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COVER STORY: Jon Hamm, Bringing sixty back

The unexpected success of Mad Men elevated Jon Hamm from a relatively unknown working actor to a modern style icon

Some things are best left in the past.

The Charlie Chaplin moustache. The Atomic Bomb. Margaret Thatcher’s candy floss hairdo. The Berlin Wall. The Tyrannosaurus Rex. Casual misogyny. 

We’ve seen enough Jurassic Park, grainy black and white historical footage and Disney films to know that these glitches in the human psyche should all be consigned to the darkest recesses of memory. But there is plenty that should be revived from the past and brought into the modern spotlight. Especially when it comes to sartorial style.

Perhaps nothing more so that the classic suits of 1960s Madison Avenue, New York. Simple and elegant, it’s a look that is once again, more than 50 years later, in vogue. And its revival is arguably thanks to one man. 

Some things are best left in the past.

Don Draper. 

An iced Old Fashioned in one hand. A Lucky Strike billowing in the other. A classic-cut grey or patterned brown suit with slim, notched lapels pulled tightly over a slim but muscular physique. A crisp spread collar and a neutral tie beneath the V-shaped silhouette of the jacket. A pocket square. And, of course, the meticulously groomed side-parting.

This was the de rigueur look for men in the 1960s executive boardrooms in New York. Every man strived to look thus. Or at least a variation thereof. It was a look virtually patented by the American admen who made the western world tick to their arrogant swagger and tock to their ubiquitous capitalist slogans.

The emphasis was on looking dapper and competent. It’s a far cry from the slipshod jeans-and-hoodie scruff ubiquitous in beanbagged Google-like offices. 

Ushering the classic ’60s look back into the mainstream is undoubtedly down to one man who carried it off which greater gravitas and solemnity than anyone else: Jon Hamm. 

[Don Draper] was a very challenging role. At times it was funny, at times it was heartbreaking, at times it was violent, at times it was pathetic. I got to show a lot of colours.

That Hamm and Draper are like Peter Pan and his shadow is no detriment to the 46-year-old actor. Few, if any, could’ve elevated an otherwise generally unlikeable chauvinistic antihero — standing out among a plethora of unlikeable chauvinists — to the status of modern style icon. Even calling Draper an antihero is likely to evince criticism, such is his untouchable exalted status with fans, although Hamm himself has called Draper a “dismal and despicable” man.

Not that Hamm himself is either of these loaded adjectives, but sometimes parts and characters just come along and fit hand in glove. Draper is Hamm’s glove, uniquely suited to the role. And if there was no other yardstick by which the St Louis actor were to be measured and ultimately judged, a myriad aspiring actors could wish for far worse. 

Jon Hamm (as Buddy) and Ansel Elgort in Baby Driver, and with Tim Robbins in Marjorie Prime, both released last year. 

Consider Ricky Gervais as David Brent. Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. Sly Stalone and Rocky Balboa. Being iconicised for being associated with such roles is never a bad thing.

The staggering success of Mad Men, which first aired in 2007, has catapulted Hamm and the style of the Don to a level of fame few could have anticipated. Mad Men plucked Hamm from the depths of obscurity, ignited his career and rescued his sanity.

From driving across America in a beaten Toyota Corolla with little more than $150 in his wallet and less in his bank account, Hamm’s sudden casting as the main man in Matthew Weiner’s seven-season period piece (which Hamm even turned to directing in Season 5) elevated his status to heights previously unknown and unexpected. 

“I had been a fan of Black Mirror and Charlie Brooker, because I have a strange predilection for offbeat British things”

Mad Men’s examination of the rampant consumerism of 1960s America fuelled by the advertising genius of Don Draper-type suits garnered Hamm worldwide fame and fortune. “It’s the career-defining role for me, as it stands,” Hamm told British television producer Channel 4.

Playing Don was about “being prepared and being aware and being good in a lot of aspects. It was a very challenging role. At times it was funny, at times it was heartbreaking, at times it was violent, at times it was pathetic. I got to show a lot of colours.”

That range of colours — so disparate a palette to the neutral tones of the suits he donned throughout the series — he was able to display in his depiction of New York’s finest advertising mind has since seen him pick up major parts in a host of stellar movies. From his first leading film role in Stolen in 2010, he’s landed starring roles in Marjorie Prime, Baby Driver and The Town, and delivered notable performances in films such as Bridesmaids and Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (incidentally, playing Jon Hamm). All of which allowed Hamm to exhibit the various facets of his thespian capacity.

Hamm in the Black Mirror episode “White Christmas”. 

A particular post-Draper highlight to date is his 2014 appearance in Charlie Brooker’s ever-dazzling anthology of technological dystopias, Black Mirror. Hamm’s depiction of Matt Trent, a remote “dating coach” who uses a revolutionary remote Z-Eye technology to walk-and-talk nervous Don Juans through their dates step-by-step, has been a highlight for Hamm.

“I had been a fan of Black Mirror and Charlie Brooker, because I have a strange predilection for offbeat British things,” he says. 

And his most recent role as a collectibles dealer in Nostalgia — a mournful dirge of a drama that explores the worth of our sentimental relics in a world evermore obsessed with ephemeral material happiness — is a charming and sincere pluming of the depths of his acting calibre. 

It is perhaps ironic that the title of Hamm’s latest film holds such a strong connection with the series that made him a household name. The Don Draper label may prove to be one that cannot ever truly be removed.

In a moment that will awake nostalgia in any Mad Men fan, Draper, presenting a pitch to the then-nascent American imaging company Kodak, says with pathos unrivalled in the first series: “Nostalgia means pain from an old wound. A twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. Its device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. Goes backwards and forwards. Takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel, it’s called the carousel.”

Marjorie Prime

Jerking tears among fans and the Kodak execs in the boardroom for Draper’s pitch, his rhetoric evokes a truism that extends beyond AMC’s studios. It’s a rare occasion when the public is engaged on a level beyond the flash and dazzle of mere appearance: the creation of a sentimental link with a product, an entity, a person.

In Draper, Hamm created an everlasting link to the past and brought it into the present. A place, at least stylistically, people have ached to return to so desperately that his look is being imitated ad infinitum in offices across the globe.

Wherever Hamm’s now prestigious career goes from here, there will always be a pining for a return to Draper: the Mad Man who brought sanity and success to an aspiring working actor. 

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