Part of Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) being ahead of her time as a snarky stand-up comic in 1958 in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” was dressing like Audrey Hepburn. It was about using high fashion to help find her voice in the Village when her Upper West Side marriage fell apart.
“I was taking color that I found in contemporary fashion but still had a credibility in the ’50s,” said Donna Zakowska, the costume designer for Amazon’s Golden Globe-winning comedy created by Amy Sherman-Palladino (“Gilmore Girls”).”
The Fashion Forward ’50s
Recognizing that the ’50s was a high point in fashion, Zakowska expressed Midge’s emotional states through her colorful wardrobe. “This is a heightened version of what was real,” she said. “Couture really found its voice in the way the woman’s body was defined as something special. It feels contemporary because so many trends that have transpired in the last 20 years in clothing came from there.”
Zakowska, a native New Yorker, was surprised to discover such beautiful blocks of color mixed together when researching “Vogue” and other magazines and newspapers. Bright pink and red, in particular, were typical in Paris in the ’50s and much imitated in New York as well. So the costume designer began by arming Midge with a pink coat. “That pink coat is iconic and emblematic of who she is,” Zakowska said.
From there, Zakowska used an array of colorful coats as a mood changer. “Rachel is a great animator of clothing,” she said. “So she, along with me, created this process in which the coats became her way of standing out or asserting herself physically. One coat led to another and you couldn’t really use a coat from the past because that meant something else.”
A Uniform for Every Occasion
However, the brilliant flashback montage that opens Episode four reveals a five-year trip down memory lane that’s both colorful and stifling. It’s no wonder that Midge becomes a performer because her whole life has been about presenting herself as the perfect wife or mother until the dream is shattered.
Nicole Rivelli/Amazon Studios
In fact, the series begins with a sort of stand-up routine at her wedding about her life story. “I worked a lot with the landscape of color, almost like a musical,” said Zakowska. And Midge’s journey as a comic consists of a color palette that goes from bright to cool.
Not surprisingly, the wise-cracking protagonist has a variety of uniforms: In the department store, for example, she sports an elevated, secretarial look with gray. But then she brightens it up with a polka dot bow. “She really can’t repress who she is; she never dresses down for a moment,” the costume designer said.
Defining and Redefining Through Wardrobe
But a lot is defined by location, too. “Is she uptown or downtown? And the spirit of the character is this strange optimism, in spite of everything that’s going on, with a real belief that she is what she presents,” Zakowska said.
Even when Midge entertains her younger department store co-workers at a party. she wears red shorts and a pink top to convey her free spirit image. “She defines herself to herself, and then redefines herself during this transition, and all the accessories are important. They help enhance who she is,” said Zakowska.
But there’s a change at the end when Midge settles on a black dress as her true performance uniform. “It’s like Joan Rivers, whose life fell apart as a housewife and it became her material,” the costume designer said. “We talked about having a simple, elegant, urban piece at the end. There’s a clarity in the message as a garment, signifying how she’s blossomed [as a comic and independent woman].”