’ll see a lot more flammable fabric too.”

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