Diving into the fashion of Mad Men may seem a tired topic at this point, as the show rumbles into its final season. We’ve seen analysis of the clothing from stylistic, historical, and philosophical angles, and it would seem there’d be little left to say. Even the “Don is not a style icon; he’s a style dinosaur” approach that looks at how the coolest man in the room became a square was made overly obvious in the season seven premiere, when Don Draper arrives in L.A. looking more like the fabulous Megan Draper’s dad than her slick New York husband. Luckily for those of us who obsess about both television and style, however, Mad Men is a show with a deep roster of characters and things to say. Which is why I want to take a little time out to talk about the show’s worst-dressed character, and the one with whom I most closely identify: Michael Ginsberg.
Oh sure, there have been more memorably terrible outfits than those worn by Ginsberg: Paul Kinsey joined the Krishnas after all, and Danny Siegel’s transformation into Captain Groovy was a sight to behold. But those are both too absurd to really count as terrible. As of season six, presumably carrying into season seven, there are plenty of sartorial flourishes that were perhaps best left unexplored: Harry Crane’s fondness for ascots, for example, or Ted Chaough’s inexplicable dedication to all things puke colored. But all of these carry with them some sense of personal statement, a flamboyance that is admirable in spirit if not exactly in execution. Even the worst of these decisions still looks like someone made a decision, that they were attempting to present themselves in a way that said they considered their appearance.
Michael Ginsberg, on the other hand, wraps himself in ensembles that seem cobbled together from piles of old “grandma’s house” drapes and discarded bits of cloth that were blowing down the street and stuck to him, so he figured why not? To shift the timeframe ahead a couple decades: if Ginsberg’s co-workers are the 1980s — full of outlandish and sometimes laughable, but still memorable and daring fashion statements — then Ginsberg is the 1990s — taking all the dullest and most thoughtless aspects of the previous decade but abandoning any of the fun.
When we first meet him in the show, Ginsberg is dressed in a garish jacket that would seem to establish him as a character that cannot be ignored. He is talkative where Don is quiet, nervous where Don is calm, a look at the future where Don is mired in the past. If Don spends an inordinate amount of time napping in his office, one assumes Ginsberg spends an equal amount of time pacing back and forth. He seems very much the opposite of Don, but also very much the same. Without realizing the comparison that could be drawn, he goes out of his way to establish himself as being as much of an empty vessel as Don (though perhaps less of a broken vessel).
But after that initial meeting, his outfits become progressively more boring. When he was introduced, he was the hungry young weirdo whose talent was a legitimate threat to Don Draper. Peggy Olson was always very nearly as good as Don — but never quite, and she has always been hamstrung by a desire to win Don’s approval, something that pushes her to excel even as it forces her to hold back. But Ginsberg didn’t have that baggage. He came in ready to shine, and it seemed like he was going to immediately establish himself as the young, anti-establishment go-getter who could undo Don creatively.
So one would think Ginsberg would become more of a style icon, or at least iconoclast. As intensely yippie and counter-culture as Don is conservative. Instead, he becomes the most boring dresser in the office. Which, I realized, makes perfect sense — since the other most boring dresser in the office is now Don Draper. If Ginsberg is the fresh, young talent that is set up as the anti-Don, then it goes that his style would be as slobbishly forgettable as Don’s is formally forgettable. Although at opposite ends of the spectrum, both men dress for anonymity, Don because he has something to hide, and Ginsberg because he has nothing to prove.
For much of my life, I felt the same as Ginsberg. I spent my formative years in punk rock and dedicated myself to being as boring and as slobby a dresser as my minimum wage job would allow. When I got my first professional job at a newspaper, I intentionally dressed like a bum, wearing cut-off cargo pants and Misfits t-shirts to the office when I should have been upping my game and acting a little more like someone who deserved to be working at a newspaper. I ended up relegated to the ranks of junior copy editor and assembling the “police blotter” column, and that never transformed into the job I assumed it would, which was working the crime beat in some sweaty, seedy Florida town where a dead prostitute floating in the pool of a sleazy roadside motel was just another day at the office.
The end result is that I looked like a silly little kid playing newspaper man with the grown-ups, and my career went nowhere. I wouldn’t claim that I was going to be the one to suddenly start raking in Pulitzers with my hard-hitting and eloquent writing, but I had at least some degree of talent that I ended up squandering. Instead of bringing my counter-culture “cool” to an establishment newspaper, I was just a dopey wisecracker dressed like a much more boring person that I fancied I was. What I thought was cutting edge or challenging ended up looking lazy and half-assed and easy to dismiss.
Ginsberg seems to have suffered a similar fate in his way, having gone from the greatest creative threat to Don Draper (so much so that Don sabotages Ginsberg’s work) to a wacky member of the Mad Men peanut gallery, an eccentric cracking one-liners while the show leaves him behind in favor of more established characters. I don’t have any hope that the final season of the show will make good on the initial potential of Ginsberg to be a threat to Don — that honor was quickly shifted to fellow creative director Ted Chaough, who is struggling to not become Don. Even with Draper’s leave of absence from his own firm, the show has saddled us with an obvious incompetent in some guy named Lou rather than handing the creative reins over to Peggy, Ginsberg, or anyone who might actually prove that SC&P can move forward without Don.
And so poor Michael Ginsberg is left with nothing to do but fret and be nebbish and contribute occasional sarcasm and awkwardness to situations that were already pretty awkward to begin with. And he does it clad in the most forgettable assembly of browns and beiges and too-big cardigan sweaters. And bolo ties. Dear God, bolo ties. The award for Mad Men counter-culture style goes to Stan, who seems a competent creative underling at best, while it looks like the battle caused by the creative vacuum left by Don will be predictably fought by Peggy, who like Pete Campbell has always striven to be “the next Don.” But Ginsberg was never going to be the next Don. He was the antithesis of Don. And sadly, it seems Ginsberg has discovered being the anti-Don doesn’t just mean you dress as poorly as Don Draper does well; it also means that where Don Draper is the anonymous man everyone notices, Michael Ginsberg is the anonymous man everyone disregards.