How ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Made the Best Costumes on TV


Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) takes pride in having an eye-catching ensemble fit for any occasion. From a brief sojourn to Paris or a summer with her family in the Catskills, she has the perfect outfit for the setting. To find a showstopping number in the series finale of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Midge turns to New York City shopping institution Bergdorf Goodman for an exquisite gold-bowed gown. In real-life, Emmy Award-winning costume designer Donna Zakowska is the woman behind the dress—as well as five seasons’ worth of unique garments on the show. Like Midge, the wardrobe has been an intrinsic part of Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino’s definitive comedy series since it premiered in 2017.

“About 98 percent of the clothes are custom-built,” Zakowska tells ELLE.com. And there are a lot of them. Viewers get a taste of how many outfits Midge has worn throughout the series in the second episode of the final season, when a flash-forward shows Midge on 60 Minutes, auctioning off the pieces for charity. On set, even Zakowska was shocked to see all the racks of clothing together in one space. The moment felt like a love letter to Mrs. Maisel’s costumes, in a way. “You suddenly realize, ‘Wow, this is quite a massive achievement to have created this amount of clothing’—especially in a television timetable,” Zakowska says.

Steiner Studios in Brooklyn was home to Mrs. Maisel for the last few years, including the costume shop. “I kept them all there so I could see that manifestation of the rainbow that evolved in Midge Maisel,” notes Zakowska. Whereas Midge is auctioning off her wardrobe, some Mrs. Maisel costumes are now heading home with some of the actors, and “Rachel [Brosnahan] is going to own her clothing, which is great.” Zakowska wants to keep Midge’s wardrobe together as much as possible: “I think Rachel feels—as sometimes actors do—very invested in the clothes.”

 

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When we recently caught up with the costume designer, she was in Paris prepping for the next Prime Video offering, Étoile, from the Palladinos. In the background was a stunning pink rose arrangement courtesy of Sherman-Palladino, who sent them to congratulate Zakowska on her recent Tony nomination for New York, New York. The bouquet is a very Midge Maisel shade. I spoke to Zakowska about this signature color, working with Brosnahan, the evolution of Midge’s performance attire, and more.

Pretty in Pink

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Sarah Shatz/Amazon Studios

The first time Midge burst onto the stand-up scene in 1958, she wore a girlish pink swing coat and a pale blue peignoir nightgown, contrasting her typically flawless attire for the venue. Earlier in the pilot, she sports this vibrant outerwear while out on errands in her guise as the perfect housewife. “Everything seemed good, hopeful, peaceful, and very optimistic,” says Zakowska about this choice. It reflects the “rose-colored glasses” of the 1950s American household, and in Midge’s case, represents her shattered identity when her husband Joel Maisel (Michael Zegen) announces he is leaving Midge for his secretary. Finding the perfect shade wasn’t easy, requiring hundreds of fabric swatches. Ultimately, Zakowska “had to dye it to get that exact tone.”

“Maisel pink” was born. Zakowska reflects on how Brosnahan’s performance added to this visual: “Rachel’s a good animator, and the unity of that color with her temperament and the moment, and the variations within that color that existed seemed to make a tremendous amount of sense.” This recurring motif has punctuated several significant milestones, from her appearance in divorce court to the Apollo performance. “It was crazy how that launched into something that began and ended with the show. We never completely let go of it,” she says. “We see less of it, but it always will reappear, and that was purposeful.” In the final season, Midge is decked out in shades of pink at the TWA airport when she runs into Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) and during her big falling out with Susie (Alex Borstein) in 1985.

Back to Black

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Nicole Rivelli/Amazon Studios

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Season 5

Philippe Antonello/Prime Video

After this initial Gaslight set, Midge doesn’t resort to bedwear as her staple performance attire, but it takes the fledgling standup all season to find a comedy style to call her own. The boho downtown look assimilates her to the crowd, but she needs something to stand out. “The black dress very much came from Amy [Sherman-Palladino] in season 1 wanting to have a uniform, something that epitomized performance and was a silhouette of the housewife but in a much more dramatic, theatrical way,” she explains. “That dress needs pearls,” Midge’s mother, Rose (Marin Hinkle), advises—without knowing where her daughter is headed—and the Audrey Hepburn influence is instantly recognizable.

“Then the issue became about keeping to that idea, but then creating variations on it,” Zakowska continues. “Looking at blacks, sketching in different ways, analyzing small elements that I would begin to add to the dress.” In the third season, this includes a pink feather trim or a green bow detail. “The black dress was absolutely an image that I did cling to, but we couldn’t bore people with it,” she says.

After switching a black frock out for pink at the Apollo show, it only feels right that Midge returns to black for her leap of faith in the series finale—though it marks the first time Zakowska has used gold on a performance gown. After a few fashion emergencies (including “pigeon shit” on her elbow), Dinah (Alfie Fuller) picks up a few dresses Midge had on hold at Bergdorf’s. “I wanted to go back to a bow because that is another one of the recurring images that I always used for Midge, but I felt it had to be a bit special,” recalls Zakowska. The designer drew on her art background in her research. “It was something Byzantine—totally unrelated—that had this encrusted gold area, and I thought, ‘Well, that would be beautiful to keep the black dress and then to have the bow, but in a grander way without going over the top theatrically.”

Jewel Tones and Show Corsets

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Amazon Studios

After Midge’s rousing set on The Gordon Ford Show, the finale flashes back six months earlier when Midge shares post-sex Chinese food with Lenny at Wo Hop. Their impromptu hookup occurs after the police raid the Wolford Theater, and Midge has to run out into the snow wearing her stage get-up. Her gown is one of her most colorful performance looks, adding deep jewel tones to her roster of accents to her sartorial signature. Adding color to black is fine, but Zakowska is mindful of the era. “You don’t want to do what the ‘80s was so about where it’s always about black with a bright tone,” Zakowska explains.

At Lenny’s hotel, the mere mention of Midge’s show corset helped usher verbal foreplay into physical intimacy, and this garment is referenced in this season 5 scene. Undergarments are integral to building the silhouette of this period, and the ones seen on camera are “fancier, a bit more lace, but the shape is the same format.” These foundational items and underpinnings include an array of petticoats, girdles, bras, garters, and slips. “This presentational aspect came about at that exact period of Midge Maisel that we’re dealing with,” observes Zakowska. The choice of underpinnings shifts in the flash-forwards, and she “didn’t use the same corset because I had to do something that had a slightly looser way of bringing her in.”

Timeless Style and Time Jumps

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Nicole Rivelli/Amazon Studios

Even before Zakowska had to cover 50 years of events, the sheer volume of costumes made by her team is astounding. When Midge appeared in a patriotic-themed red, white, and blue frock in the season 3 premiere, she stood before nearly a thousand background actors. “At the wrap party, they gave a count of the number of extras that had been costumed for the series, and it was 38,000,” she says. That sound you just heard is my jaw on the floor.

Zakowska says the flash-forwards were a little overwhelming, but “the important thing was to keep the character.” Body shapes change, but the designer references stars like Liza Minnelli, who has a clear sartorial throughline: “Midge was not going to evolve into some sort of crazy style that didn’t make sense.” The final tunic and jumpsuit pairing in the 2005 scenes feature silhouettes we have previously seen. Zakowska notes that Brosnahan worked on her posture to capture how her character deals with these physical changes.

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Amazon Studios

Other icons inspire some of her future looks, such as her pantsuit at her 1973 wedding to author Philip Roth (that does not go ahead)—a big change from her classic 1954 gown. “Amy gave me that image. She said I want her to look like Bianca Jagger.’

Dressing to Theme

One thing Midge Maisel knows how to do is pull focus and dress to a theme. “I always felt as a character, she always had a story in her head when she dressed,” says Zakowska. “Things like when she travels to Paris like a crazy stewardess, or in season 5 when she’s on that boat.” For the latter nautical aesthetic, Zakowska had a photo of a Victorian sailor dress as inspiration that she exaggerated, and “of course, there was pink with the blue.” Midge’s intentional dressing tied into the narrative, too: “Clothing to punctuate storylines became very important—there’s nothing generic.”

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Philippe Antonello/Prime Video

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Amazon Studios

When she arrives at the iconic Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami in season 3, she has a caped dress that looks like a living work of art. “I knew that I wanted this impact. I wanted something moving behind her, and I had found a vintage dress that had that shape,” Zakowska recalls. They couldn’t find fabric to match this vision, so they “painted into it to bring the pink in, polka dots and flowers.” The silk flowers on Midge’s hat were also hand-painted, and it is still burned in my brain all these years later.

Sitting Outfits and Ice Skating at 30 Rock

Sometimes Midge has a fashion emergency, and she finds inspiration in an unlikely source. For example, her manager Susie (Alex Borstein), puts together the striking red ensemble for her first day as a writer on The Gordon Ford Show. In previous seasons, Zakowska has drawn on icons like Hepburn and Grace Kelly—and scoured vintage French Vogues. As the show moved into the early ‘60s, for Midge’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza work attire, she looked to young Brigitte Bardot and even recreated some of her coats. Midge’s commute also informed this get-up as Zakowska “knew that Amy wanted something in the subway to really pop.” The designer wanted to make a sailor hat out of red suede, and she imagined Midge as a “red sailor going to work.” Midge’s “sitting outfit” includes a plaid skirt that moves and swirls so “she became a scenic element when she was running through the subway.”

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Philippe Antonello/Prime Video

The eye-catching attire is meant to “be a little shocking to the people she was going to see at work; it should be a little bit absurd.” It also stands out among the previously all-male writers’ room where the clothes ranged from slate gray to blue-gray.” Even when Midge wears more muted tones, “she absolutely stood out in a slightly good and an inappropriate way.”

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Philippe Antonello/Prime Video

When The Gordon Ford Show hits the No. 1 late-night talk show spot, the entire office has an impromptu celebration on the ice skating rink at 30 Rock. “It was fantastic to film there. I remember skating there when I was five years old,” says New Yorker Zakowska. Midge is in workwear, combining different blue plaid fabrics (“which was a little bit daring”). The underlayer is a very deep pink, which speaks to how Zakowska uses layering underneath the office looks and incorporates a Midge signature shade. “I was always trying to indicate an undercurrent, but yet a cute sporty feeling. It had to feel a bit sporty on the ice.”

Working with Rachel Brosnahan

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Nicole Rivelli

Whether channeling a red sailor going to work, wearing a sea-worthy frock, or any other scenario, Borsnahan and Zakowska were “always on the same page.” In fact, the final fittings “had a gravitas behind it and weight because these are the last few chances we have to communicate Midge Maisel.”

When asked what she would miss the most, Zakowska answered, “The fittings with Rachel.” Since wrapping Mrs. Maisel, she has done New York, New York on Broadway and started prep on Etoile, but “there’s something very special about our interaction,” Zakowska continues. “In a way, the two of us were simultaneously living that character and creation of the costumes in those fittings, and the passing of the energy there.”

Zakowska observes that Brosnahan is “exceptionally good at working with a costume,” which speaks volumes considering how much Midge’s closet is part of the Mrs. Maisel fabric. “I think for such a long period of time—for over five seasons—to engage in this heightened clothing experience,” says Zakowska, “I think that was pretty special.”

Headshot of Emma Fraser

Emma Fraser is a freelance culture writer with a focus on TV, movies, and costume design. You can find her talking about all of these things on Twitter.





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