The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel costume designer takes us inside the marvelous looks
Mrs. Maisel's marvelous style
In the second episode of Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, we learn that Midge (the titular Mrs. Maisel in question, played by Rachel Brosnahan) learned to drive because she fell in love with a pair of pink driving gloves. “Everything with Midge starts with an accessory,” says her mother Rose (Marin Hinkle). It's a daunting and unique character trait for a costume designer, but for Donna Zakowska, it was both an integral part of the character and a typical trait for women of that era. “Women were very, very conscious of matching — the shoes and the bags being in some sort of color harmony with the outfit,” Zakowska explains to EW. “These sort of elements really assert the character’s personality. In a way, Midge is a character that never gives in, even if something terrible is going on. It’s always about putting your best foot forward and an optimism that runs in the character.”
Midge Maisel is a walking late 1950s fashion plate in the new series from Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino. A housewife-turned- comedian, Midge goes on a journey of self-discovery when her husband leaves her and she realizes she wants to try to make it in the burgeoning world of stand-up alongside legends like Lenny Bruce.
In recreating New York in 1958, from the couture looks of the Upper West Side to the beatnik styles of the West Village, costumer Zakowska creates a rich tapestry of color and silhouettes with a keen eye for detail. Zakowska talked to EW about her design process and broke down the inspiration behind many of the show’s iconic, period-appropriate looks that leave us with serious sartorial envy.
Let's start with sketches
For Zakowska, the process began with an intense period of research. Ninety-five percent of the wardrobe for the series is constructed from scratch to allow for distinct, character-defining, period-accurate looks. She says most of the principal characters have 70-75 percent of their wardrobe constructed, with Midge at an even higher level, and pulled clothes from vintage shops and costume houses make up the rest of the wardrobe for extras, day players, and more.
“In terms of the extras and other people, trying to make it look as real as possible and then heightening Midge a bit,” Zakowska says of her overall design scheme. “Some of the colors from the ‘50s, a lot of the palette things — I looked at French Vogue from the period — are really very interesting color combinations. I worked a lot with combining, taking more heightened Vogue from the period and then bringing it down to a little bit more accessible level for the character.”
For many of the designs, it began with a color palette, selecting an appropriate shade for the tone of the scene and then accenting it with bags, hats, and more. “I was very, very interested in the palette, the way the accessories and the bags are sort of highlights to certain color and combining in a way that we don’t really see in contemporary fashion,” explains Zakowska. “It usually came from periodicals or photographs. Like Saul Leiter, if you look at that photographer of that period, you’ll see that amazing green coat or that sort of color, so it was based in reality, but I definitely hand-picked the colors that heightened certain aspects of the project.”
Before the series was even released, Midge Maisel already had an iconic look to her credit: a magenta dress paired with a pink coat and velvet hat that appears on the posters for the show. It’s an essential outfit to our introduction to the character. “There was just something about the color that I thought this is really where she’s beginning and that’s where she’s going to start,” says Zakowska. “I put a lot of effort into finding the fabric for the coat so that the pink really had a certain sort of depth to it and really looked beautiful under lights and outside.” It took nearly 200 swatches of fabric to find the right shade of pink for this look, which Zakowska says is already earning her solicitations on Instagram for where others can buy it. “I see it as a journey,” she says of Midge’s wardrobe. “The clothes help her through a journey and that was really the beginning moment for Midge. It’s sort of before everything slightly falls apart and it just made sense there.”
As Midge’s manager and an employee of the Gaslight Café, Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein) contrasts immensely with the stylish Midge in outfits that consist of a sweater, slacks, suspenders, leather jackets and/or a newsboy cap. “That very much came from my looking at a lot of research on the West Village, the original Gaslight café, a lot of characters that were hanging around down there,” says Zakowska of Susie’s look. “There had to be a sort of toughness about that character without necessarily making any judgments on it. That sort of leather jacket, that James Dean-y type of thing that really went on in the period, seemed like the right way to go.”
Susie wears one piece of jewelry, a key, around her neck, which Zakowska says was Borstein’s idea and is meant to be the key to the Gaslight. Zakowska explains that her designs for Susie stemmed from a desire to create strong contrast and tension between her and Midge. “In comedy or in drama, it’s very important that your two characters which are opposites but are playing against each other have very strong identities. Her having that identity was a great thing for Midge with her pink coats to play against, and sometimes, that can be really the essence of a good scene. Clothing has to create the drama for the characters and set up the relationships,” she says.
A toast to this frock
When we first meet Midge, she’s wearing her wedding dress and delivering a proto-stand-up bit as a toast at her own wedding. “I must admit that came from Audrey Hepburn, the Givenchy look of that wedding dress in the film Funny Face with Fred Astaire,” Zakowska says of the inspiration for Midge’s bridal look. “I wanted it to be sort of simple and elegant and yet to have a sort of lightness to it, a very spirited quality. I often would look at Audrey Hepburn. There were just a few people and a few designers like Dior or Jacques Fath, just people who really hit it on the nose, and really sort of captured a certain type of spirit in that 1950s clothing.”
That European influence
When Midge goes into the West Village with Joel (Michael Zegen) to support her husband’s comedy act, she dresses down in a more bohemian look: a matching black top and capris with a colorful headscarf.“There was a tremendous amount of European influence in New York at that time,” Zakowska says. “That’s why when you’re doing the '50s in New York, it’s very different from doing the '50s in Indiana, or the '50s on the west coast. There was a very strong intellectual, artistic, cultural movement… It really was a moment where politics, art, and fashion were really coming together in downtown and so that came from a lot of these European influences that I felt played a part in the beatnik look or the West Village, downtown look.”
Midge and her mother both wear ornate, beautiful peignoirs to bed – a hallmark of 1950s femininity that has been replaced by more comfort-focused pajamas in today’s world. For Zakowska, this bedroom look was key to understanding Midge’s evolution. “This was a big period for the peignoir, it’s something that practically doesn’t exist anymore, but there was definitely, again, a '50s type of feeling, the idea that at night or at home, you have this sort of romantic, very heightened, feminine look,” she explains. “Because in every way, [the show] is about the breakdown of the perfect home domestic life and then actually having to deal with reality. So, it had that sort of classic feeling of what a woman [who] feels everything is fine and creates that image of complacency and happiness would wear. People didn’t sleep in t-shirts then.”
Long before Lululemon
In addition to her nighties, we also see Midge in her version of 1950s “active wear” – a black leotard and a matching pink blouse and shorts. Most women in the 1950s didn’t exercise in the way we do now – they either took ballet classes or took classes at special studios. “That whole sequence with all those women in those little shorts and sweaters — I found a little of real research on the Helena Rubinstein exercise salon and it was sort of amusing because you think of moving in very stretchy clothing,” recalls Zakowska. “These women wore these little shorts, sometimes they even kept their shoes on, and then they have little sweaters, these very fitted little outfits for actually pretty strenuous exercises. I had also found a picture of this exercise they did holding a bottle between their feet and Amy [Sherman-Palladino] put that into the sequence.” As for Midge’s black leotard, Zakowska says that came from a ballet sensibility, as the other common form of exercise for women in the era.
The lady in red
When Joel returns to Midge’s for a reconciliatory dinner, she wears a gorgeous red gown meant to wow him. However, for Zakowska, the design was more about showing Midge’s inner strength and independence than impressing her husband. “That was a design that might have been pulled from a Vogue. But the idea there was, and I had said that to Amy and then it ended up in the script, which was, I really want her to be very strong when he comes back. I want it to feel like I know you’ve left me, I don’t care, I am here, I am strong, I am assertive, I’m in no way meek about this. I just wanted to give her the strength and the power of being seductive and yet being her own person.”
Back to pink
In the third episode, Midge returns to her signature pink with a tweed suit while walking her baby with her best friend in the park. “We’re returning a tiny bit to the past, but I wanted to make a more tailored version, more subdued than the way we had seen her before,” Zakowska says of the look. “It’s a little bit like saying I am still who I am, yet I couldn’t quite give it the same spirit and looseness. When things happen in your life, it’s not like you lose your identity, you still are who you are, but sometimes your personality is subdued by events, and that was just a moment for her to recap Midge and who she was.”
One of Midge’s most stunning looks is a magenta coat paired with a green-and-purple printed dress that she wears to look her best at a court hearing. She tells her mother the design is a “Jacques Fath,” one of the most distinctive designers of the era. “That was one of the few times where I really could go fully blown with the French couture-esque,” Zakowska says of the gorgeous ensemble. “This is the way they wore these -- it’s like a set in a way and often the inside of the coat has the same pattern or color as the dress, so that when it swung open, it really was like getting lost in a forest or a Monet-esque lily pond.”
This is a huge moment for Midge’s character and how she defines herself through what she wears. “It was such a strange Midge choice to make, so strangely inappropriate to go into court, but again everything always defines her spirit,” says Zakowska. “Her feeling of her feet being on the ground, taking control of her life — that was part of how she did it, she really asserted her identity and that was a key part for anyone who has to go through an identity crisis. The '50s is a period that allowed people [to say] a little bit more [through their clothes] because there was more of a code of dress than now.”
The montage effect
At the opening of episode 104, Midge is moving out of her apartment and we see a montage of her time there, from first entering it with Joel as newlyweds to New Year’s Eve parties to the move itself. A cavalcade of outfits charts Midge’s relationship to the apartment. “The blue, actually, that’s one dress that I did find in a rental house. The headpiece she had on was something that had been my mother’s that I had saved,” Zakowska says of the first outfit in the sequence. “I always felt like this was Marie Antoinette — she’s coming in like the queen and asserting herself. The pink look, that was again what I call the “old Midge feeling” — home keeper, happy, everything is going fairly well."
The sequence concludes with two green dresses, Midge’s New Year’s Eve outfit and her moving day dress, which connect to each other through the editing of the sequence. “I had to create a dress that Amy could flash back to because as you see there’s a sort of camera turn and suddenly you hit the back of the other dress which is her moving dress,” explains Zakowska of the two looks. “The trick there was to build a dress that had more of an earlier '50s fullness and then that other green dress for me was one of her most serious dresses when she’s moving out of the house. It’s when we really start moving into that later '50s silhouette; it was sort of a bit more narrow and there was a serenity to it. It was a green wool versus a silk. How do you make a dress that can refer to the two scenes, that can capture a very happy moment, and then a more serious, serene moment?”
When Midge moves back to her parents’ apartment, we see her in her most casual look yet – a pastel striped shirt and pink capris – while she listens to a comedy record. “That outfit is when she was with her parents and a little bit like girlish,” she says. “Seeing her parents talking to her and acting like she’s still a kid and then, in a funny way, if people around you start acting that way, then you a little bit feel that way. So I was trying to have a sort of youthful lightness, childlike, a little bit more like a teenager. I tried to sort of harken back to a point in her life where she was the child to her parents.”
When Midge finally decides to invest in her dream of becoming a comedian, she goes out on the town with Susie to observe the work of others and begin to understand how to build her own act. “That’s where we’re beginning to try to define her as a comedian and not that she would wear a business suit, but something that seems more like she’s seriously beginning to figure out her life and to pursue the profession,” says Zakowska of the look in that sequence. “It was taking the concept of the dress and the coat as this ensemble and trying to make it seem a little bit more serious and more like someone who’s beginning to start a profession. It has colors that harken back to some of her other outfits… I don’t want to suddenly change her identity, but I do want it to evolve so I think those colors are more of an evolution of who she is at that point in the story.”
Zakowska says the greatest challenge was tracking Midge’s state of mind through her clothes and the colors she wears. “I spent a lot of time agonizing over which color she would be in in the next sequence and like ‘When would I repeat that pink? When could I again say that Midge was in that state of mind?’” she explains. “I used to make lots of little charts and actually put little color swatches on it, and I’d watch the pattern of the colors and when they appeared. I’d sort of be tracking her emotional strength or assertiveness or lack of in the colors.”
Later in the season, Midge begins to wear clothes that she considers appropriate for a “1950s working woman” and Zakowska says this is where she used narrower skirts and silhouettes with more subdued shades like navy and grey. Though she says the outfits still have a hint of Midge, such as pink buttons or bows. For the rest of this first season and in potential future outings, Zakowska promises Midge will continue to shift in her wardrobe as she tries define her inner evolution through her outward appearance.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is currently streaming on Amazon.