Nearly five years have passed since Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) first made sartorial waves in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel pilot. Since Midge’s first unplanned foray into the world of standup comedy, her personal and professional lives have hit some bumps, but one constant has been a closet packed with dazzling dresses and the ability to turn her housewife roots into a stage persona — complete with an Audrey Hepburn inspired black frock and pearls.
Across three seasons Midge’s fashion journey has taken her to Paris, the Catskills, and Miami’s luxurious Fontainebleau hotel. Costume designer Donna Zakowska planted Midge’s pink seeds early on with an attention-grabbing pink swing coat and the Emmy-winner returns for Season 4. The first two episodes, released Friday, pick up in the aftermath of Midge getting dumped from Shy Baldwin’s (LeRoy McClain) European tour. Now the New York-based stand-up comic is faced with new challenges as she contemplates her next step while factoring in the huge financial commitment she made to buy her old Upper West Side apartment back.
Pivotal moments in Midge’s color story often include off-white garments, whether it's the time she bailed Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) out of prison at the end of the pilot or the Season 2 finale when another transition takes place. “Each instance signaling a new blank page, a new direction,” is how Zakowska describes this motif in Madly Marvelous (the definitive costume guide for any Maisel fan), and this moment is no different. Instead of making a fresh start by choice, Midge is left humiliated and without a job, and her fresh 1960s get-up is suddenly all wrong.
Midge is still wearing the brand new ivory suit complete with a bucket hat when we rejoin her mid-fury. The glamorous ensemble matches the glam jet-set image of air travel at the time, not a taxi ride back to Manhattan. What was meant to be a triumphant experience has soured and she reacts to this setback by throwing her hat and jacket out of the cab window. Midge is no stranger to meltdowns in her underwear but instead of the Gaslight in the pilot, she's now screaming in her lingerie at the side of the road. When the mist clears, she gathers her clothes and tries to get the fresh stains out (“I just got this outfit”). After all, this is no time to blame fashion for this misfortune.
It's notable that as we begin the show's fourth (and penultimate) season, there are multiple callbacks to Midge’s standup origins, including the impromptu sleepover at the Gaslight. Pajama-wise, it doesn’t go unnoticed that she picks a pink floral playsuit; after losing the huge Shy Baldwin gig, this anchor shade makes her seem less stranded. Borrowing Susie’s (Alex Borstein) signature motorcycle jacket and mariners cap is necessary for the pocket contents gag at the Washington Square Park newsstand the following morning, but it also speaks to Midge’s comfort with both her manager and in stepping out in public looking like this. Obviously, she wouldn’t do this in her own neighborhood but in the Village, anything goes.
Even in crisis, Midge is perfectly coordinated — right down to the aubergine pumps that match the band on her summer hat and the bottom of her dress. The Coney Island visit culminates with the Wonder Wheel-set argument of the episode title, which is how Midge ends up spilling the news of her unemployment and recent apartment acquisition to her parents. The unconventional setting for this kind of conversation is par for the Amy Sherman-Palladino course, and unlike Midge’s sleepover attire this one presents an image of stability amid the chaos. The words spilling out of their daughter’s mouth are not reassuring, but at least her outfit implies Midge is keeping it together one bow at a time.
It's safe to say that Midge and Joel’s (Michael Zegen) parents are like chalk and cheese in how they conduct themselves and what they wear. While she is absent from this less than happy family snap, Joel’s mother Shirley (Caroline Aaron) is decked out in orange polka dots that clash with Rose’s (Marin Hinkle) stripes. The matriarch outfits are in the same color family, so while they will never be besties, the two couples have found a semblance of understanding during recent cohabitation. Meanwhile, the men and boys are working the blue and beige palettes with a heavy dose of plaid and only Joel is lacking any patter, a reflection of his age and social status.
The Stage Deli is familiar territory and home to many Midge and Susie strategizing sessions. Midge is furious that she's been called a “giggle girl” by a critic who speculates she has slept her way to the top. While the chemistry between Midge and Lenny is through the roof, the pair haven’t crossed that line yet and this hit job is nothing but gossip and lies. The large Kelly green buttons on her blue skirt suit match her top and this look is very much business as usual. Rather than suggest envy or money, Zakowska uses green to symbolize Midge’s fearlessness, apropos since the performer has decided she only wants to do gigs that best represent who she is.
“Rumble on the Wonder Wheel” is bookended by Midge in her element performing in the familiar Gaslight Cafe. Rather than the black signature dress and pearls — which Zakowska has called Midge’s “limelight” look — she opts for a relaxed beatnik aesthetic in a black sweater with a flash of red on the neckline. The pop of color matches her lipstick and nails, which reflect her attention to detail even in casual attire. Black capri pants and ballet flats are the standard when assimilating downtown, and Midge looks at home in this setting. When she walks out into the summer Manhattan night amid applause, the burgundy trench is indicative the changing silhouette of the era. It also shows a transition from the pink swing coat of her past to a woman still finding her footing in the entertainment world. Sure, her life hasn’t followed the path she set on but there's satisfaction in her independence.
Midge might be in a financial hole, but the opening sequence of “Billy Jones and the Orgy Lamps” is a quick reminder of her negotiating skills. As she makes her way around the neighborhood reopening her tabs (and extending them), Midge preaches the power of marketing to each store owner. Here, she is selling the perfect housewife image in a blush pink bow dress worn with a blue coat, and pillbox hat. It is Midge at her most Upper West Side, and she knows how to market herself. Unfortunately, because there is no longer a Mr. Maisel, she can’t get the credit she requires for the milk delivery. Fashion, it seeems, is no match for rigid patriarchal systems.
Blue is a dominant shade across the first two episodes, and it points to the somewhat off-kilter atmosphere of Midge’s return to her old apartment. She doesn’t want the place to look as it did when she was married to Joel because this is meant to be a fresh start, but the arrival of her parents as new roommates adds to the inescapable feeling that they've entered a time warp. It is a world the audience (and Midge) recognizes but it has been flipped on its axis much like an episode of Abe’s (Tony Shalhoub) beloved Twilight Zone. The only difference is Midge knows exactly where she is. While it isn’t quite the melancholic shades she has worn in the past, the dreamy matching candy blue nightwear fails to make up for her lack of milk — or money.
“It’s never just the hat,” yells Susie when Midge claims she is grabbing a single accessory before venturing out for the night. Cut to Midge in a whole new outfit as she's switched the green sleeveless top (with a rose applique) and skirt set for a sherbert sleeveless dress and matching coat. Midge had no idea they were heading for a comedy club (she prefers the idea of clams at Howard Johnson’s) so this is very much a look that she threw on that could work in an array of scenarios. To the contemporary eye, Midge’s hat (with a matching pink bow) looks more like something you would use in the shower, but it fits her penchant for statement headwear. This is not a “limelight” dress or something she would wear to perform at the Gaslight, but pink is her confidence shade, and she certainly exudes it in the brief time she spends on stage ripping Billy’s (Kavin Bartini) set to shreds.
After Midge has been thrown out and barred from this venue she accidentally lands herself in jail (again) thanks to offering a good time for a few dollars. This look features twice because it ticks several Mrs. Maisel boxes and it is a pilot callback to the Sak’s pink coat Midge had taken off in the moments before she was arrested for the first time. That was also the first time she ever did standup and formed a bond with Susie (and Lenny) and it was here that despair fueled her future career. Now, when she's been released from jail at the end of “Billy Jones and the Orgy Lamps,” the comic finds another spark and a potential new home for an authentic act surrounded by showgirls and a pink lighting scheme to match her signature shade.
The first two episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's eight-episode fourth season are now streaming on Amazon Prime. New episodes drop Fridays through March 11.
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Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.