Costume designer Donna Zakowska sketched more than 50 looks for Rachel Brosnahan’s character Miriam “Midge” Maisel for season 4. PHOTO COURTESY OF DONNA ZAKOWSKA
EMMY AWARD-WINNING COSTUME DESIGNER DONNA ZAKOWSKA TALKS CAREER, INSPIRATION AND HOW EXACTLY SHE MAKES MRS. MAISEL LOOK TRULY MARVELOUS.
From an early age, costume designer Donna Zakowska immersed herself in art and painting. She studied theater design at Yale, where she learned about costuming. From there, she helped assist on Woody Allen films. Paired with her art background, her career as a costume designer came together. Zakowska is a self-described storyteller through color. “I’m still seduced by color,” she says. “Every time you create a new color or find a new fabric that somehow is in a certain tone, I become very excited by it.”
Zakowska used vintage photographs and issues of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar from the late 1950s as design inspiration PHOTO COURTESY OF: DONNA ZAKOWSKA
For Amazon Prime Video’s hit comedy series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Zakowska drew from her New York roots and was inspired by depicting the glamour from the 1950s and early ’60s fashion. “Those years from 1956 to 1960 were absolutely the height of women’s clothing and couture,” she says about the research she uncovered from that time period. “It’s an amazing period—I really focused on it in a way that I never had before.” The designer researched issues of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar from that five-year period in particular, as well as issues of Bloom magazine that portrayed clothing alongside plants and nature. “There’s so much use of color—[it’s] really quite exciting,” she says of the historical moment. In combining late-’50s New York with the fashion from the time, she created the look for the beloved character Miriam “Midge” Maisel, the protagonist of the award-winning series, played by Rachel Brosnahan.
With three seasons down, Zakowska knew where she wanted to take Midge for the fourth installment. As a result, she made more than 50 dresses for Midge alone. “Some episodes she would have 10 to 13 changes, and it’s the sort of show where you don’t repeat that much,” she explains. Season 4 was a bit of a departure for Midge’s character, who started working as a standup comedian in a strip joint. “[We took] the basic formula we started with at the end of season 1, which was the black dress with the pearls, still keeping to that uniform, but trying to add more fanciful elements, like a deepred dress with all those loops of velvet and silk on the bottom,” she says. “So, I would basically mix color into the black dress because I felt I had to open up the power of it. And usually those elements would correspond to being in the strip club, or being in a different environment, but always going with that very deep and dark [palette].” Offstage, Midge would dress in more color. “I started really hitting ’60 to ’61 in terms of the look—a few bucket hats, which are a little bit more dramatic,” Zakowska adds. “I had to sort of keep to the image, but I also wanted to try to push it and do it in a subtle way because the early ’60s to 1962 is very transitional.”
Zakowska in her studio. PHOTO COURTESY OF: CHRISTOPHER SAUNDERS/PRIME VIDEO
She compares the transitional fashion period to two worlds colliding. “When things begin to change, you have this usually two-year period, which is very exciting, and not typical of what people think of the period,” she explains. That fascination led her to using transitional elements from the ’50s to keep the looks interesting.
As part of the job, Zakowska had to also dress the 8,000 to 9,000 extras, as well as Midge’s mother, Rose Weissman (played by Marin Elizabeth Hinkle), out of her personal shop. She sought out the help of individuals with costume shops in New York City. “I think it’s important, especially during the whole pandemic era, to help keep businesses alive,” she says of her decision to give work to other NYC tailors when possible.
Miriam Maisel wore brighter colors offstage, as opposed to the darker dresses she performed stand-up comedy in PHOTO COURTESY OF: PRIME VIDEO
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, she also kept herself busy writing a book, Madly Marvelous: The Costumes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, where the costume designer discusses her thoughtful use of the color pink, growing up in a household of Italian women who were always decorating rooms, and her love of enhancing reality.
As for what’s next, Zakowska is looking forward to more Maisel and a new challenge. “I want to… shed a light on a moment in time,” she says. “That would be… the most interesting thing for my next project.”