September 5, 2013
It’s official: Mei Xiang’s new panda cub is female! In today’s official statement, the Zoo confirmed both the sex and paternity of the cub. A genetic analysis revealed that Tian Tian, the Zoo’s other adult panda, fathered the cub by artificial insemination. Tian Tian also fathered the second stillborn cub, a female; the cubs were fraternal twins. Mei Xiang and her baby (still unnamed) are in good health.
Stay up to date with panda news and watch the HD panda cams on the Zoo’s website.
September 4, 2013
There’s a lot to love about AMC’s “Mad Men,” not least of which is the fashion. Since 2007, the critically acclaimed television series has dazzled viewers with its attention to period detail, bringing the 1960s back to life with an extensive wardrobe of nipped-waist dresses and longline bras, fedoras and skinny ties. The show has become a modern style guide, launching fashion trends and even a popular tie-in clothing line from Banana Republic. “Mad Men”‘s fashion takes us, as Don Draper would put it, “to a place where we ache to go again.”
The person behind this style revival is Janie Bryant, the show’s costume designer. Bryant researches, designs and curates all the looks on “Mad Men,” from Joan Harris’ curve-hugging sheaths to Bob Benson’s beach-ready shorts. Bryant has won numerous accolades (including six Emmy nominations and one win) for her period work on “Mad Men” and the 2004-2006 HBO series “Deadwood,” and frequently collaborates with brands and retailers to create contemporary fashions. She will be interviewed by historian Amy Henderson at a Smithsonian Associates seminar next week.
We caught up with the designer to talk about her work on “Mad Men,” her personal style, her upcoming reality show and, of course, the shorts that launched a thousand rumors and a parody Twitter account:
How much of the fashion on “Mad Men” is vintage, and how much is your original design?
It’s always a combination. I design garments for the principal cast, and that always depends on the episode and the characters that are in the script and how much time and money I have. I buy vintage and I do a lot of rentals from the amazing costume houses here in Los Angeles. I will also buy vintage and redesign it, depending on what needs I have for each particular character.
How do you get inspired?
It really starts with the script. It’s inspirational to read what the characters are saying to each other, what actions they’re taking, where each scene is being set, so the script is really the beginning place for the costume design. From there, I start my research process by going through catalogs, old photographs, all different kinds of magazines—anything from a Sears catalog to a Vogue fashion magazine from the period and everything in between. That’s why I particularly love old photographs, because you truly get a sense of what people were wearing and how they wore it and where each wrinkle was. I will research newspapers. I’ll watch old movies. I do a lot of research because it’s always that visual inspiration of, “Oh! This reminds me so much of the character Betty,” or “This photograph reminds me so much of Don.”
Walk me through your design process for Joan’s purple suit (sketch below) from the first episode of “Mad Men” season six.
Season five was such an interesting character arc for Joan because she had a new position [as a partner] in the office and came into a new position economically. I felt like that was a great opportunity for Joan to have a little bit of an update. She’s been stuck in that late-fifties wiggle dress, hourglass look for many, many seasons. Joan will always wear clothing that totally accentuates her curves, but at the same time I felt like she could use a little fashion update. I wanted to incorporate a more A-line skirt. The vest and skirt combination was a very modern thing at this point in time, and the ruffled blouses were really coming into style as well, so I wanted to incorporate those elements for Joan, especially in the first episode of the season.
But Christina [Hendricks, who plays Joan] and I still laugh—we’re like, “Oh, Joan, she buys clothes and then she takes it to her seamstress and has it tailored two sizes too small!” It’s a funny little character thing that I love about Joan. Joan wears her clothes too tight—it’s fabulous.
Do you have a favorite character to design for? A favorite garment that you’ve created?
[With regard to] favorite characters, it changes so much because it really depends on what’s happening in the script. The fun thing about being the costume designer of the show is that there is such variety. Probably one of my favorite costumes of all time is Harry’s costume from last season, when the guys go to California. He’s in his long dramatic scarf, the yellow double-breasted sports coat. I love that costume so much! I love the whole aspect of the show moving along in time, and that was just one of those moments that you can really see things changing. . . . If [the show] stayed at 1960 for six years, I think that I would grow tired of that.
I also loved the blue brocade gown that I designed for Betty in season two, with the blue silk organza overdress and the inset pearls and rhinestones. I love that dress. There’s so many! I hate choosing favorites—it’s so hard. I can’t even decide because it has varied so much. Megan was one of my favorite characters last year and Jane was one of my favorite characters in season five. One of my favorite costumes of all time was Jane’s ivory silk crepe jumpsuit with the rhinestone cutout.
You mean the Princess Leia look, from when she and Roger took LSD?
That’s the one, but it’s funny that you call it Princess Leia! [laughs] She was over-the-top, dramatic Princess Leia then.
How much input does the showrunner, Matthew Weiner, have on the costume design?
I talk with him about what I’m thinking and sometimes he will have specific desires for a character, but I never feel like he’s micromanaging me. We’ve always had a great, creative working relationship. I run my department and I have my creative discussions with him, and that’s how we work together. I have always felt like it’s very balanced and there’s a lot of independence.
How much interaction do you have with hair and make-up to create a character’s complete look?
We have lots and lots of discussions. I show them what the costume is going to be for each character and hopefully we have time to talk about it. They are very creative too. They see the costume, the color, the design of it, what I’m going for, and then they can do their thing.
It’s usually the women’s fashion that gets the most attention. What are some of the subtleties of men’s fashion that we should note?
I pay huge attention to the men. They all have different shirt collars and different cuff links, or may not have cuff links—like Roger Sterling, each one of his shirts is embroidered with his initials on the cuff. They each have a different color scheme. Each of the male characters wears a different kind of suiting. The variation really is endless, and I do love to make each one of those characters different. I think it’s really important for them to be very character-specific and character-driven.
The obvious way of seeing that is Harry. He’s so different from the rest of the male cast. But Pete is too, and his costume design has changed a lot over all the different seasons, which has been really fun—from his menswear being mostly made up of different hues of blues to his palette being much more refined and somber and serious as he has gotten older. That has been very interesting—the transition for that character, to go through all the different character arcs with him.
I want to ask you about one men’s look in particular: Bob Benson’s shorts from this past season. How did you settle on those shorts?
There were several details about those swim trunks that I loved. One, it was a fish print, which I thought was really important because he’s a character that everybody was sort of like, “Hmm, we don’t really know who this guy is.” I felt like the fish print gave that sort of slippery accent to his character. Also, his color palette was always just a little off. The shorts have an interesting color scheme going on—the fish are a little odd in color. [The shorts] just really spoke to me as far as “OK, that’s a Bob Benson swim trunk.” And it was also kind of nerdy too. I loved all those things about them.
Was it a challenge for you to dress Betty as the character gained and lost weight? How did you deal with that?
Yes, that is always challenging. It’s also an aspect of the show that I wanted to look perfectly flawless and natural to the audience. For season five, I designed 90 percent of her costumes and had them made, just because it was like designing for a totally different, new character. This [past] season, her weight loss was very challenging too—to go through all those different periods. We had a lot of fittings to figure out the proper amount of weight loss [and] how the costumes were going to fit with the weight loss. And not to mention, her hair color changed too. All of those factors went into the different costumes. I love that part of the show as well—the challenges that come up within the show.
How has Sally Draper’s style evolved as she has become a teenager?
I loved researching teen fashions for this period. It’s been really fun to go through the character changes with Sally. I always felt like when she was in the Francis home, it was very preppy, very east coast, almost like Sally dresses like Betty. But since she’s had the influence of Megan, she’s more fashionable, she’s into the go-go boots, the miniskirts, the hippie chic. All of those aspects have been really fun to play with with her character. I think it’s been fun for the audience too.
I got an email from a fan of the show who sent me a picture of herself in 1967 wearing the same exact dress that Sally Draper wore to the Thanksgiving dinner. It was amazing! I couldn’t believe it. I do a lot of research and so does my team—it is pretty extensive. But to have that visual confirmation of being so spot-on, that was a beautiful moment.
Does the fashion on “Mad Men” reflect your own personal style?
No, it doesn’t. I am all about sexy, modern glamour. I love pretty with an edge.
You’re now known as a vintage designer. Would you like to branch out into more contemporary fashions?
I am obsessed with period costume design. I love it. I guess I am known for vintage, but I really see it more as period costume design, as opposed to vintage. As far as my own brand, there are definitely aspects of vintage in my design. I am inspired by vintage, for sure.
Do you raid the closet at “Mad Men”?
I have a couple of times, but not always. If I wear vintage, I like to wear one dramatic piece and not be in a costume. I’m obsessed with brocades, I’m obsessed with laces. A lot of those fabrics were very popular during the sixties. There are a lot of things that I truly love about the period, especially in the winter time. There’s nothing like going to New York City in a full-length leather cape with a fur trim.
When do you start working on the next (and final) season of “Mad Men”?
I haven’t gotten anything official yet, but I think I’ll go back probably sometime in the fall.
“Mad Men” is ending soon. Do you have a dream project that you would love to work on?
I am working on my own TV show, and that is my dream right now. It’s a reality design competition that merges costume design with fashion design. I love this whole idea because fashion designers are truly inspired by costume designers. I wanted to bring costume designers more to the forefront, but [the show is] also about how the garments that we see in film and TV really do show up on the runway. It’s a competition show that really merges those two worlds together, and I think as time has gone on, the two career paths have become more and more closely linked to one another.
We are in the process of getting it sold, which is really exciting. I’m working with the amazing producers from “Fashion Star,” and that’s where we are right now. We are working with the title of “Janie Bryant’s Hollywood.”
How have you been influenced by other costume designers?
I’ve always been obsessed with Gone with the Wind, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Sound of Music, An American in Paris, Jezebel. I really got into watching classic movies because I loved the costume design so much. But other designers like Sandy Powell, Catherine Martin, Colleen Atwood [are] amazing and I love their work.
I loved Sandy Powell’s work on Far From Heaven.
I’m obsessed with Orlando. I could see that film a million, trillion times. Her work on that is just breathtaking!
Janie Bryant will speak at the Smithsonian Associates seminar, “Mad Men Style: Janie Bryant on Fashion and Character,” on September 9, 2013. Tickets are available at smithsonianassociates.org.
August 30, 2013
If you’re like us, you can’t get enough of the National Zoo’s giant pandas. The 15-year-old panda Mei Xiang gave birth to a healthy cub one week ago and has been very protective of her baby so far. The sex of the cub is still unknown, but we do know that the cub is already keeping its mother up at night. In this new video from the National Zoo, taken at 3:37 a.m. on August 29, the cub does a lot of “squawking” before being picked up and cradled by Mei Xiang:
The squawking baby panda isn’t likely to unseat the sneezing baby panda anytime soon, but Mei Xiang’s new cub still has years to go. Keep up with all the Zoo’s panda coverage by watching the new HD panda cams.
August 28, 2013
Last Friday evening, the world watched in wonder and anticipation as the giant panda Mei Xiang gave birth to a healthy panda cub at the National Zoo. As zoo keepers work to monitor the health of mother and cub, we were able to speak with panda keeper Juan Rodriguez about looking after the pandas, a recent trip to the Panda Base in Bifengxia, China and what the birth of the new cub means for a continued collaboration between the two facilities.
I understand that Mei was very protective of her cub yesterday, and that she didn’t want to surrender her for any check-ups.
She was doing what a mom should be doing; she’s being very protective of her cub. Every once in a while, she’s re-adjusting to make sure the cub was in a good spot to be able to nurse, and slightly moving away from us in the process. We had to be very careful, and finally, since so much time was going by and we didn’t want to push the envelope, we decided to leave her alone to be able to nurse her cub in a nice quiet spot.
If she continues to be unwilling to surrender the cub for checkups, what will you do?
Right now, we’re just going to stay back and let her do her thing, and keep an eye on the cameras and listen in. We’re also going to have the opportunity to offer her a few different food choices in the next few days, so that will give us a better idea. Basically, we’re just playing it by ear on a daily basis.
Tell me about your recent trip to China.
That was an amazing learning experience on all levels. My colleague Marty Dearie and I had the opportunity to work with our panda colleagues at Bifengxia, at the Panda Base in Ya’an, China. They are the group that actually has loaned us our current giant pandas Tian Tian and Mei Xiang. The folks out there have years and years of knowledge working with pandas both in captivity and in their wild habitat. First and foremost, we had an opportunity to see the facility first hand. It’s located high up in the mountains of Ya’an, in a very forested area, so even though they are in a captive setting they do have a lot of natural environment around them. We got a chance to work with our Chinese colleagues who have worked with giant pandas in captivity for many years. We also saw a total of three cub births, one of which was a set of twins. We also had a chance to see how the nursery staff cares for the neonatal cubs, ranging from birth to two weeks of age, and some other cubs who were a month or two months old. We also had a chance to see one cub that was almost a year old, and a set of twins a little older than a year. There were a lot of age groups, pandas at different life stages, and seeing it all at once was an invaluable learning experience.
In addition to that, we had three different places where we worked. One was a birthing station, where there were several females—some that were pregnant, some that had already given birth. [Another] location had been specifically set aside—from what we understand, for the first time ever—for six females that were completely isolated from the public. It’s kind of a prelude to a wildlife setting. They are enclosed, but they have outdoor dens, so they could give birth outdoors and potentially raise their cub outdoors. In fact, there were two of them that had already given birth and were raising their cubs outdoors [rather than in] an indoor enclosure. So that’s going to give them a better feeling for whether or not, when the cubs get older, if they’re going to be different behaviorally, or in terms of their health; it’s real on-the-ground work that they’re doing with the giant pandas. The last place we would see is the nursery, to see how they nursed and cared for the neonatal and one-month-plus old cubs. We actually got a chance to get hands-on, being able to feed and or stimulate the cubs to help them defecate. At that age, they can’t defecate or urinate on their own, so there are several techniques that they showed us to help the baby pandas do that, in order to care for the cubs at that stage of their lives.
I heard you picked up some new techniques for handling the mother and her cub.
Most definitely. The husbandry techniques are slightly different in China, because they do have a different relationship with their pandas: they go into the enclosures with their pandas. So there is no protective contact. For us, our protocols don’t allow that; there must always be some kind of protection. That being said, we did get a chance to see how the Chinese animal caretaker staff behaves around the pandas while they are in such close proximity.
Have you heard from your Chinese colleagues on the birth of the new panda? What do they have to say?
We had a few—through translations—all congratulating us. A few have texted us a sort of congratulatory e-mail in Chinese. They’re certainly all excited for us.
What has been the most exciting part of this process?
Being able to see the fact that she gave birth; we’re all very happy, but we’re all also very guarded in our optimism, because of what happened last year. The analogy that I like to give is that it’s like that moment on a roller coaster, where you’re going up that roller coaster and anticipating going over the hill. It’s sort of like that—you’re girding yourself for going over the hill, so that is kind of where we’re at right now. . . I think that we’ll have a slight sigh of relief maybe a month from now, and then I don’t think anyone will be completely, totally, excited until after a year to two years, in terms of being confident that the cub is going to grow into adulthood.
And what has been the most unsettling?
I wouldn’t consider it unsettling, just more of a concern for Mei Xiang’s well being. During the cub’s first check up, I was one of the staff members that stayed behind with Mei Xiang to see how she was behaving, and also [to] console her while the cub was away. So I think at that stage, it was just a mom who was searching for her cub—. . .“Where’s my cub? I hear it but I don’t see it.”
She was actually scrounging in her nest to see if she had misplaced it somewhere in her nesting material. It’s a good example of how good of a mother she is. She wants to care for her young and always be attentive to it, especially when it’s vocalizing. It was mostly about keeping her calm and collected, and we were able to provide her with some fluids. We had a squirt bottle filled with honey water and would squirt it on her tongue, and she was taking that a few times while the cub was away. I think that helped to distract her for a few seconds, just enough to let her settle down. Of course, since this is a new thing we have done with her at this stage, the return of the cub was a crucial moment. She was very excited to have the cub back and we wanted to make sure we could get the cub back safely into her possession. Anticipating what she was going to do at that point was something that was heavily on our minds. And she did everything perfectly. She picked it up very gently with her mouth and put it back on her chest and presumably the cub started nursing again, so within five minutes, or less, she was calm and collected in her corner nursing her cub.
Why does it matter who the father of the cub is?
It matters on a lot of levels. I think first and foremost, because there’s such a small population of giant pandas. It’s important for genetic diversity. Knowing who the father is will determine the level of related-ness that the cub has to the overall population, which has future effects in determining who this cub, potentially when they reach adulthood, can mate with. That’s the primary level. The secondary level is because we know that the second cub that was born was malformed, it would give us a better idea to know if the fathers were the same, or if one was from one father and one from the other. And, again, keeping in mind I’m not a reproductive physiologist, but I think understanding which type of sperm sample was used—one that was fresh versus one that was frozen—would have an effect on which one was able to survive and be healthy.
Do we know how the cub will be named?
The tradition that our Chinese colleagues [follow] and we do too, is to wait until day 100. And at that point the cub can be named.
Apart from the cub’s birth, what other strategies for panda care did you take up with your Chinese colleagues on your visit?
I picked up a little Chinese, so maybe now I can talk to them a little. I’m sure Tian Tian and Mei Xiang remember a little of it, since they were born in China.
In all seriousness, I think that everything from the nursery and just being able to be prepared, if it came to hand rearing the cub. We now have experience with that. Getting our hands on a cub from a few days old to a few months old, knowing how much pressure and how to hold them properly, those are all important things to know. It’s also important knowing what are some of the cues that Mei Xiang might give us if something is not right with the cub. And also to know certain vocalizations from the cub, to know that the cub is doing well.
I understand you’ve been studying different types of bamboo and their effect on a panda’s welfare.
I can’t say much in too much detail, because I’m not a bamboo specialist. But in China, they have other varieties of bamboo, and though they feed them just about the same as we do, they have different varieties. They are fortunate that their bamboo growing season is about 10 months out of the year, whereas our growing season for bamboo shoots is about two, maximum three months, out of the year. So they have greater access to bamboo shoots than we do. We supplement with other foods, offering apples, pears, sweet potatoes and liquids such as honey water and apple juice.
What was the highlight of your China trip?
I think it was great to be able to meet our colleagues in China. Going over to China helps to reaffirm our commitment with our colleagues there and helps to give us a better understanding of the kind of work they do both in captivity and in the wild. They currently have one male that they have reintroduced into the wild, so ultimately those are the kinds of stories we want to be a part of and hear about. It’s not just reproducing cubs, it’s also about making sure that the species can exist in the wild. This is a very serious goal that we’re both committed to, and working together as one group, that synergy is great.
August 22, 2013
August 22 is Chuck Brown Day in Washington, D.C., and tonight the American Art Museum fetes the late “godfather of go-go” in grand go-go style—with a party in the Kogod Courtyard. Brown, who died in July 2012, is credited with pioneering the genre of go-go music, a blend of funk, soul, jazz and Afro-Caribbean rhythms that emerged in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s. Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers concerts featured call-and-response and high-energy beats that kept the crowd going nonstop and became the signature sound of go-go.
“Musically [go-go] really put Washington, D.C. on the map,” says Gail Lowe, an historian at the Anacostia Community Museum. The museum has hosted several programs on go-go in recent years, including “Evolution of the Go-Go Beat” in 2011 and “Citified,” part of the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The Anacostia Community Museum is also a repository of Chuck Brown artifacts, holding photographs, signed concert posters and Brown’s famous blonde Gibson guitar.
Off stage, Chuck Brown was just as much of a fixture in the D.C. community. Brown, who was incarcerated in his 20s, inspired youth to pursue their dreams as he did. He mentored and sponsored young musicians throughout his career, often inviting them to open for him. According to Lowe, he was also notable for giving professional opportunities to female musicians, including Meshell Ndegeocello and Sweet Cherie Mitchell. “He always wanted to lift people up,” says Lowe.
Brown was something of a musical magpie. Although he made his name in funk, he was raised on Southern gospel, and his voice had a jazz timbre that comes through on albums like “The Other Side,” Brown’s soulful collaboration with local singer Eva Cassidy. “He brought all the musical genres to the table and said that even in music, we can all live together and make something beautiful out of it,” says Lowe. “He may not have been a major superstar in the United States, but practically everybody who knows music would know [his] name. . . . He transcended all sorts of boundaries.”
Go-go is the “only musical form indigenous to D.C.” as well as the “most geographically compact form of popular music,” according to the authors of The Beat! Go-Go Music from Washington, D.C.—but it also caught on internationally. Lowe says that at Brown’s concerts in Japan in the 1980s, “all the fans knew every single word in English.” Today, go-go is still performed in Washington, D.C.—along with a newer, younger incarnation called “bounce beat“—and its influence can be heard in the hip-hop and R&B music of artists including Nelly, Wale and Chrisette Michele.
Tonight’s birthday party in the Kogod Courtyard is free and open to the public. The local go-go band Vybe will perform, joined by one of Chuck Brown’s former bandmates.