Regarding Mad Men and Gray Flannel Suits

Today is the fifth anniversary of the last episode of Mad Men. I’ve been working my way through a slow re-watch in recent months. Perhaps I will have something more to write in the future but there is only one thing I wanted to write about today: the connection between Mad Men and the book The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson. I started watching Mad Men as its second season aired lived but had not read The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit until May of 2020.

This book. (Image from Wikipedia)

To draw a comparison between the two entities is nothing new. If anything, it’s a tired subject matter, covered already by Huffington Post and Slate and IndieWire and everyone else who writes these kinds of articles.

However, what concerns me more is not so much the comparison of Mad Men to The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, but more the in-universe significance of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to the world and characters of Mad Men. If that doesn’t distinction make sense now, I hope it does by the time you finish reading this.

The Surface-Level Comparison

There are several various obvious comparisons to be made between Mad Men and Sloan Wilson’s novel:

  • Both are about men who wear suits and work in Manhattan
  • Don Draper’s wife is Betty; Tom Rath’s wife is Betsy
  • All of these characters drink a lot of martinis and get into a lot of arguments
  • Both Draper and Rath are war veterans responsible for the death of fellow Americans and harboring a secret from the war; for Draper the secret is a stolen identity, while for Rath it’s an illegitimate Italian child
  • Draper and Rath have pretty similar style; they like a certain cut of suit, for one.

I think this straightforward enough so far. One key difference is that Rath works in public relations while Draper works in advertising, although there is a moment in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit in which Rath daydreams about becoming an advertising copywriter, thinking it would be an easy new career. It seems straightforward enough that, whether intentional or not, Matthew Weiner and the rest of the Mad Men crew took some inspiration from Sloan Wilson’s novel and the subsequent film in creating Don Draper and his world.

Also, here’s the fourth-wall-breaking trailer for the film.

Now, I’d like to ask a different question: what impact did The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit have on the characters and story within Mad Men, rather than the show itself?

“Well, if it isn’t the man in the gray flannel suit.”

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is directly referenced in one scene in Mad Men. It’s late in the second season, when Don Draper and Roger Sterling are out on the town to say goodbye to Freddy Rumsen is in the episode “Six Month Leave”. The episode has what might be one of Mad Men‘s more famous scenes—or at least Freddy’s most famous scene—in which the character drunkenly urinates in his pants while preparing for a pitch.

This scene is the catalyst for Freddy going on a six month leave, initiated by Roger and Don taking him out drinking, including to an illegal casino where they run into comedian Jimmy Barrett.

This jerk.

Barrett is one of the closest things to an antagonist that we ever get in Mad Men. His first scene is one where he mocks the weight of a client’s wife; his last scene is this one. Barrett greets Draper with a simple line:

“Well, if it isn’t the man in the gray flannel suit.”

Draper responds by punching Barrett, getting them promptly kicked out of the casino. The punch, of course, is motivated by more than the greeting. Barrett had previously told Don’s wife Betty about the affair that Don was having with Barrett’s wife, Bobbie.

I never knew what to think about Barrett’s line here. Why is this exactly why he greeted Draper? I hadn’t read or seen The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit so wasn’t entirely sure what to do with it.

After I finished the novel, I still wasn’t sure exactly what it meant or if it was anything more than a surface-level comment. Draper wore gray flannel suits so this is how Barrett described him.

That is, until read the introduction Sloan Wilson wrote in 1983 for The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, which added two new layers to my interpretation of this scene.

“…a big yuck when any comedian mouthed it…”

Here is the section from Wilson’s introduction that made the scene suddenly make more sense:

Then quite suddenly the book, or at least the title, became a sort of national joke in the United States…The title became a catch phrase good for a big yuck when any comedian mouthed it and people often roared in high hilarity when they said to me, “Are you the guy who wrote The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit?”

Let’s consider that the book came out in 1955, the film in 1956. The episode “Six Month Leave” takes place in somewhere during the second half of 1962, meaning that this is six years after the movie came out.

In short, Jimmy Barrett says this line not only because Draper is a guy who wears gray flannel suits, but because Jimmy Barrett is a hack comedian. Like a lot of petty lines, it says more about the person saying it than the person it is said about. Just like mocking someone’s weight or eating potato chips in an exaggerated fashion, Barrett is going for the easy joke that he thinks should earn him an easy laugh.

He’s a character who likes easy jokes.

It’s also possible Barrett could think his joke has another level to it: as Wilson himself says, Tom Rath was often conflated with “a typical advertising man,” despite being in public relations for a mental health committee.

But that’s not it. There’s another moment in Wilson’s afterword that got me thinking. Not about Barrett, but about Draper.

“A Typical Advertising Man”

The impact of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit wasn’t just that comedians used it as an easy joke. As Wilson says:

Executives who had worn them since prep school started showing up to work in sports clothes to prove the freedom of their spirit and blue collar workers began buying gray flannel.

It’s the second half of this sentence that gets me. Blue collar workers began buying gray flannel.

As noted in this well-researched Reddit thread, Draper started at Sterling Cooper in 1953. The series begins in 1960, by which point he’s a force to be reckoned with—and a fan of gray flannel suits. I think it says something about Don’s upward trajectory and blue collar roots that he would choose this as his dress code.

Draper’s outfit during the episode in question.

In turn, it’s something he’s presumably aware of. In 1962, to be called The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is no compliment and it might—whether he knows it or not—draw Don’s ire by drawing a comparison to his his roots, rather than to wear he’s headed. He wears the gray flannel suit because it’s the uniform of who he is trying to become; he does not have the success or the history to abandon it now.

Either that, or he just really wanted to punch Jimmy Barrett because Jimmy Barrett deserved to be punched.

Enjoy this? Check out D. F. Lovett’s blog for more on what he’s been reading in recent months.

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