Underneath It All With “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Congratulations to Rachel Brosnahan for her second win as Best Actress in a TV Musical or Comedy series at the Golden Globes last night! In case you live under a rock like I apparently do, she plays the titular role in my latest bit of video escapism. Although I may have arrived a bit unfashionably late as a devotee to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” party (the second season was released December 5 on Amazon Prime Video) I was able to make up for lost time on a two-day binge watch of the Emmy award winning show. I discovered this delightful diversion or I should say it was recommended as must see viewing immediately after my husband did his “stand-up” routine at a family event– everyone knows that it is I who is the real wit behind the shy retiring façade. Wink face!

From the first episode in which 26 year-old Upper West Side Jewish housewife and mother Miriam (Midge) Maisel keeps a notebook of funny thoughts and one-liners while watching her husband Joel’s late-night comedic efforts (she later comes to realize his material is a “borrowed” Bob Newhart routine), it’s clear that she’s the one who should be holding the mic. Ever the supportive spouse she routinely secures a preferred time slot for Joel at the Greenwich Village joint Gaslight Café with a deftly placed homemade brisket. Midge is the perfect 1950’s wife – taking her measurements every day and never letting her husband see her without makeup – rising after he falls asleep to pin curl her hair and cold cream her face and again before he awakens in to reapply makeup and brush out her hair. All while wearing a gorgeous peignoir set! How does he repay her? By leaving her for his 21-year-old “dumb as a Brillo pad” secretary. As Joel begins to pack a tiny powder blue valise Midge yells “That’s my suitcase! You’re leaving me with my suitcase?”

This show hits the high watermark on so many levels – the writing, the story, the acting, the late 1950’s fashion – even the music (lots of Peggy Lee), all works for me. Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino of “Gilmore Girls” and “Bunheads” fame has done it again with an enhanced version of the past – this time inspired by her father who was a comic during this era. How this show makes me long for the candy-colored world of 1950’s era Manhattan — the buildings, the automobiles, the women extras walking around in beautiful brightly colored clothes including hats, gloves, swing coats, matching bags and shoes — not an athleisure outfit anywhere! If I could I’d shed my skinny jeans in a hot minute and time travel back into this idealized image.

Or would !? Costume Designer Donna Zakowska and Rachel Brosnahan who plays Midge have both remarked on the need for exacting undergarments including heavy corseting, restrictive bras and petticoats to make these period costumes fit. We’re not talking Spanx here – more like the serious control of an old-school girdle. “It’s like really the end of the era of the corset…that’s something you really can’t avoid. We can’t all have period bras but we worked with Playtex and they had a certain bra they created for us that we used. And so you do to a degree have to sort of pull women in, you know, bring the bust up…there’s no way around it, otherwise we couldn’t get people into those dresses,” Zakowska said in an interview with Associated Press.

Apropos to the need for restricting and reshaping foundations — the show’s recurrent line uttered by Midge’s manager Susie Myerson (played by Alex Borstein) is a sort of “Break a leg” equivalent. Offered as a salute as Midge is about to go on stage is the phrase “Tits up!” Colloquially this phrase also means that something is broken and has died on its back as in its gone “belly up.” I’d also heard the phrase attributed to Roger Ailes who, in his rule at Fox News reportedly demanded that female anchors have their “Hair back, tits up.” In a scene in which the estranged Midge and Joel sleep together she apologizes for not having unhooked every other hook on her long line bra the way she (unbeknownst to him) used to. “What? Did you think I’m going to get bored and go make a sandwich or something?” he asks. Later he marvels at the red marks still left on her back from the contraption wondering aloud how long it takes for them to disappear – something he apparently never took notice of when they were living together.

The fashion moments just keep on coming whether the action takes place uptown, downtown, onstage (Midge takes to wearing more simple Joan Rivers inspired black cocktail dresses for performances), or at the frequent comic and agent hangout Stage Deli. During the second season the outfits get more haute in Paris; brightly colored print sundresses and shorts suits are explored in the Catskills; neck bows are big and in order for her job at the B. Altman cosmetics counter where Revlon’s a coveted brand. Even the iconic lipstick shade “Cherries in the Snow” gets a call out. Midge, who’s never held a job before, perseveres as an unquestioning loyal employee bordering on indentured servant as she is “demoted” for various conduct infractions being ushered from the sales floor to the switchboard dungeon or even the inglorious coat check room where coats are thrown at her Miranda Priestly-style. This is despite the fact that she is the top makeup salesperson and beloved by all her co-workers. Heck, she can even do an expert makeover blindfolded – who says that’s not a talent?

I actually noticed a few outfit repeats in her working attire which helps make the show slightly more realistic. She seems relatable (and comic) while on a club circuit comedy tour of D.C., and Pennsylvania — while waiting forever to go onstage she has a few wardrobe issues including a mustard stain down the whole front of her dress. Back in NYC she is forced to perform in her grungy traveling outfit after getting stuck in Lincoln Tunnel traffic. (Midge: “We’re going to die in this tunnel.” Susie: “Good, that’ll give me something to look forward to.”) They actually cheer when they cross the line demarcating New York from New Jersey which I have to admit I’ve done many times.

Right: Midge’s mother played by Marin Hinkle

Other cast members such as Midge’s mother Rose Weissman (Marin Hinkle) also has some great fashion advice (“That dress needs pearls”) as Midge famously raids her closet. When her husband Abe (Tony Shalhoub) an esteemed math professor at Columbia University realizes that his wife is “missing” for a few days, Midge opens Rose’s empty closet in horror. “Didn’t you notice that all her clothes are gone?” asks Midge. “You’re in there a lot more than I am,” he responds. Rose, feeling unappreciated at home, has “run away” to Paris where she was once a student so Abe and Midge (who doesn’t speak any French despite Rose being fluent) fly over to bring her back. Rose goes for a “haute bohemian” vibe while Midge dresses in Parisian colors and ogles women’s hats as they pass by. Fun fact: Brosnahan is a niece of the late fashion designer Kate Spade who shared a similar aesthetic or inspiration with late 1950’s style.

Rose’s (apparently well-worn) costume for Polynesian theme night at Steiner’s Resort in the Catskills is also worth noting although she says it will need to be replaced for the following year. Cue up the tasteless getting lei’d jokes courtesy of Joel’s father Moishe Maisel (Kevin Pollak) causing Abe to sit this event out. Be sure to check out his Jack Lalanne-style romper that he “secretly” wears to do his morning calisthenics at the resort – there’s a whole episode devoted to it in the second season. The only “unfashionable” main character is Susie who dresses “like a 12-year-old boy,” according to Borstein.

As award season begins I’ll give a hearty “Tits up!” to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” Now the long wait for Season 3 begins.

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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