At first glance, Katie Licata’s Instagram account could be confused with an enthusiastic tribute to Rachel Brosnahan as Midge from The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Look a little closer, and you realize you’re seeing Licata, an Atlanta preschool teacher, channel the character in brightly colored vintage skirts, pastel headscarves and perfectly sculpted brunette waves.
Licata’s far from alone. Hashtags like #mrsmaisel and #mrsmaiselstyle pull up numerous photos of women in silk taffeta dresses, high-waisted swimsuits and red swing coats unleashing their inner Midge. In captions for a sewing challenge tagged #madelikemaisel, they share details of the fabrics and patterns they used for their homemade creations and tips for the perfect garment construction.
No one’s happier to see these modern-day Midges than Donna Zakowska, lead costume designer for the hit Amazon Prime show about a stylish young 1950s New York housewife who discovers a talent for stand-up comedy and boldly chases her dreams.
“It’s sort of amazing,” Zakowska says over the phone from New York during a break from a long day of filming season 3. “I’m happy that this clothing has somehow found its way into contemporary vocabulary and that there are a lot of young women who are excited about creating this image for themselves. That’s a great compliment when clothing goes beyond just the show or the movie.”
Midge and the rest of the cast may look effortlessly marvelous, but they don’t just roll out of their Upper East Side beds that way. I spoke with three Emmy-nominated members of the show’s creative team — Zakowska; Jerry DeCarlo, head of the hair department; and makeup head Patricia Regan — about what it takes to bring 1950s New York and the show’s colorful characters to life in such vibrant detail.
It starts with research, lots and lots of it.
“Designing looks starts by going through extensive publications, photos and catalogs of the period and the place in which a story is told,” says Regan, who also designed makeup for the shows Girls and Flight of the Conchords. “I study hues and shades of colors of textile, clothing, fashion, wallpaper, furniture, decorative art and flowers … this all gives me my foundation to collaborate with our costume designer and hair designer and actors.”
There’s lots of collaboration involved in the hair design, as well, as DeCarlo and his team talk to the actors in depth about how they view their characters. He shows them thick volumes of historic pictures he’s collated from books, magazines, newspapers and family photo collections, and they analyze the script and discuss how characters can best be expressed through historically accurate hair.
Sometimes, modern hair preferences clash with the realities of the ’50s, leading to negotiations between the performers and DeCarlo, who can tick off endless facts about what drove hairstyles in every decade of the 20th century. Midge’s husband, Joel, isn’t going to look realistic in a man bun, after all, and her mother, Rose, can’t be sporting bangs with blond streaks.
“Often somebody will say, ‘Why don’t you have highlights’ or whatever, and if they didn’t exist, they didn’t exist,” says DeCarlo, who’s currently designing hair for Steven Spielberg’s remake of the musical West Side Story. He traces his interest in tresses back to when he was 10 and cut his dog’s fur.
These days, DeCarlo styles custom wigs so realistic you’d never know those precise shoulder-length curls aren’t Brosnahan’s. While most extras go on the Mrs. Maisel set with their own hair styled for the mid-20th century, many of the principals wear wigs because their hair length and color is too different from the characters they play and daily styling with hot rollers or other heated appliances would damage their locks.
And it’s not just humans who sit in the stylist’s chair.
“Doing Rachel in the morning sometimes she would have her dog in her lap. I have one photograph where I nearly glued the dog’s nose to her face because the dog was sniffing the glue as I’m gluing the wig on her,” DeCarlo says.
All made up and somewhere to go
While the wigs and most costumes on the show are custom made, much of the makeup that dusts the characters’ faces is store-bought, including MAC eyeliner and RMS blush that usually gets blended into a custom shade. The looks on the show see subtle shifts driven by the story and venue — softer and more modern at the Gaslight in the West Village where Midge swears it up on stage, more put together in Midge’s parents’ formal Upper East Side world.
“Rose (Midge’s mother, played by Marin Hinkle) has a keen sense of fashion and is always very polished,” Regan says. “Abe (Midge’s father, played by Tony Shalhoub) is always finely groomed. Midge clearly follows in their footsteps. She has a wonderful sense of style and adjusts her makeup depending on venue and environment. She is always very polished and refined. Susie (Midge’s ambitious, sharp-tongued manager, played by Alex Borstein) is the complete opposite.”
Opposite is an understatement. Where the flawlessly chic Midge always looks like she walked out of a Saks Fifth Avenue dressing room, the rumpled Susie goes around in high-waisted jeans, suspenders, a leather jacket and newsboy cap, at one point in season 2 accessorizing with a toilet plunger. It’s a far more comfortable getup for anyone interested in going as a Maisel character for Halloween, as Zakowska’s tips for looking like Midge (possible to do with pieces purchased online) make clear.
“Buy the underwear,” she says. “You definitely have to get the girdles, get the bras, really tame your body to not look contemporary. Once you’ve got the silhouette, buying vintage would be the thing to do. And it’s really about playing with color and creating an individual strong palette for yourself.”
Connecting to memories
Zakowska, DeCarlo and Regan, who work together closely, are just three members of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel team up for awards at this year’s Emmys, which air Sunday, Sept. 22. Amy Sherman-Palladino’s show is nominated for 20 statues in total.
Season 3 doesn’t yet have a release date. A new promo picture for the season came out last week, but the artists I spoke to stayed mum on what’s to come for the marvelous main character who’s gained such a loyal following.
Zakowska attributes the popularity of the show to the characters, humor and intricately detailed world. But it’s more than that, she thinks.
“For a lot of people, this reminds them of their mothers and their grandmothers,” Zakowska says. “It’s distant but familiar at the same time. It’s something that brings memories to life.”