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Book Review: "Mad Men Unbuttoned" by Natasha Vargas-Cooper, author of blog "The Footnotes of Mad Men"

Updated on July 15, 2013
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May has a MA in Creative Writing from Macquarie University, NSW. She spends her days reading, running and fighting chronic writer's block.

Famous References from Mad Men

John Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings (Library of America, No. 188)
John Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings (Library of America, No. 188)

This collection includes his famous short story 'The Swimmer'. Cheever himself lived in Ossining country and his bleak view of soul-sucking suburbia is perhaps best shown in this story.


Mad Men Unbuttoned - by Natasha Vargas-Cooper

Like the hit TVshow, Mad Men Unbuttoned is sexy, smart and stylish.

The book only took a couple of hours, and like when an episode of the show finishes, left me thinking 'Nooooo! I want to know more!'

The author, Natasha Vargas-Cooper writes a blog called The Footnotes of Mad Men, a must-read for any fan. Her posts are often unexpected but are always thought-provoking discussions of an aspect of the show that interests her. For example, her post on the episode The Swimmer talks about the parallels between Draper's need to swim and the character in John Cheever's famous short story of the same name. This is typical of the intelligent way she writes about many cultural references from the show, such as the book The Group that Betty reads in the bath, and the Rothko painting in Bert Cooper's office.

Mad Men Unbuttoned delves into real life facts covered in the show that for people not living in America in the 1960's can require more explanation. For example, after reading the book I now understand why Betty Draper and Henry Francis go to Reno for their 'divorcation'.

The book is divided up into several sections and illustrated with colour photos and pictures throughout.

  • The Ads and the Men who Made Them

The first section of the book provides an in-depth behind the scenes look at the real 'Mad Men' of the era - Draper Daniels, Leo Burnett and David Ogilvy amongst others, and provides a fascinating glimpse at the leading agencies of the day. It looks at the real ad campaigns behind products that feature in the show, such as Lucky Strike and Marlboro, Polaroid and Western Union.

Vargas-Cooper also looks at the changing dynamics of the agency itself, the rising importance of the 'art guy', and explains why poor Salvatore Romano was deemed less important than the copy writers.

  • Style

Part of the joy of watching Mad Men is the fashion and hairstyles. The author provides a guide to the history behind the style of some of the best dressed characters. She explores what Don's grey flannel suit and office drawer full of identical white shirts conveyed, why desperate-to-appear-Bohemian Kinsey grew a beard and where Pete Campbell acquired his preppy attire. And who inspired Betty's makeover in Italy?

  • Working Girls

This section delves into what it would have been like to be a women working in the same industries as the women in the show. Read about what was expected of models and how the look changed in the years since Betty had left the industry, resulting in her turning up to the Coca-Cola audition comically overdressed. Find out how unusual Suzanne's attempt to assist Sally was for a teacher in those days. Fume over the fact that American Airlines considered women to be too old and unattractive to be a stewardess after their thirty-second birthday. Learn what was really expected of women in the secretarial pool.

  • Sex

The doctor's comments to Peggy when she goes to get birth control in the first episode give a fascinating if humorous picture of how hypocritical and archaic attitudes to women and sex prevailed - a sharp contrast when compared to the permissive attitude of Don's lover Midge.

This section includes some rather hilarious snippets from 'wedding night etiquette' pamphlets, in addition to covering condoms, abortion, childbirth, divorce and homosexuality. One of the most heart-rending aspects of the show is watching Salvatore's struggles. Probably the biggest victim of sexual harrassment on the show, he is fired for rejecting advances from a male client. Vargas-Cooper devotes several pages to a discussion on Salvatore's dilemma by novelist Matt Gallaway.

  • Smoking, Drinking, Drugging

I often wonder how the actors cope with all the required smoking on set. Vargas-Cooper's chapter on smoking discusses the changing atttitudes towards smoking and what holding a cigarette signified in the 1960s. It never fails to amuse, seeing pregnant women on the show smoking and drinking without a glimmer of a guilty conscience.

Towards the end of the book are shorter sections such as one that look at the decor of a 1960's home. Others look at literature and movies mentioned in the book, such as the book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand that Cooper encourages Don to read as he hands him a large bonus cheque, and the movie The Apartment that Joan suggests Roger sees with her.

There is also a brief section on events of the day such as the Birmingham murders and the assassination of JFK, but this was one section where I felt disappointed. I felt that there could have been more about the Nixon/Kennedy election, the fear of nuclear attack following the discovery of the Soviet Cuban missile sites, and the registering of black voters in Mississippi that Paul Kinsey attends with his girlfriend.

In summary I would say that the book is a fantastic read. Natasha Vargas-Cooper's writing style, both on her blog and in the book is smart, conversational and fun to read.

Mad Men Unbuttoned is thorough but by no means exhaustive. I hope this means there may be a second book on the way, perhaps to accompany later episodes, but in the meantime I can read all of Natasha Vargas-Cooper's blog posts.

The Show that Inspired the Book: Mad Men - The multi-award winning TV show

Mad Men is a show that portrays life in America in the 1960's like no other. This is surprising, given that it is set almost entirely in New York City. Because, being an ad agency they are continually seeking to understand the American consumer, it feels as though we are watching a show about all of America during that time. Besides the delicious personal dramas of the characters, it's the social, political and cultural references in the show that really make it fascinating.

I must admit I am a late convert to Mad Men. I avoided it for the first couple of seasons because I had heard it was a show with incredibly sexist attitudes. My husband asked 'Then why do you watch BBC period dramas, when the times they were set in were far more discriminatory towards women?' - a surprisingly intelligent question from him, to which I had no logical response.

By the end of the first episode of Mad Men, I was completely hooked by the many layers of the show, from the snappy dialogue, multi-faceted characters, and the superb sets and wardrobe. I love that it is unapologetically shocking. Sexist, racist and homophobic attitudes may leave us gaping, but it adds to the authenticity of the show. Besides, it allows us to sit smugly in our armchairs as we watch, thinking how far we have come.

The episode in Season 2, Meditations in an Emergency which ends with Pete Campbell sitting in his office chair pointing his rifle at the ceiling, while everyone around him leaves town in fear of a nuclear attack, had me thinking 'I wish there was a book about all these things from Mad Men that I don't know about.' So when I saw Mad Men Unbuttoned in the bookstore, I grabbed it without looking beyond the sleek red, black, and white front cover and catchy title.


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      fashionmodel6 6 years ago

      Mad Men gave the viewers and readers an insight on the fashion, role of women and the business world during the 1960's. In the 1960's smoking and drinking on the job was not much of an issue as it is today. For more on the show visit thank you for the footnotes Natasha Vargas.

    • deblipp profile image

      deblipp 6 years ago

      It's an excellent book, although it's not so much about Mad Men as about the Mad Men world.