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When Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s dog ran away last summer, the Los Angeles-based correspondent for The Awl Web site swiftly turned to a very modern mode of distraction: blogging.
But an unfiltered lament of one lost pup’s distraught owner this was not. Instead, Vargas-Cooper took on her favorite television show — “Mad Men” — and began mining the series’ set pieces and story lines for cultural and social allusions, all in short, snappy, 150-word sound bites.
“I was spending 45 minutes after every episode Googling all the references,” Vargas-Cooper explains. “I started doing the blog, and it got really popular, really quick.”
That blog — “The Footnotes of Mad Men” — is now a book, “Mad Men Unbuttoned,” which is due out this week, just in time for the start of the AMC show’s fourth season on Sunday. (Of the name change, Vargas-Cooper, who majored in history at UCLA, says, “Footnotes sounds so unsexy.”)
A mash-up of design history — Vargas-Cooper, for instance, cites that other Draper (Dorothy) and her influence on Joan Holloway’s midcentury-modern Manhattan apartment — and discussion of the political, sexual and pop-cultural significance of everything from the Rothkos on the walls of an ad agency to Don Draper’s trip to Palm Springs, “Mad Men Unbuttoned” is like an easy, vibrant reference tool for the thirtysomething, Sixties-obsessed set.
“That period from 1957 to 1963 [the years spanning the first three seasons of “Mad Men”] is ripe, and you have this moment between the end of the Eisenhower era and then onwards to this incredible counterculture revolution that would come to define the rest of the next 30 years,” Vargas-Cooper says. “The show was on the cusp of this huge change.”
Dividing the book into chapters like “Smoking, Drinking, Drugging” and “Working Girls” (which includes a 1958 modeling pamphlet’s instructions for what to include in one’s model bag — seamless extra hose and two earrings, pearl and simple gold), Vargas-Cooper deftly sidesteps the heavily-tread fashion and costumes of the series in favor of an explanation of the dominant typeface of the day (Helvetica) and the importance of the 1962 Jackie Kennedy tour of the White House. (On “Mad Men,” the CBS special riveted Joan Holloway and Betty Draper. In the real world, it sparked an interior-design revival through the mid-Sixties.)
Perhaps most importantly, Vargas-Cooper offers an overview of the major ad agencies of the day and the iconic images they produced. This particular art form, she contends, is even more emblematic of the era than nipped waists and skinny ties. “Don [Draper] is uncannily good at his job,” says Vargas-Cooper, who includes plenty of Sixties-era ad copy and images in the book, such as a full-page shot of the Marlboro Man.
“Back then, pop culture would influence advertising, and now advertising is pop culture,” she says. “Sterling Cooper [the advertising agency where Draper works] is about cutting the fat, going straight to the idea that you should have an emotional connection to a brand.”
As for what to expect when the show returns July 25, Vargas-Cooper once again cites timing. “Nineteen sixty-four will be interesting,” she says. “The Beatles are going to hit, and if they’re smart, they’ll stop shilling cigarettes and start selling lunch boxes to tweens.”