Last Sunday, fans of AMC’s Mad Men were treated to a return of the addictive drama about the golden age of advertising on Madison Avenue during the tumultuous 1960s. Mad Men gives us a glimpse into what it might have felt like to witness that era's politico-cultural changes from the viewpoint of workers in the office of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency, an agency whose job it is to read the zeitgeist for the venal purpose of manipulating people consumers into buying stuff.
As devoted viewers already know, through characters so well-drawn we feel like we know them, we get to see the collision of sexism, racism, and capitalism, and the results aren’t pretty — but they sure are fascinating!
Not only are Mad Men’s characters drawn realistically, the show’s style is also impeccably curated, from the bullet bras we see underneath the female characters’ tight dresses to the opening credit’s "falling man" homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. And style here is also substance. The style details are right not only for fetishistic accuracy, but also to reinforce the characters’ inner lives.
Don Draper’s brand of toxic misogyny is depicted as complex (insofar as Mad Men is smart enough to show us that he is also its victim). In a parallel fashion, his perfect suits and cool and in-control Mid-Century modern office serve as objective correlatives for a kind of surface polish with no interior. Who is Don, really? Or Peggy, with her oddly asexual Mod dresses? Or Joan, with figure-enhancing outfits that serve both as weapons (they didn’t call them bullet-bras for nothing!) and armour? Or Betty, with her flowery ladies-who-lunch style at odds with her icy stares and melancholy brooding?
Which leads me to the point of this post. With all of Mad Men’s stylistic details spot-on, one detail that would interest perfumistas is undepictable via the medium of television: Perfume. What perfume would Peggy, or Joanie, or Betty wear? Or Don, Pete, or Roger for that matter?
Seeing as we don’t always wear perfumes that came out the precise year we’re living in — it’s usually give or take a decade or two, no? — in my answer, I took into account the year this season’s Mad Men takes place (1966) along with the personality of the character and her possible aspirational yearnings.
Betty Draper, a graduate of Bryn Mawr and former model turned “mad” housewife, has since remarried after her marriage to cheating Don Draper fell apart. Betty, mother of three, is the quintessential unfulfilled 50s-type housewife now living in an era on the cusp of the 70s women’s movement. She wants to break free, so I think her perfume choice should reflect a yearning (not yet fully conscious) to express herself, while at the same time remaining “classy.” I could see her wearing Fracas (1948), My Sin (1924), or Femme (1944), perfumes that either through name or notes, suggest a (conventional) rebellion against her good-girl status.
Peggy Olson started out at Sterling Cooper as Don Draper’s secretary, living in the outer boroughs of Manhattan. But through ambition, a knack for copywriting, and Don’s surprising mentorship, she became a Manhattan-based copywriter there. (A copywriter at the same agency, Pete Campbell , got her pregnant in what can only be described as a rape. She terminated the pregnancy had the baby, but turned Pete down later when he told her he loved her.) She’s one tough cookie, in other words. If she’s wearing perfume at all (she wants to blend in with the boys, after all), it’s probably something she just picked up at the drugstore that's not too intrusive: maybe Fabergé's Woodhue (1944).
The office manager at Sterling Cooper, Joan Holloway uses her beauty and sex appeal to wield what power she can in the office. She’s had affairs with coworkers (notably with the then-powerful Roger Sterling), and she teaches newbies how to work the system using their feminine wiles. In an interesting subplot, Joan seemed jealous that Peggy began to rise in the ranks at Sterling Cooper not as a secretary, but with the male copywriters. Joan, like Betty, is caught between two eras, and it will be interesting to see how she develops as a character. Joan probably wants to smell feminine but elegant, downplaying va-va-va voom sexuality since her clothes certainly aren’t doing that. I imagine her wearing classics such as Arpège (1927) or Chanel No. 5 (1921).
French-Canadian beauty Megan Draper: Former front desk receptionist turned wife of Don Draper, Megan is young, vibrant, smart and sensitive. Her looks have helped her get by in life, but she’s also headstrong and intelligent. The most hip fashionable figure of this group, Megan’s perfume is going to be fresh and of-the-moment: I imagine her in Fidji (1966) or Vivara (1965).
As a bonus, one of my favorite cameo characters: Joyce Ramsay, an assistant photo editor at Life Magazine. Joyce’s job, sexual orientation (she’s a lesbian) and contacts in the bohemian world give Peggy a window into different worlds flourishing outside of her Madison Avenue bubble. Joyce lets it all hang loose, so I doubt she’s wearing perfume. Her scent of choice? B.O., baby! or possibly patchouli oil. My guess, though? The natural scent of the cannabis smoke that seemed to surround her in all of the episodes she was in.
What do you think the women of Mad Men would have worn? And what about the (M)ad Men themselves?