Mad Men Fashion: Leaning In, Tentatively

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Photo: Courtesy of AMC

“Women’s lib” has been creeping up on Mad Men’s female cohort all season — witness Betty’s glimmer of consciousness-raising two episodes ago —  but last night’s episode, “The Strategy,” took it on directly. Peggy’s failed attempt to helm the Burger Chef pitch and Joan’s rejection of an unromantic, if practical, proposal from Bob Benson, Megan and Bonnie’s frustration at their secondary status to Don and Pete: There was plenty for feminist theorists to untangle. As far as fashion goes, Janie Bryant’s choice to continue dressing the female characters in girlish ways (think Peggy’s Pepto-pink nightgown and Bonnie’s parade of Barbie-like ruffled ensembles) seems like a purposeful decision to infantilize them and underscore their powerlessness. Sky blue — another traditionally feminine hue — seems to be a theme in this episode, with Peggy, Joan, Trudy, and Bonnie all wearing it at some point.

Joan and Peggy are both haunted by traditional notions of family in this episode: Joan when she turns down a lukewarm proposal from Bob Benson, and Peggy when she polls mothers at Burger Chef about their family life. In the proposal scene, Joan is wearing a slightly softer look than she normally sports: a sky-blue Swiss dot dress with ruffles, while Peggy wears a gingham skirt for her daughterly dance with Don. Are they remaining independent, or just staving off the trappings of adulthood?

But even those who choose to hitch their wagon to a man end up disappointed. Megan and Bonnie, who never meet but are shown on the same plane at the end of the episode, adding to the doppelgänger vibe, bring their West Coast fashion-plate looks to Sterling Cooper & Partners. We see that the two, always perfectly turned out, are decorative accessories to their significant others. “I’m going to take you shopping,” Don tells Megan after ignoring her to take a work call from Peggy. Pete encourages his trophy girlfriend to spend her time in Manhattan visiting the department stores.

The contrast between Trudy and Bonnie — the first wife, still technically married to Pete, and the potential second wife — is also interesting. In every scene, Bonnie is accessorized to the gills with oversize, flashy jewelry, bags, and sunglasses. By contrast, Trudy the Cos Cob housewife wears just a single strand of pearls, a look as sweetly simple as the homemade cake Pete later crushes with a beer can.