Mad Men brings the 1960s to a close in high style.
Anyone who lived through the 1960s—or is a fan of the AMC drama Mad Men—knows it wasn’t just one thing. With one foot in the staid and proper ’50s, and one in the wild and expressive ’70s, it was perhaps the most revolutionary decade in recent history. When the final episodes of Mad Men begin airing this month, the characters will have traversed an era that began with the hope of a new Camelot and ended with the disillusionment of a lost war. In between there were The Beatles and the twist, Timothy Leary, Woodstock, Kent State, the first presidential assassination in modern times, historic civil rights legislation, Laugh-In and the seeds of today’s New Age movement. In the 1960s, the only constant was change.
That change provides both the backdrop for Mad Men’s storyline and the palette for its characters’ physical transformations. Through it all, hairstyles have provided clues to characters’ status and signaled changes in their personal arcs as well as their position in the wider world.
The only word to describe the hairstyles worn by the women in the early seasons of Mad Men is tortured. Those bouffants, those teased-and-sprayed chignons and Peggy Olson’s perfect single sausage-curl ponytail were not achieved back in the day without supreme effort. Even Joan Harris, the career girl you’d most suspect of having her beauty routine down to a science, didn’t achieve that French curled updo without lots of bobby pins, hairspray and time.
The late ’60s were a reaction against all that containment. “Let it all hang out” was the common cry, and people started with their hair. Both men and women grew their hair longer. Textures became softer, more natural, and shapes less structured. It’s no accident that the 1967 Broadway show that personified the hippie movement was called “Hair.” As women were liberated from the oppression of bras and girdles, so were they liberated from the beauty shop and the tyranny of their former beauty routines.
Megan Draper’s look at the end of last season was distinctive of a particular type of new bohemian. When she moves to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career, she lets her natural texture take over, and ends up looking like the quintessential California beach bunny. At other times, decked out in Cleopatra eyeliner and a dramatic fall, she brings to mind another denizen of the Hollywood hills, Sharon Tate.
Betty—the first Mrs. Draper—starts out as a fresh-faced housewife, all pincurls and petticoats. But she’s a bundle of nerves, as we discover, a victim of her own expectations about the rewards of being the dutiful wife. As her character hardens, her style becomes more severe: Her jaw-length flip gives way to a swept-back bouffant. Her updo for a night on the town in Rome is a mixed message. For all its come-hither sexiness, its elaborate structure is rigid and unyielding as marble. By the last season, her trials have worn those hard edges just a bit smoother and her hair, in a soft bob, looks less labored.
Peggy, the show’s standard-bearer for female ambition, changes her hairstyle every time she moves up a rung on the corporate ladder. In a pivotal early scene, a co-worker offers to upgrade her image as she’s experiencing her first business success. “You’re old-style,” he says, then snips off that mousy little ponytail and holds it up like a trophy. As her power at the ad agency grows, so does her hair. Its helmet-like appearance in later seasons feels like a defense against all the machismo that wafts through the office like cigarette smoke.
As the decade wears on, hairlines recede and sideburns lengthen among the men. Paul Kinsey is the first to buck the corporate style code, growing a beard when he moves to a gritty neighborhood. Later, Harry Crane jumps into the ’70s with both feet, sporting muttonchop sideburns and a boyish mop of hair to complement his Carnaby Street duds.
The sole exception to all this change is Don Draper. Other than a touch of gray at his temples, his look has remained exactly the same over the 10 years spanned by the series. Why is his haircut alone, with its clean margins, side part and tightly gelled finish, as unchanging as the faces on Mount Rushmore? It’s because, like every character on Mad Men, he stands for a larger idea about the tumultuous decade of the 1960s.
Don was actually “born” in the decade before, on the battlefields of the Korean War. Dick Whitman, yearning for a better life than the one he left behind, climbs into the character of Don Draper like he’s climbing into a shell. He wears his new persona like a suit of armor and he proves, again and again, that he would rather self-destruct than take it off. In his reluctance to evolve, he becomes the symbolic avatar of a bygone era—the old guard. All around him the times may be a-changin’, but Don hangs on to the past for dear life, and that doesn’t bode well for his future. But then we always knew, from the first moments of those now-iconic credits, that in the end Don Draper was headed for a fall. ✂ —Karen Ford
PHOTOGRAPHY: Courtesy of AMC