In the cavernous Brooklyn warehouse where ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ was filmed, there are towers of pillbox hats, double-stacked racks of dresses and coats in rainbow order, and vision boards teeming with fabric swatches.
At an October set visit during the shooting of the comedy’s latest season, Emmy-winning costume designer Donna Zakowska gave marching orders to her team in order to translate the characters’ emotions and aesthetic tone of each scene. Over five seasons, Zakowska says she’s dressed nearly 50,000 principal actors and extras for Amazon Prime Video’s hit show, which launches its final season Friday.
‘Maisel’ follows a New York City housewife who makes an unlikely turn to standup comedy in a journey of self-discovery after her husband’s infidelity blows up their conventional life.
Before filming, Zakowska gave each player a once-over to ensure every shoe, brooch and belt looked right. When seeking inspiration, Zakowska often referred to what she called the “Maisel map” — images of star Rachel Brosnahan’ s signature looks and colour palettes from previous seasons — across from a wall of her latest sketches.
“One of the greatest joys and most terrifying parts about doing this show is that I didn’t feel like I knew who Midge was,” Brosnahan told The Associated Press about her character. “Without geniuses like Donna, crafting this character and helping me understand where she was, emotionally, scene to scene through how she expressed herself in her clothes, I don’t think we would be here.”
She has ”a great love for storytelling,” Brosnahan said.
Show creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino said that Zakowska had an immediate understanding of how Brosnahan’s character would evolve, and how to show those character changes through color. As Midge becomes more empowered to speak her mind onstage, she goes from wearing pastel-colored suits uptown to a black dress when she performs in clubs downtown. “She’s the first person we worked with that did this, and we loved it. She equated color with mood of character,” Palladino said.
“You’re really trying to enhance the script, the story, and you’re trying to create this world,” Zakowska said.
The Palladinos learned to coordinate ‘Maisel’s’ elaborate set design and unique locations with Zakowska’s costumes, to create the show’s eyepopping tableaus.
Throughout the five seasons, pink dominates. To create the 1950’s swing coat that Brosnahan wears in the pilot, Zakowska went through more than 200 shades of pink and finally had the fabric dyed to achieve the right pastel hue.
“It was a whole philosophy,” Sherman-Palladino said of the trajectory of pinks worn, “that was really tied toward Midge’s emotional ups and downs.”
As a nod to the character’s full-circle evolution, in the first episode of the new season, a newly confident Midge wears a two-toned version of the original pink coat. “There’s a sort of romanticism or sentimentality about the color,” Zakowska said.
Many of the actors saw Zakowska as a collaborator in developing their characters. Alex Borstein, who plays Susie on the show, said she wanted to wear suspenders and a peaked cap, which Zakowska enhanced with a leather jacket and even her own boots. “Every time you threw on that uniform or that suit of armor it helped create Susie for me, made it real,” Borstein said.
“You get out of the car... you go through hair and makeup and you’re still in 2022,” said Reid Scott, who plays a late-night host on season five. For Scott’s character, Zakowska tailored bespoke suits and sourced a slew of vintage cardigans from the UK. “The second you put on that suit, and the way it feels and the way it smells and the way the high waisted pants really grip you, it would just drop me in and...boom, you’re in 1961.”
Zakowska said she was a little surprised, but pleased by how fans responded to the costumes, with some even dressing like Midge for Halloween. “I think somehow Midge Maisel gave a lot of women a vocabulary,” she said, of the main character’s impact on pop culture. After the pandemic, she noticed a heightened interest in the costumes. Everyone wanted to “celebrate a little bit,” and Midge’s looks were “the right thing at the right moment,” Zakowska said.
Several cast members said Zakowska’s meticulous attention to detail changed the way they felt about their characters. Caroline Aaron who plays Midge’s mother-in-law Shirley said she begged Zakowska to ditch the girdle under her character’s flashy dresses, but Zakowska insisted, saying it affected the way the character walked. Details that audiences might not necessarily see — period jewelry, purses, even buttons — all completed a specific look and created a fully imagined world.
“If she’d sort of slapped me into something from the 50’s, I might have been a sloppier Shirley,” Aaron said. “But she was so insistent on really dignifying every character in terms of their clothes.”
Marin Hinkle, who plays Midge’s mother Rose Weissman, said she’s been inspired by her character’s bold clothing choices, ultra-chic coats and hats.
“In my own life I tend to be like, ‘Let’s just be plain and not rock a boat and be good and proper,’” Hinkle explained. She said she loved Rose’s ability to say, “‘Today is a day to be spectacular and I’m going to put on bright colors and not go in the shadows!’”
“It’s been so hard to say goodbye to her,” Hinkle said, “as she gave me a little extra chutzpah.”