The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s secret weapon? Her subversive feminine fashion

There is a delicious subversiveness to the clothing throughout “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” The final stretch, Season 5, which premieres Friday, April 14, on Prime Video, has a new gravitas as the show’s overarching themes are fleshed out, with some look-aheads to decades in the future.

We begin with Miriam “Midge” Maisel, played with panache and pinpoint timing by Rachel Brosnahan, waiting increasingly impatiently on the doorstep of fame. Since she first triumphantly (and drunkenly) arrived on a standup stage the night her husband left her at the beginning of the first season, the Big Break has been her grail. As the showrunners spool that moment out like fishing line, the larger question arises as to what fame will cost Midge and those around her.

Wardrobe plays a critical role in this tale of housewife turned standup comic. The story is set against immaculately crafted, painstakingly detailed period costume and set design. The confectionary clothing allows the women characters to pop against the men in their grey suits and hats of retro New York City; the technicolour exuberance highlights the fact that the women of that era were chiefly ornamental.

We begin this season in the early 1960s, and Mrs. Maisel is now the first ever female writer on a late-night talk show, but the powers that be still don’t want to feature a woman in front of the cameras.

There is a preponderance of red and navy in Mrs. Maisel’s wardrobe now, as opposed to the pinks and blues of previous seasons: power colours are beginning to emerge. Her wardrobe has shifted over time from the perky 1950s matching dresses and coats (what two-time Emmy-winning costume designer Donna Zakowska has called “Midge’s armour”) to a still-perky but more streamlined working gal wardrobe.

There’s a touch of beatnik edge in the more balletic scoop necks, and Zakowska has played with this reference before in Mrs. Maisel’s stage wardrobe from her early days at the Gaslight Café in the Village, where Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac both performed in real life. For those after-hours standup performances, which formed the spine of the early seasons, Mrs. Maisel wore an Upper West Side housewife’s approximation of beatnik style.

This season, the standup sets are fewer and farther between, little snippets that sing with polished delivery. They get noticeably more ribald (and Mrs. Maisel was ribald from the get-go) and a titch bitter, especially in the flash-forwards to after she has found fame.

Consequences bring more depth and resonance to the action. Mrs. Maisel is less a plucky Mary Tyler Moore type picking herself up and dusting off her trim little coat dress; instead, we get a glimpse of a middle-aged superstar Midge in an orange turban and shawl, landing by helicopter in the middle of a kibbutz to find her now-grown son. The rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, however, remains the beating heart of the show in every era.

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The show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, has said that Mrs. Maisel is based on Joan Rivers, which makes sense intellectually and in terms of comedic styling — and Rivers herself played the Gaslight, alongside Mrs. Maisel’s compatriot in the series, Lenny Bruce — but it is hard to reconcile the saccharine esthetic of the young Mrs. Maisel with the later-life Rivers in her “Fashion Police” days.

The show’s next most compelling character, Susie Myerson, Mrs. Maisel’s agent played by Alex Borstein, is based on another IRL legend, talent agent Sue Mengers. In her heyday, Mengers repped everyone from Barbra Streisand to Cher to Burt Reynolds. Susie’s wardrobe is an edgy downtown contrast to Mrs. Maisel: an all-black gender-neutral uniform always topped with a newsboy cap, radical choices for the 1950s.

There is a rift between the two in the future, their styles even more contrasting. We see the sharp-tongued, sharper-elbowed Myerson being honoured at a roast, circa 1990, with Mrs. Maisel appearing via video link to toast the guest of honour in the frippiest, flounciest pastel taffeta gown as Myerson chain smokes, unchanged in her utilitarian black garb.

The entire show is a fantasy in which a woman manages to break free of the proscribed helpmate role that her era wanted her to play. Midge and Susie together smash the glass ceiling and grab the patriarchy (pardon this crudeness, but it’s so very Mrs. Maisel) by the balls.

Mrs. Maisel is a Trojan horse hidden under a giant hat (the Easter parade of hats is one of the most exquisite scenes of the series). She joins a long tradition of subversive feminine dressing: Marie Antoinette scandalized the court by wearing her chemise or slip as outerwear; suffragettes rejected corsets and ushered in the androgynous clothing of the 1920s.

Mrs. Maisel’s exaggeratedly prim and proper wardrobe is a kind of reverse subversion; the dirty jokes hidden inside a bonbon wrapper. The series’ message of empowerment is inspiring, even for the most jaded of viewers and, at the same time, the fashion remains a pure delight.

Leanne Delap is a Toronto-based freelance contributor for the Star and The Kit, where she writes about style and culture. Reach her via email: [email protected]

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