After winning her first Emmy a decade ago for HBO miniseries John Adams, costume designer Donna Zakowska is once again reaping the benefits of intricate period work, with Amazon comedy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
For Amy Sherman-Palladino’s acclaimed series, following an extraordinary housewife turned comedienne, Zakowska sought to capture the sartorial spirit of 1958 New York City. While tracking the fashion of a dynamic, vibrant time in the history of the East Coast cultural hub—designing her principal characters’ clothing from scratch—the costume designer confronted a protagonist in constant motion and visual evolution.
Requiring further thought was the show’s tone and the sometimes-heightened space it occupied, teetering on the edge of “magical reality.” Costuming “a massive amount of people” for Mrs. Maisel, with attention paid to every little detail, Zakowska would find her footing with the series by following her typical artistic inclinations—thinking deeply about color.
What made The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel a project you couldn’t pass up?
When I saw the scripts, I thought they were great. I love the fact that we’re dealing with a part of New York that we don’t see very often—and also, the idea of a female character that transitions from very classic domestic life and then finds herself running rogue on a path of adventure, the adventure of her life. I knew that that would lead to a lot of development, in terms of choices for clothes, and it’s a great period. Being a New Yorker, I just loved the idea of dealing with that period.
Very early on in your career, as an assistant costume designer, you explored New York in various films with Woody Allen. Did embarking on Mrs. Maisel feel like a full-circle moment, in your examinations of this place?
I think in a strange way, it’s a variation on where I began in costuming, as an assistant on Woody Allen films—and it did feel that way to me. The thing that’s great about it is that it was a new version of the type of scripts that had attracted me to those Woody Allen films. That’s really where I began my career, and the development of interesting characters.
It’s funny, I haven’t done massive amounts of [comedies], but I began doing costuming in a comic genre—what I call comic drama, which is what we’re working with now. It is a drama, but there is this comedy of life, so it absolutely went back in my mind to the very early days when I assisted on those Woody Allen films—all of those strange characters that come into scenes, and the little, personal interactions that made the script interesting. So it is a little bit of a full circle. You don’t really have that many opportunities to work on films about New York, so that was the other part of the completion of that circle.
What sources of visual inspiration did you turn to, setting out on this series?
Obviously, I used a lot of magazines and books, a lot of historical research, [looking at] the art scene at the time, the West Village, the intersection of European culture with American culture. That’s why a lot of times I even went to a lot of French Vogue; I felt it was a little bit like a precursor of the things I could do for Midge’s wardrobe. So it was really a combination of fashion magazines and definitely a lot of photography, like Saul Leiter. I like that beautiful use of color; the way color plays with the foreground, the background, the transparency. I had looked at that quite a bit, and was quite influenced by that.
How would you define the fundamentals of fashion in Midge’s era? What were the driving influences behind the looks we see?
I think in a way, it’s the period where couture was really influencing fashion in women’s clothing. This is the period of Dior and Balenciaga, all of these major people, and I think New York was close enough to Europe that there was sort of a trickle-down of a higher fashion.
Then also, it’s right after the war. So you have a lot of Europeans coming to America. You had the painting movements—Jackson Pollock, all of these other painters. It was really an incredible cross-section, and I think all of these things were influencing New York culture at that time—a heightened awareness of jazz, heightened awareness of painting, and then the influence of couture in fashion.
When you look at the ‘50s in the Midwest or the West Coast, it’s very different. [European standards of fashion] really hadn’t spread yet. In New York, you’d see all these incredible photographers—Norman Parkinson and Irving Penn. So people were seeing these images, and I think it was suddenly raising the cultural standard of America—in contrast to the moment now. [laughs] I hate to throw in these political jokes, but every day, one thinks about it. But I think people were a little bit heightened. They’d gone through the war, and they were looking for a sort of visual stimulation and excitement.
Why was it important to take a bespoke approach with the costumes of your principal characters?
The thing I’d say about the period is, it is a very sculptural period, and there was also much more custom clothing. We might say it was in a certain socioeconomic group, but not completely, because there were many milliners in New York City. There were many stores where people had the capacity to buy materials—fabrics and trims. I think that sort of specialness that people achieved more easily is why building them became very important.
I also was very inspired by the palette. I worked with heightened colors, but they always came from actual research. I was looking at period research and discovered that it was very exciting when people were dealing with color. So I really wanted to do that, also. I began my whole career, in a certain way, from childhood, painting and going to art school. So I’m very stimulated by the use of color, and color is a sort of musical rhythm for the script.
It’s funny, [the series] isn’t a musical, but there’s an edge; we practically could be a musical. When that’s the case, then your sense of rhythm and the way you take in color becomes very important—and for me, to control the color the way I wanted to, you absolutely had to build it. I was never going to find that exact pink that I loved or that amazing blue. We spent a lot of time looking at fabrics, and I’m still doing that in every moment, really, just trying to find these beautiful color compositions.
How did you figure out your looks for Midge and the arc of her costuming over the course of Season 1?
We began with what I’d consider a heightened, but very pleasant color range. The pink became beyond signature for her; as I started going along from the very beginning, I don’t know why I felt like that was the color. But that was the color it had to be.
Then, as I started expanding, and she started moving from Uptown to Downtown, I began to do simple, little color sketches or Pantone things. In the first season, we had a lot more time, and sometimes I would literally chart the colors from the beginning to the end, and try to imagine the way they’re complementing each other and appearing.
As she began to develop, it wasn’t just the color, but also the silhouette change, and introducing the black, to ending with the black dress, being more of her triumphant strength, in a way. So a lot of times the colors and the choices came from what I thought was the emotional content of the scene. You’re really making a connection between color and emotional content.
Was there a specific arc in terms of the kinds of fabrics she was wearing?
Yeah, I think the arc was her loosening up as a character. The one thing about Midge’s arc is that she is who she is. Amy said to me, “She’s a person who remains very in control of her identity.” So it’s an arc, but not quite. It’s more of a blooming. I see it more like a flower blooming, in a way, but always at the essence, you know who Midge is, in her love of details in her persona.
There’s an incredible constancy about it, and that’s what’s strong about the character, in spite of the events that are happening. I remember Amy said to me, “She’ll never look depressed. Let’s not even think about that.” I think that’s true of many people in the ‘50s and ‘60s; women had that sense of, “Well, you carry on.” I think she is that type of character.
What was it like working on scenes set in Moishe’s clothing factory? Was that a set created for the show?
It’s funny, that is an actual shop that exists in Brooklyn. When I designed The Iceman with Michael Shannon, I actually had his suits built there, six years ago or whatever it was. But that place actually exists. There wasn’t as much set dressing as you might think there.
The essence of New York really is the whole world of the Garment District. It always amazed me how, in the middle of crazy chaos, all those designer clothes came out of that world—[by way of] immigrants who had great skill and talent, creating in rather simple conditions.
What was your thinking in designing clothing for an older generation—for Midge’s parents, specifically? What kind of contrast were you setting up with the looks of the younger generation?
There is a little bit of a throwback in the way they dressed to their past, to what their history is. Like the fact that I use so much brown with Abe’s clothing: I don’t use brown very much, but that really was a throwback to the Anglo fabrics and Anglo type of garment that is associated with a university.
Rose, the mother, has changed drastically, but you won’t know that until you see Season 2. Rose had a very Upper East Side, controlled, practically Jackie O look at the beginning, and we’ll see that there’s a conflict in that. But it’s about people at that point. They have their identity, and it’s something that doesn’t change. The clothes don’t change as much, because they’re pretty much set; they know who they are and what they’re doing. That’s really the difference.
Is there a costume you’re most proud of with your work on the series thus far?
It’s sort of hard to say. I love all of those B. Altman dresses. I think that was a tricky thing, to try to create working dresses that still had the charm of the character. I always like when there’s a little bit of duality in the garment, so those were for me very interesting to do.