I am a huge fan of the award-winning Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. In addition to great performances by Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein, Tony Shalhoub, Marin Hinkle, and many others, I get completely lost in the colorful world of 1950s New York and Brosnahan’s Midge decision to forego her life as an upper west side housewife and mother and try her hand at stand-up comedy, something that was quite unusual for a woman during that time period, much less one in Midge’s social sphere. Adding immeasurably to the powerful acting in the series is the exquisite period look of the show, especially Donna Zakowska’s fabulous costume designs. Zakowska, already an Emmy winner for her gorgeous costumes in the John Adams miniseries, has also designed costumes for plays, films, operas, rock concert tours, and even the circus. I spoke to her by phone from the set of the much-anticipated Season 3 of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel which will premiere in December.
Danny Miller: Hi, Donna! I’m so looking forward to the next season of this show that I’m counting the minutes. I wish I could be there with you on set!
Donna Zakowska: We’re actually in the last two weeks of filming but there’s still a lot to do. We’ll be finished in September. Working on the new season has been loads of fun!
I just love the character of Midge and think Rachel Brosnahan has done an incredible job with it. I’m so glad she won an Emmy last year for her performance and am looking for you to snag the Emmy on September 22nd! It’s been fun to see the character of Midge evolve in your designs. Can you talk about how you created her look at the beginning and how you think it’s changed over time?
I did a ton of period research of the period and then combined it with the fact that she is moving into the comedy world. Her transition from a classic upper west side housewife to a successful performer obviously has a big impact on the evolution of her clothes in the series. Whatever she’s wearing, I’m always trying to keep Midge’s indestructible spirit in mind that just forged ahead no matter what was going on in her life. Her style evolution is completely intertwined with her evolution as a character, really.
I love the attention to historical details in her clothes, but would you say her look is a bit heightened from what we might have actually seen on women in her situation back in the day?
Yes, to some extent. But, you know, if you look at the Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines from those years, you will see quite a heightened color sense during that period. I may have pushed it a little bit but a lot of it actually does come from that unique time of the late 1950s and early 60s. Midge’s color palette ultimately became sort of her emotional landscape in her journey as a character.
I find the whole color palette on this series absolutely delicious. It reminds me of my grandfather’s old Kodachrome slides of my family members during those years. My family was kind of similar to the Weissmans (Midge Maisel’s maiden name), and I’m always dazzled by the gorgeous colors and fabrics. Whatever happened to color, why are we all so drab today by comparison?
I know, it’s true! I think there are a lot of reasons. When you look at the vintage dresses from this period, you can’t help but be shocked how beautiful the fabrics and colors and prints are. Along with how intricate the sewing is. But I think when mass production took over the clothing industry, all of that changed.
I loved seeing last season how Rose Weissman’s (Midge’s mother, played by Marin Hinkle) time in Paris influenced her clothes in such a big way. Is that something that will always play a role in that character’s look from here on out?
Yes, I think it will, actually. She started in a Chanel suit with some Claire McCardell sportwear, and then evolved during her time in Paris based on what was in fashion there. In Season 3, I definitely have her in a much more interesting silhouette, a little avant-garde, a little bit more stylized, because once she went to France, that became a part of her. She was evolving as a character and as a woman and her clothes had to reflect that.
And I would say even more so once she decided to return to her family in New York. For me, it felt like even though she made that decision, she desperately wanted to retain some of the independence she felt in Paris, including through her wardrobe.
Yes, that’s a good point.
How about Alex Borstein’s Susie Myerson? She is obviously an extremely different character from Midge and someone with big financial challenges that would impact her wardrobe. How did you design her look?
For Susie I looked into the more androgynous fashion elements that were creeping in during that time. Her look has definitely evolved as well over time but in much more subtle ways and I always had to keep her financial situation in mind. You didn’t want to put her in anything that would have anyone watching think, “Hmm, how could Susie afford that?”
Right, as opposed to Midge, who rarely wears the same thing twice and for whom money seems to be no object.
Yes. With Susie, there might be a new jacket every now and then or new bits of color slipping in. It’s actually been a tricky wardrobe to design but also a lot of fun.
As an outsider, my initial assumption would be that it’s more interesting to work on the women characters, but then I start obsessing on the clothes and fabrics that the men are wearing, too, and how much they also say about the characters. I like seeing how the looks of Abe (Midge’s father, played by Tony Shalhoub) and Joel (Midge’s ex-husband, played by Michael Zegen) are evolving as well.
Yes, there was certainly a lot less variety in men’s clothing in that era compared to women, but I worked very hard at creating their palettes, like different blue and gray tones, the kind of stripes that might be in Joel’s shirts, and other elements that reflect their characters. Abe, for example, started out very much the college professor, but then he was also affected by his time in France with his beret and scarf and leather jacket.
And, of course, his amazing romper when he was in the Catskills that immediately became so iconic and talked-about it could have had its own Twitter account!
(Laughs.) Oh, that was very fun! The cool thing about the scenes in the Catskills was that every character had an opportunity to be a little bit off the charts. Which is how it kind of was when the more affluent New Yorkers would head for the hills every summer. But I was shocked to see all the comments Abe’s romper got! I based that look on old photos of exercise guru Jack LaLanne. It just seemed like something Abe would wear in that setting!
You get to design for all these characters who are a bit over the top and then you also have Lenny Bruce (played by Luke Kirby) as a recurring character. I assume for Lenny you rely more on images of the actual person?
Yes. With Lenny Bruce there’s really no point in trying to make a fashion statement, you know? He was very specific with what he wore and the key is finding the absolutely correct look — the right tan coat and the dark suits that Lenny always had on when he performed.
When you work on a show for this long, do the main actors get so familiar with their characters that they start having a lot more suggestions for what they should wear?
Yes, I think that’s true. I have a very good dialogue with all of the characters, and of course I work with Rachel an enormous amount. Whenever we put an outfit together, or even choose a pair of earrings or whatever, we both use our shared understanding of exactly who Midge is at this stage in her life. When you design for or play a character, you just really have to instinctually understand who that person is. Rachel and I are almost always on the same page.
You could probably get a psychology degree for all the work you’ve had to do getting inside these characters.
Or maybe a psychiatric one at this point! (Laughs.)