Is Vintage Fashion Dangerous? The Guilty Pleasure of Watching Mad Men

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I have a very embarrassing confession to make. I have just discovered Mad Men. I know, I know. It's only been around for about a gazillion years, spawning many a conversation about Don's conquests, Betty's scarves and Peggy's career trajectory - not to mention more serious discussions about the representation of African Americans and women in general, and its characters' changing attitudes to queerness, whether their own or other people's.

Don't think I wasn't tempted to tune in initially. I heard and read all the hype. I even went to the exhibition of the clothes (shown below) at my local shopping mall, and still I kept away.

Picture: Fernando de Sousa
To be honest, I dreaded watching it because of all the noise about the sexism it depicted. I thought, from the publicity, that the show would glorify the sexism rather than critique it. I feared it would be depressingly retrograde.

In fact, it does both. The sexism traps the characters, but is also part of the mystique and glamour of the show. This contradiction is the source of both the danger of Mad Men and its charm. It is also surely one of the reasons the clothes in the show are so fascinating. Clothes are not just clothes in Mad Men. They are clear signals of gender, and the different kinds of power that gender allowed and continues to suggest.

In the biologically driven gender minefield that is the Sterling Cooper ad agency at the dawn of the sixties, the kingpin, the chief ape, the unofficial leader is Don Draper. Charismatic, brooding, tall, dark and handsome and attracting women like Tippex to a typewriter, he is a paradox wrapped in a contradiction, a walking cliche of sixties manhood except for the existential angst, a feature more to be expected in a beatnik. Don's not fooled by his own publicity. He's only good at what he does because he's so familiar with the universal insecurities that his advertisements tap into.

Picture: AP
At the beginning of the sixties when the show opens, men's power came from having a higher social status than women. Revered in the home as mothers and wives, women were essentially second class citizens in the public realm. At Sterling Cooper they play the role of subservient handmaidens and sex objects who are referred to by the men as 'the girl' or by their first names, while they must address the men using 'Mr'.

In this world, male attractiveness is a very different beast from female sexual allure - it's tied up with social power, high status and action. The suits on these perfectly groomed men are designed to reflect their knowledge, ability and authority, thus enhancing their position in the social hierarchy.

For women, clothing has a very different function. The only kind of power women can openly wield is sexual allure, and the most powerful woman in the office at the beginning of the first series is the most sexually attractive, Joan Holloway (below). Joan simply cannot fathom that Peggy, who starts as a secretary but blossoms into a talented copywriter, might want a different kind of power and influence.

Joan, of course, does wield other kinds of power, particularly over the other secretaries in her role as chief secretary. However, that this authority is tied in with her sexual power becomes sadly evident in the second series when she tries to sack a secretary for breaking into the office of the company's head honcho.

The secretary is immediately reinstated by company partner Roger Sterling, because he wants to have an affair with her. The irony is that Sterling had been carrying on a secret affair with Joan for years; now that Joan is engaged to someone else, Roger uses his superior power to get his way.

It's true that Joan is also valued and needed because of her ability to organise the office. In fact she's one of those people that every large office seems to have - the person that manages to hold the whole place together, the person you go to when you want to complain for the umpteenth time that the airconditioning is making the office too cold. However, it's doubtful whether, in the extreme environment of Sterling Cooper, Joan would be afforded the respect and occasional indulgence of the men in this powerful role if she wasn't stunning.

Yet, as the sixties progresses Joan comes to realise that her role deserves credit and she starts to describe herself as the 'office manager' rather than the 'chief secretary'. This reminded me of the way women stopped calling themselves secretaries sometime in the eighties and became personal assistants.

Don Draper's wife Betty also dramatises how limiting gender stereotypes were for women after the Second World War. In the first series this perfectly groomed woman with her porcelain complexion and blonde bob is a fifties ideal of the suburban Mom, but she is also an archetypal representative of  all the discontentments that would give birth to second wave feminism.

Betty starts off representing the staid, conservative fifties rather than the turbulent sixties but her domestic role is no barrier to her being a style icon.

The image she exudes of the perfect wife and mother is one of the reasons Don has married her, and it's clear the man has a bit of a madonna-whore complex. Betty is the 'angelic' mother of their two children, but he has affairs with career women who are intelligent, sassy and independent.

Of course the turbulent sixties are about to hit Sterling Cooper, and feminism and black power will shake up that cosy little world - which brings us to Peggy Olson.

Young Peggy is easily the most evolved character in the show. Fresh-faced, honest and hardworking, she storms into Don's office and tells him 'I don't understand ... I tried to do my job, I follow the rules; and people hate me. Innocent people get hurt and other people, people who are not good, get to walk around doing whatever they want. It's not fair!' She is The Future, she is Diversity, she is getting there through talent and hard work rather than networking and privilege. She is the secret story of the legions of women who have done battle in a man's world while dealing with their lack of power over their own bodies.

More superficially (!), she also develops a great tailored look as she advances in her career and in her confidence as a young professional.

And she demonstrates that intelligent, ambitious and forthright women are damned attractive, even to neanderthals like Pete Campbell.

So why is there guilt in the pleasure of watching Mad Men for me? Because the show glamorises the power differentials it depicts as much as it critiques them. It wants a bet both ways, but I think we viewers do too. We know what a cost there was to these gender differences, and the fact that the clothes underline the differences makes them somehow complicit.

Given the show's glamorisation of oppression, it's not surprising that so many people don't get the irony. I remember reading the blog of a male copywriter who said something along the lines of 'It's okay to be a bit sexist since Mad Men'. Surely it should be even less okay to be sexist after Mad Men, not more?

The problem is Don, of course. He is confused, emotionally isolated, an imposter in his own life, but he's also in control in so many ways, never more so than with the ladies. And the trouble is, the show seems to like him wielding sexual power over them. It offers him as a role model even as it reveals the farce that is his picture-perfect life - in the first series, anyway. Patriarchy and male privilege have never been so alluring.

Some of the female actors in Mad Men don't get the irony either, their publicity shots showing poses that make them look like objects of lust and not subjects of it. Corporations are also reaping the benefits. The Mad Men cosmetics line by Estee Lauder cashes in on the mystique without the critique - and the actors oblige by allowing themselves to be photographed - or it appears that way - smoking away in retro sixties style.

Perhaps I don't have to resolve the ambivalence I feel watching the show - perhaps I just need to be aware of it. Mad Men is about how the past affects the present, and it is a warning as much as as an exercise in nostalgia. Women are not yet equal to men even today, but even the gains we've made are constantly under threat.

Let's adore the full skirts, shimmery evening gowns, complicated hairstyles, perfectly arranged scarves, and the neatness and tailored suaveness of Pete and Don. But let's also remember that prescribed gender roles come at a huge cost. These roles are appealing because they make us feel secure, and hark back to a time when it was all much simpler, but in the end they bring out the worst in both women and men. The men in Mad Men are too competitive, too 'up themselves', they're rude, self-centred, terrified of intimacy and prone to alcoholism; the women are bored, angry and unfulfilled, passive-aggressive, and chronically insecure. Somehow as a species we have to let these roles go and just learn to be ourselves, to fulfil ourselves as human beings and treat one another with respect. It's a much harder ask but the question is - can we do it and still enjoy the fun of fifties and sixties fashion?

You betcha.

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