There is perhaps no other show on television that defines old-school glamour like AMC’s Mad Men. Much of that allure is owed to a born-and-raised Southerner, Janie Bryant, the show’s Emmy Award- winning costume designer whose work has sparked the return of the fifties and sixties aesthetic in the modern fashion world. Even after the success of her work on shows like Deadwood and Mad Men, her recently released book, and her fashion line, which will roll out for spring on February 26, she’s still staying true to her roots. Last week I had the chance to ask Bryant (below) about how growing up in the South influences her work. Our conversation follows below.
When you were a little girl growing up in Cleveland, Tennessee, who were the Southerners in your your life that most influenced your love of fashion?
JB: My maternal grandmother, Etoile Lillard Chesnutt, or as we called her Gran Gran (below). She had impeccable taste and loved clothes and fashion. She designed and made clothes for herself and also for my mother. My mother, Dorothea Chesnutt Bryant, influenced me as well. She and my father threw many parties and always dressed to a tee while hosting. Growing up my mother made clothes for my sister and me. The three of us would often be in matching or coordinating outfits for holiday parties.
What was it about their personal sense of style that inspired you?
JB: Their sense of style was all about a combination of confidence, love of beautiful details, craftsmanship, and femininity.
Did you know from an early age that you had been born with an artistic temperament?
JB: From a very early age I was playing dress up and pretending to be different characters. I was drawing ballerinas, Geisha girls, and obsessed with the female form and fashion from the age of six. I was making Barbie clothes from my mother’s scraps of materials, her decorating swatch books, and socks that my father brought home. My father owned Bryant Yarns and we always had the latest in socks and tights. They made great pieces of Barbie knitwear! (Bryant at right below)
Where did you look for creative stimulation?
JB: The movies were my inspiration. My mother would take us to see old movies at the Tivoli Theater in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Wuthering Heights and On The Town, for example. At home I would watch Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Guys and Dolls, and many more.
You lived for a while in Paris after attending art school. Do you think that Southern women share the same innate sense of style that French women are so lauded for?
JB: The styles and design sensibilities can be very different, but French women and Southern women both have a passion for dressing up.
At what moment in your career did you know you were probably headed for Hollywood?
JB: I was living in New York City and had started designing more and more studio projects. At that point I knew if I wanted to grow as a costume designer and design bigger projects, I had to move to Hollywood.
When you began designing the costumes for the first season of Mad Men, where did you start?
JB: I started by having conversations about the characters with the creator of Mad Men, Matthew Weiner, and by reading the script. My research process began by gathering visual information , going through magazines, catalogs, old photos and books, collecting swatches, and figuring out color palettes for each character. I’m designing and working on the show six months of each year. It’s an ongoing process throughout each season depending on what Matthew is writing.
Speaking of costumes and characters, you’ve worked with quite a few Southerners on set, from Christina Hendricks (Joan Holloway) to Bryan Batt (Sal Romano) to Anna Camp (Bethany Van Nuys). Off camera, could you detect any semblance of a Southern accent?
JB: Yes! We all have a little bit of a Southern lilt. The Southern accent really is the best accent!
Where do you find everything? Is all of it vintage or are you mixing in modern pieces that have a period look as well?
JB: It’s a combination of designing and building costumes from scratch, buying vintage, sometimes redesigning vintage pieces, and doing rentals from the amazing costume shops in Los Angeles. I have used some of my mother’s dresses, one that was made by my grandmother, and I have used my grandmother’s aprons for Betty Draper. My grandmother made aprons to match every outfit that she wore!
Why do you think the look of the fifties and sixties is so attractive now, more than half a century later?
JB: People have been dressing casually for quite some time, and I think people want to dress up again. They are realizing that there is a direct correlation between looking great and feeling great. The two go hand in hand. Perhaps the older generation has nostalgia for the Camelot period in American history and the younger generation wants to learn how to get the look of the period.
You’ve lived away from the South for some time now. What do you miss the most?
JB: Fried okra, grits with melting butter, long hot summer nights, the sound of crickets, and lightning bugs.
Photos: Photograph of Bryant (in Alexander Wang dress and Ferragamo shoes) inside Palace Costume & Prop Co. by Moses Berkson; photographs of Christina Hendricks, Bryan Batt, and Anna Camp: amctv.com