Ted was never supposed to be the sexy one in the SCDP office. He’s not the guy that’s going to steal away in the night to his sassy lady subordinate’s apartment, tie sexily askew, shirt unbuttoned just enough to reveal his pecs heaving breathlessly with desire, and proceed to slam said sassy lady subordinate against a wall. No, Ted is not the man of your hedonistic romance novel fantasies — you can’t rip his shirt off in a fit of lust because Ted’s the guy who shows up wearing a tight turquoise turtleneck. Stripping for sex is going to be incredibly awkward with Ted, because that’s how he is. But Ted’s unsexy sexytimes are only fitting as the look of the show becomes less seductive on the whole.
Ted’s fashion — consisting of the brown and mustard and dirt-colored things the late sixties and early seventies were known for — expertly epitomizes the time. Mad Men’s sixth season brought us into the year 1968, and with it, a season of clothes that are less frenzy-inducing than those of the previous five. If early Mad Men fashion took the nation with the same fire as Fabio confronted with a busty blond whose peasant dress falls helplessly from her shoulders on the cover of a romance novel, late Mad Men fashion feels more like an awkward hug. This is not to denigrate the talents of the show’s costume designer Janie Bryant, who thoroughly researches everything worn on the show, and can speak more knowledgeably about ’60s men’s undershirts than most people can about the riots in Turkey, and who mindfully uses the clothes as a way to develop each character. Bryant told GQ that dressing Ted gives her “more flexibility in using more color, moving forward with the times, and different silhouettes like using the turtleneck.” The clothes are less appealing as the show drags on because from where we sit now in the year 2013, the late sixties/early seventies just doesn’t inspire the same feverish nostalgia.
Joining and one-upping Ted in the tight turquoise turtleneck club is Pete Campbell, who tops his with a matching cardigan. Moving across town to the even more joyless world of Don and Megan Draper, the TV actress and orgy invitee has traded perky corals and vivid prints for forest green plaid pants and Peter Pan collars. She’s like a subdued version of Alexa Chung who cakes on Taylor Momsen eye makeup when the sun goes down. You can hardly blame the woman — even that much makeup isn’t enough to get her husband to look twice at her.
Contrast this with the trends that are currently huge in fashion. The ladylike look Mad Men helped popularize beginning around 2007/2008 in conjunction with the runways and Michelle Obama still thrives, but the black-and-white Mod look of the late fifties and early sixties is even trendier. If every hipster you know is starting to look like they just walked out of jail, you can thank Marc Jacobs’s spring 2013 shows for his eponymous label and French house Louis Vuitton. Heavy on black-and-white checks and stripes, those clothes were punchy, graphic, and strange in a way that felt very cool. You could see early, happy Megan Draper in those looks, but not the piteous, wronged wife she’s become.
While Jacobs seems to alter the global trend winds by so much as sneezing in a certain direction, the influence of Nasty Gal also cannot be understated in these times. That store and it’s ’90s-tastic prints and body-con dresses are an anti-Mad Men force sticking it to Banana Republic if there ever was one. Suffice it to say that site is not popular for paisley dresses with flouncey sleeves and high necklines. Nor is it popular for black velvet dresses accented with huge pink bows, a la Peggy’s seduction costume.
But Mad Men’s clothes can’t help but be depressed when they act as foils for some of the most miserable, ill-mannered characters on television. The most ebulliently dressed in the cast have turned some corner or other toward happier lives. Peggy’s life isn’t perfect — she’s just screwed her mustard suit-wearing boss, and her apartment is infested with mice — but at least her career is going so well that she’s seemingly moved into Don’s luxurious corner office. Instead of sad brown checked dresses and wispy short bangs she started the series in, she now favors elegant suiting and a neat bob that could out-spiff that of Betty, who theoretically has tons more time to spend on her appearance. Speaking of, Betty has also avoided the sad wardrobe that the shifting decades could have brought upon her. Once she loses weight, she acquires a profusion of pretty new clothes — including the high-waisted denim shorts she ends up seducing Don with at summer camp. Those would look more or less normal on Rihanna today (though she might make her personal assistant add a few holes and bleach stains in attempt to achieve the very popular “denim that looks as old as me” look that twentysomethings love nowadays).
But the drearier aspects of late Mad Men fashion aren’t wholly unpopular or unfashionable in modern times. Just look at Rachel Zoe, who’s built a scarily profitable empire on her bohemian sixties and seventies fashion obsession. Her fall 2013 runway collection included hints of Ted’s sludgy brown-based color palette, and even a few billowing printed sleeves. She’s even said on her Bravo show, especially when confronted with the daunting task of making her husband Rodger look stylish, “I think there’s nothing sexier than a man in a turtleneck.” Well, Peggy, at least, agrees.