From bullet bras to The Beatles -- how 'Mad Men' captures the Swinging '60s
There's no expense spared to make the cult show authentic, writes Darragh McManus
Mad Men isn't just a great TV show -- it's a whole way of life. The sharp suits and even sharper dresses. The whiskeys and endless smokes. The way those characters talk and move through their smart offices or suburban dream-homes. The cooler-than-cool vibe undercut with tension and melancholy.
Producers have recreated the world of 1960s New York with amazing depth and realism. Since its debut in 2007, Mad Men has shown an obsessive dedication toward authenticity.
To that end, producers have just paid the Apple Corps record label $250,000 to use the Beatles' song, 'Tomorrow Never Knows', in a single episode. This is thought to be the first time a Fab Four track, as recorded by them, has been allowed for use on TV.
Creator Matthew Weiner explains: "It was always my feeling that the show lacked a certain authenticity because we never had an actual recording of the Beatles performing. It felt like a flaw."
This is just the latest example of Mad Men's pursuit of detail: a perfectionism that provides a better, more convincing experience for viewers.
John Byrne, TV editor at RTÉ TEN, the entertainment section of rte.ie, says: "Period authenticity, making it real, helps to lend a greater authenticity to a show. The attention to detail is stunning, especially considering the time constraints of shooting an episode. Mad Men seems to capture its era perfectly."
TV critic Patrick Freyne adds: "Mad Men gets the details really right. The only thing I'm not too sure about is how everything is really glossy and gleaming -- if everyone was that drunk all the time, there'd be stains everywhere!
"Cumulatively, viewers can feel that attention to detail; you feel the weight of them. That show is immersive. When producers don't do it for a programme, you mightn't be able to tell why, but things don't feel quite real.
"Shows like Mad Men reward really attentive viewing. The people who become hugely evangelistic about them are the kind of people who notice those details, and create a mythology and cult around it."
These are the other ways in which this cult programme about a New York ad agency has created a fully coherent and plausible 1960s universe:
"A book called The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe, was very prominently placed at one point," Patrick says (main character Don Draper was reading it in bed).
"It would have been popular at the time -- one of the first novels about young, independent women in the city. At the same time you have the character of Peggy who's actually trying to be independent, but is constantly being pulled back by her family and the reality of life in the 1960s."
Don also reads, or prominently displays on his bookshelf, Leon Uris's Exodus, Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency, Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders and Daniel Boorstin's The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.
The show is almost legendary for its refusal to compromise on cigarettes, in these anti-smoking days. Many characters smoke many times during every episode. The agency takes on a tobacco industry campaign to combat damaging revelations about the dangers of smoking.
"Doing this show without smoking would've been a joke," explains Weiner. "It would've been sanitary and phony."
Female characters are generally clad in tight-fitting dresses or tops, over corsets and the amusingly termed "bullet bra", to give them the sort of spiky bosom and small waist common to the period.
Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant says: "All the actresses wear the girdles. They wear their bullet bras with their tips and padding and stockings and everything. It helps your posture and creates that character of the period."
Christina Hendricks, who plays the voluptuous secretary Joan, credits the undergarments with her sexy walk: "It's a little bit of work to get dressed (but) you put these things on and they sort of make you stand upright and your body just naturally moves a certain way."
They also wear fur quite a bit -- and yes, of course, it's the real thing.
Unpalatable as it may be to our modern sensibilities, it's almost certain that people were more casually racist back then -- and Mad Men doesn't shy away from any of that. We see a character dressing up in blackface at a party; we hear another sincerely discussing how to market products to 'Negros'.
Don initiates conversation with a black waiter and is asked by another staff member if he's being 'bothered'. There are hardly any black people around, and all the power lies with whites, usually all men.
"The show is very good about the psychology of the 1960s," Patrick says. "In that sense, character development is coming from the same place as set design and wardrobe.
"There's an understanding of what was happening to people during that time, psychologically. It's not didactic; they portray people as they really were.
"And they don't just transplant early 21st Century people back to the 1960s, and being weirdly self-aware about things like race or gender. It's more subtle than that.
"When Mad Men first aired it was being depicted as this mad nostalgia-fest.
"But then when you actually watched it, you'd wonder how anyone could be nostalgic for that time. It's about people who are deeply unhappy and can't communicate. But at the same time, these people are inventing a depiction of the perfect America, so the show is rich with irony and different layers."
Set design and props
Such is Mad Men's devotion to detail, they've even had arguments "about how many cigarettes would be left in the ashtrays," according to set decorator Amy Wells.
And they use a host of other items to make the show look and feel fuller, richer and deeper: items in drawers, prices on receipts, Formica kitchen counters, 1960s-style fridges, a vintage rosewood table in the conference room, pop-up cigarette dispensers, IBM Selectric word processors, even the right type of bottle-opener.