The Importance of Fashion In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Midge Maisel is petite. She’s dainty, but immaculately manicured. Every inch of her is part of the plan. When we first meet Midge on the pilot of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which is now in its second season on Amazon Prime, she has everything calibrated just so. She even tracks her measurements on a regular basis.
Midge’s clothes are a part of that ornate perfection. She clearly comes from a wealthy family, and she knows how to dress like it. Whenever she takes the stage as part of her burgeoning standup career on season two, she’s not dressed in the baggy, loose suits that most of the show’s male comedians wear. Instead, she wears a black dress, heels, and pearls.
For The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, clothing communicates societal status. Midge’s womanhood and her wealth define what she wears, even as she begins to realize the restrictiveness of those parameters.
The clothes that Midge wears on stage convey wealth. Not every woman owns strings of pearls and cocktail dresses. She looks classy, which works in direct contrast to what comes out of her mouth. Midge is a vulgar comic, largely unfiltered. She swears regularly, and is unafraid of implicitly or explicitly discussing the sex lives of everyone she knows.
That vulgarity is unexpected coming from Midge precisely because she usually looks so put together on stage. The contrast heightens her comedy.
Midge’s classy ensembles are presented in direct contrast to two other women on the show. There’s Susie Meyerson, Midge’s manager, whose baggy trousers, cap, and leather jacket suggest the vulgarity that Susie actually displays. Susie is hilarious in her own right, but her connection with Midge is meant to be surprising because they come from such different social strata, and dress accordingly.
The other point of contrast comes from Sophie Lennon, who plays a low-class, pot-bellied comic, but is, in fact, richer than even Midge. Sophie believes that her comedy wouldn’t work if it came from someone who dressed the way Midge does. Female comedians have to be caricatures. To her, they can’t be high-class and vulgar. It’s too confusing. But Midge is proving her wrong every step of the way.
Even as Midge works to present as high-class, she’s also forced to compete with men who don’t have to work nearly as hard.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel isn’t shy about the fact that Midge is an outlier. In the era where the show is set, the overwhelming majority of comedians are male. But Midge isn’t dressing like the male comics she’s competing with.
That doesn’t just mean that she doesn’t wear baggy suits and loose trousers. The men who work in the clubs Midge performs in don’t look particularly great. They seem to be wearing whatever suit they happened to put on that morning. By contrast, Midge is dressed to perfection.
Though it’s far from the only indicator, the difference in presentation speaks to how much harder Midge has to work to earn respect. She can’t be too dirty (she gets pulled off stage for saying the word) “pregnant” or look too messy. She has to look and be perfect to earn respect. The men don’t have to earn respect at all. They start with it, and only lose it if they screw up.
It’s clear, then, that Midge is walking a tightrope. She’s a high-class woman with a vulgar and revealing sense of humor who has to prove she’s twice as good as every man she’s competing with. She has no interest in playing a broad character. Her humor is observational and personal.
It was once said that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in heels. That idea is echoed on the show’s second season finale, when comedian Lenny Bruce explains that he feels like Sisyphus. He’s pushing a boulder up to the top of the hill, only to watch it roll down the other side. In response, Midge simply says “try it in heels.” She knows that whatever Lenny’s struggles might be, hers are worse by virtue of her gender.
Not a ‘Feminist,’ but Empowering
For Midge, heels are a chief indicator of her restrictions. Her standup occasionally touches on how a women’s clothes impact her ability to compete with the men around her. That idea is reinforced in Midge herself, who may only be capable of competing with these men because of her social status. She can be vulgar, at least to some extent, because she doesn’t look vulgar. She dresses the part of a socialite, and then blows up the stereotypes surrounding that persona every time she takes the stage.
Midge is not interested in the empowerment of all women. She’s not a particularly enlightened lady. Everything she discusses in her standup comes from her own experiences. Even so, her interest in empowering herself, in doing whatever she wants at the expense of some of her relationships, is quietly powerful.
Midge is not a particularly great person. She can be very selfish and is often wildly inconsiderate of others. Even so, she’s willing to call out what makes her life so much harder than the men around her. She recognizes that her life is not hard per se, at least in comparison to someone like Susie, who has to worry about eating and paying bills. Still, she knows that if she could just take her heels off and relax as the men around her can, her life might be a little simpler.