Colorful collared tapered jackets over pencil and A-line skirts, accented with bows and buttons, with a pillow box hat to top it all off. That fashion ensemble has become the signature look for the women of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Season 4 premieres on Friday and finds Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) and company sporting ’50s couture and inching into the ’60s with help from Costume Designer Donna Zakowska.
The show’s colors and textures are even bolder this season, inspired by a combination of Zakowska’s background in period costume design and designing for the Big Apple Circus, where she dressed clowns and masters of ceremony for nine years. You can clearly see these influences in an orange, yellow and white-striped dress worn by the character Rose Weissman (Marin Hinkle) in the opening episode of season four “Rumble on the Wonder Wheel,” which takes place in Coney Island.
Zakowska is an award-winning designer whose costumes for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel earned her an Emmy Award in 2019 for Outstanding Period Costumes. She had previously won an Emmy for her work on the HBO miniseries John Adams, for which she was also honored by the Costume Designer’s Guild. And if that is not enough to make a crinoline skirt spin, two costumes she created for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s first season are in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Below The Line spoke with Zakowska about how she first found herself involved with Mrs. Maisel and how her initial designs have grown and changed over the years to complement its changing characters, whose various looks are completed by a memorable assortment of buttons, bows, and hats. The costume designer also explains her own emotional relationship with color, and how Midge’s color palette has evolved along with her character.
Below The Line: Take me back to the very beginning. What was the very first directive that you were told to keep in mind while designing the series?
Donna Zakowska: It started out with both myself, ([creators] Amy [Sherman-Palladino], and Dan [Palladino] knowing that we wanted to really create this New York environment to really add a sort of richness to it. To have a sense of comedy, make it realistic and credible but always have that little bit of a sort of more magical edge. It was really combining all those elements and trying to get all that working together.
BTL: What was your initial input for the designs?
Zakowska: I became very involved with “what is the first color?” The whole thing was her rosy world, the sort of world of housewife or mother where everything seemed like it was perfect. That sort of led me to the beginning of what I call “the pink syndrome.” Inevitably one goes back to pink. That was the emotional, natural color that I used for her emotional landscape throughout the series. The color pops in and out and always sort of began to mean something and then that began to develop into sort of a symbolism for me with the color.
BTL: It’s very evident in Season 4 how the world of this show has evolved in terms of color, which is really valued here. Where does your penchant for color come from?
Zakowska: I was trained as a painter. I went to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris so color has always played a very big part of my life and I have a very sort of emotional relationship with color. The key thing was that I was allowed to work that way to create the series that way. There is a signature about it where I say in my brain, “this is very Midge Maisel.” I think the use of color and the research from a lot of French Vogue. Then taking the color and blowing it up.
BTL: Did you work closely with the Production Designer, because it looks like your colors also match the scenes.
Zakowska: That’s like one of the big jokes in Mrs. Maisel about Bill Groom and I. We have a great relationship but we never talk. He loves that. It just comes out right. We do have a very similar sensibility color-wise and even without talking about it we get to that moment with the costume in the room, “I guess we did it again.” The synchronicity is instinctual. We feel the same vibrational impact from the color.
BTL: How did your work with the Big Apple Circus influence your designs?
Zakowska: It influenced me without question because there’s a lot of rigging involved. The first work I ever did was with the circus. I have a love of [the] circus. I used to go to Paris and visit the Cirque d’Hiver and was very involved with circus performers. So when we did the strip club (“Billy Jones and The Orgy Lamps”) it really affects that background with clothing that can be removed in a second, rigging. That definitely had a very circus feeling for me. That was great going back to that circus feeling.
BTL: In the first episode, “Rumble on the Wonder Wheel,” the costume worn by Marin Hinkle as Rose Weissman looks like something a clown might have worn. Is that fair to say?
Zakowska: It’s true. There’s something about Coney Island, and of course, growing up in New York. I love those strange stripes and then the red Pulcinella hat. I always feel to a degree, especially when I’m doing comedy, that I’m designing clowns on some level. I mean that in the most positive sense of the word in the way that Fellini said that the greatest performers are clowns because they have that empathy and tragedy and yet comedy at the same moment. In a way, that a little bit epitomizes Mrs. Maisel and how I sort of approached it, actually.
BTL: How did you approach your designs for Season 4?
Zakowska: On some level, it was natural, and on another level, the directive from myself to myself was that I wanted to push into ’60, ’61. This is a very transitional period. It’s a period where you still see the remnants of the late ’50s, but then you begin to see the ’60s leaking in. I was very excited by that. They don’t normally deal with those two-and-a-half years where clothing transitions. So it was trying to transition, but Amy and Dan not wanting it to be so extreme so that you’re suddenly in ’60s pop-art Pierre Cardin clothing. So it was finding that fine and subtle line of slightly shifting out of the ’50s. That was the great interest of Season 4 for me.
BTL: It looks like you’re having a lot of fun with loungewear this season as well.
Zakowska: Especially in the beginning, I wanted to create a sort of pajama for her (Mrs. Maisel) when she’s running around the park, which was like a strange flowered jumpsuit. I found this one piece of research to give us something a little bit more unique. There seemed to be quite a few scenes where I really had to build the underwear for her. Those were not vintage pieces. They were built for her. In fact, one piece under the white suit, we printed the fabric and actually built that undergarment. There were a few more scenes than normal that we had a lot more building of undergarments that had some importance, like her scene jumping out of the cab. Lingerie is very, very hard to build.
BTL: How many of the costumes are sourced and how many are built?
Zakowska: Every principle, I’d say 95 percent. Every hat on every principle — not the shoes and the handbags — but all of the clothing is designed and built. We may do some building for day players and then the extras tend to be a little bit more sourced. We literally had close to 9,000 extras in Season 4 so you have to source it. I really [deal] with all the principal clothing. You never find the clothing that fits the way you want it to fit. You may find a beautiful piece but it’s so important the fit of the garment that you can’t really achieve that with vintage pieces as much. The hats are hard because there are a lot of wigs involved, or hairpieces. Very rarely can it fit anyone’s head. I work a lot with Lynn Mackey, who is a hat designer. Every hat is like a little sculpture that has to happen. There’s also a lot of eccentricity in period hats with each decade having its own. The hat determines the whole silhouette, really.
BTL: How long does it take for you to put the costumes together?
Zakowska: I don’t get scripts until the very end. I actually start designing in my thoughts about what could happen, what would happen, should this happen, and I start building the wardrobe. If I were to wait for the final it just wouldn’t happen. There are pieces, at least in the first three episodes, that I can place and move around. There’s always that 15 percent that you don’t expect but I have to do it in advance. I always use it as an opportunity for something that I’ve been seduced by and see how it all fits together.
BTL: How does Rachel Brosnahan’s figure lend itself to the style of the costumes?
Zakowska: She’s actually perfect for the period because she’s sort of sexy and curvaceous and she still has a very feminine edge to her body. It really does lend itself to this period. She’s not Twiggy. There’s much more volume and sensuality to her figure.
BTL: Can you pick some of your favorites for this season?
Zakowska: I love the theater look when they all go to the opera. Marin [Hinkle] is in sort of a crazy green dress and the hats. I also got to work with the shape and a coat which was very different than we’ve ever seen before. There’s a beautiful black dress which has these incredible blue bows on the shoulder. For me, my favorites are the simple ones that are beautiful pieces of fabric molded in some way with an accent. We also played a lot more with sort of a bustle, an upper slip or level to the garment that makes it feel a little more 18th century which happened late ’59 beginning to drift to ’61. That was a lot of fun.
BTL: What influenced a lot of the big bows and buttons?
Zakowska: In a lot of ways, I’ve been influenced by Dior, because when you look at his clothing, sometimes it’s the most simple shape, the most beautiful piece of fabric, but then there’s some button or bows. There’s restraint, but really caring about the silhouette and the shape of the garment. It’s influenced me in this period in particular and I love that approach to it.
BTL: Speaking of period pieces, you have two costumes in the Smithsonian. That must’ve felt incredible.
Zakowska: It’s so great and so exciting. Going to the Smithsonian and seeing Muhammad Ali’s boxing shorts and the Lone Ranger mask. I was blown away. It’s the initial black dress and the pink coat with the nightgown. It was the two bookends of the pilot in the beginning of the series. In a lot of ways, that established the iconic type of image that we were going to create for Midge Maisel.
BTL: What has changed the most in Season 4 in terms of dressing the characters and portraying their emotional journeys?
Zakowska: Once you start the journey you just stay on the train and keep moving. Each season is always mysterious to me before I start doing it. I think there’s a little bit more of the characters defining themselves more with their clothes. I think they’re all going through a little bit more, in terms of Abe, becoming a more bohemian type. I think that [with] Midge, there’s a little bit of trying to be more professional in terms of her silhouette and moving out of folly. But there’s always going to be a lot of bows.
Season 4 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.