By: Colleen Monroe
Marvelous Mrs. Maisel took home quite the collection of Emmy Awards this fall and we are beyond thrilled for the entire team!
To create the show’s visually astounding world, whether it’s filling a summer resort in the Catskills or a crowded comedy club in Manhattan, requires an extensive background cast.
As you can imagine, dressing these actors involves thousands of unique fittings! Fittings of vintage suits to skirts to swimwear that often require impeccable tailoring to achieve that distinct 1950’s silhouette.
We recently chatted with Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Costume Shop Supervisor, Sheila Grover, and the brilliant Costume Designer, Donna Zakowska, who shared with us how they tackle this enormous challenge through prepping, fitting, and shooting, to successfully costume a crowd.
On historic shows like Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Donna researches extensively on the socio-economic status of every character in a scene to help her design the most realistic costumes for the characters. That’s why it’s important to her and the show’s integrity to get as detailed as possible for every clothing item — should it be the length of dress or shape of a shirt collar.
To ensure her vision gets executed based on her research, Donna preps ahead of fittings by organizing stock for specific scenes and characters.
In Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s stock room, there are sections with labels that Donna has already pre-pulled with her favorite pieces. These labels might include: Women, Men, Evening Dresses, Leisure Wear, Workwear, etc. She even creates sections geographically, like Harlem or Rockaway, Queens.
Meanwhile, Sheila Grover works closely with casting to keep a close pulse on how many people are going to need fittings for each episode.
Working on a TV show, there isn’t much time to prep between episodes. Sheila and Donna have about a week from reading the script to shooting. This means they run a tight ship with the fitting schedule and keep to it like clockwork!
To prepare for big background fitting days, Sheila will hire up to five fittings teams, and because there are so many people working in the costume department, Donna will create systems to delegate her design vision. At any time, Donna may be out of the costume shop at a fitting with the main cast!
The day before the fitting, casting will send over skins for Sheila and her fitting teams to review and create individual tags that will then go on their wardrobe bag.
(Side note: Skins are one-page cheat sheets with important information for every actor. It includes their name, character number, whether they are SAG or non-SAG, and how many scenes they are in, which will determine the number of costumes they need to be fitted for the next day.)
To have a sense of where she wants to go visually, Donna is consistently gauging the rhythm of what has been done in the past.
To keep track of all the hundreds of costumes that have already been established in previous scenes, Donna uses SyncOnSet to help her see what she’s already designed as a useful point of reference. This way, she has a visual timeline to make design adjustments quickly that will build on character looks and propel the story forward.
On the day of the fitting, actors get checked-in digitally, which will also clock them into payroll. Once they are checked in and assigned a fitting room, a costumer will first measure each actor for their most accurate sizing (it’s not always accurate on the Skins!)
The costumer will then go into the racks of stock that Donna has already pre-pulled and organized and pull wardrobe appropriate for that actor’s scene(s) and size.
After the actor is dressed, the costumer takes photos and texts them to Donna to review and send adjustment notes.
Donna has a background in fine arts, specifically painting. When she designs for big background days, she sees every costume as a brush stroke that will visually paint the entire scene. It’s important to her that she reviews every costume to ensure that all the colors, textures, and accessories fit seamlessly together to best tell the time and place of the story for that particular scene.
When all the background actors are fitted for a scene, Sheila and her team will create a board with paper doll-like cutouts of all the characters in their costumes from their fitting photos. This way, Donna can visually see how all of the costumes work together to create a cohesive scene and she can make additional adjustments as needed.
Once a costume is approved and hung in a wardrobe bag, a picture of the complete fitting photo gets pinned to the outside for easy reference.
If any alterations need to be done to the costume, a tag with specific notes will go on the bag and then be sent off to the tailoring or aging/dying departments.
The day before a background actor shoots, Sheila and her team will review each costume bag and reference the fitting photo to ensure all the pieces of the character’s look are prepped and ready for shooting.
Sheila will then organize the wardrobe bags by character numbers in order of when those actors work in the scene. Using this system allows for the Background Supervisor to easily transport all the wardrobe bags from the shop, back to set, and know which costumes to pull first when they begin dressing background.
Once the background actors are dressed for the shoot, Donna, her assistant designers, and the two background supervisors will do final last looks and accessorize with purses and jewelry.
After the camera rolls and the costumes are established, the set costumers take pictures of each actor’s final look and upload them to SyncOnSet for continuity tracking. These established costumes also serve as the visual timeline that Donna will reference when she designs for the next scene.
Whew! Fitting crowds is certainly not a simple process and continues throughout production until the director calls a wrap. Establishing specific processes from the beginning allows for large crews to take ownership of the fittings, keeping the costume department on schedule and always looking ahead. In the event the director decides to cast another hundred background actors, the crew is prepped and ready to take on the challenge!
Sheila and Donna’s top fitting advice:
Triple check EVERYTHING!
With so many costumes being sent to set, often on remote locations, it’s not always easy to get back to the costume room to grab a different size or a forgotten piece. Make sure costume pieces are back from the tailor shop or the ager/dyer and accounted for in every single wardrobe bag, according to the fitting photos, before they are sent to set.
Stay calm under pressure.
There are so many people and logistics to track for big background days. Keeping a calm, non-reactive temperament avoids miscommunication. It also allows for easier problem solving when unexpected challenges arise because you can think more creatively when you’re calm.
When you know something needs to be done, speak up and take action. Time is always of the essence and everyone is under pressure to stick to a tight schedule. Taking the initiative to stay one step ahead helps everyone to work more efficiently. Always be aware that you’re on a team and together, working toward a common goal.