Mad Men Style: Joan Wears Power Red

The language of style.
June 13 2012 3:09 PM

Mad Men Style: The Power of Red

Costumes in the season finale showed how far Joan has come—and where Peggy’s going.

Each week, Tom and Lorenzo analyze the costumes on Mad Men with inimitable wit and charm—showing how the work of the show’s costume designer Janie Bryant reveals character, supplements the plot, and just plain looks great. This article is a short excerpt from this week’s Mad Style post. For much, much more on the style of “The Phantom”—from Beth’s frilly nightgowns to Marie’s suits of armor—visit tomandlorenzo.com. 

Mad Men Season 5 still.

Joan’s putting on a bold front for the world, the world, bolder than ever, in fact. This power red is about as declarative as one can get about one's position. There's nothing demure or obedient about this red, but it doesn't strike us as a sexy, passionate color in this context. It's about power. More importantly, it's about feminine power. The point to that beautiful shot is to show us how the dynamic has shifted. Against that stark background, Joan isn't just a bolt of red in the middle of all that gray, she's an unmistakably female silhouette standing out among all the male ones. She is, almost literally, a big red X spray-painted on the scene.

Red served as an extremely important color this episode, indicating female power, but also, strangely, indicating male powerlessness.

Mad Men Season 5 still.

The entire point to this scene is that Stan and Ginsberg (in matching red) aren't women and thus, are failing at this portion of their jobs because they can't do what Peggy can. In this instance, the red signals their lack of ability and forward movement, which makes it an ironic bit of costuming, considering how much red signaled exactly the opposite for the women.

Stan wears that yellow plaid jacket every time he makes a presentation. It's notable that Ginsberg has a huge coffee stain on his shirt, which to us, indicates how frantic he is, trying to pick up the slack after Peggy left, and how things have deteriorated in the creative department.

Mad Men Season 5 still.

But Pegs is off on her own adventure, with her own office and yes, even her old Thermos with her, sitting on the windowsill. This outfit was designed to be a shocker and we have to say, mission accomplished, Janie Bryant. No one ever saw Peggy wear something like this. It's mature, powerful, and declarative in a way her old schoolgirl clothes never were. Granted, Peggy's not a clotheshorse and while she accomplished what she set out to do with this Chanel-like suit (inspire respect in others), it's not exactly flattering to her and it's not the very latest in hip, trendy clothes. The Chanel-style suit had become something of a standard for women at this time. What raises this up from being boring is the bright color and the white trim. It's not exactly youthful, but it's very powerful.

Mad Men Season 5 still.

And finally, Megan gets her power red. Interesting to note: Joan's power red manifests as a skin-tight dress, showing off her curves and indicating her sexual power, which is what she used to get where she is. Peggy's power red is business-like, indicating the hard work she did and relatively normal career path she took. Megan, who ultimately received a career boost through her connections with her wealthy and powerful husband, wears a power red, but rendered in a fairy tale costume. Sex, career, and marriage; the three paths to power for women in a patriarchal society.

One final thing before we go:

Mad Men Season 5 still.

She's on her way.

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