'Mrs. Maisel's' many hats, and the LI woman to whom they once belonged
Before production began on Amazon’s “Mrs. Maisel,” the cast and crew gathered to propose a Champagne toast to a “Marvelous” Long Islander. Their glasses were raised to Far Rockaway-born Rose Harper, the original owner of more than two dozen elaborate headpieces from the ’50s used in the series' upcoming third season.
“We had just dropped her collection off in Manhattan when we got a text message: They were having a little party for the hats,” recalls Harper’s nephew, Bob Vergara, 65.
Series costume designer Donna Zakowska acquired Harper’s collection of 30 custom-made designer hats from Bob and his brother, Richard Vergara, 69, before filming began on the season that’s set to take the stylish Midge (Rachel Brosnahan) on the road as a stand-up comic.
Set in 1959, the series is just as much about fashion as it is Midge’s rise to comedic fame. As she sheds her housewife status — in an ankle-length pink coat, maroon gloves and velour hat — and enters the working world at B. Altman — in a high-waisted gray dress, bow tie and wool beret — Amazon is “very much telling the story of women of that era,” says Bob, of Nyack.
The series’ period accuracy was one of the reasons Bob and his brother decided to hand their aunt’s prized collection of hats (several pillbox hats made of velvet, fur or silk) over to Amazon (for an undisclosed price) nearly 10 years after her death.
“When she died [in 2010], we felt some sort of attachment to these hats,” says Richard, of Westchester. “We watched the show and thought it was a good fit.”
The vintage caps commissioned specifically for Harper from Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman are now stacked up in their original boxes at Amazon's production offices in Manhattan, creating a pile nearly 12 feet tall.
“It’s a beautiful collection,” says Zakowska, who’s crafted Midge’s look since the 2017 premiere season. “Obviously, [Harper] was a very fashionable woman. Hats like this, the amount of different types, are absolutely insane [to find].” For Midge, she continues, "the hats have been extremely important. It sort of completes her entire look and her presentational mood. Once Rachel said to me she really feels like Midge once she puts her hat on." In all, Zakowska says Midge's fashion closet is comprised mostly of recreated garb, designed using prototypes like Harper's hats, with vintage shop purchases scattered within.
Bob and Richard say their late aunt’s story reminds them of the series and is nothing short of “remarkable."
Harper, who died at age 90, was a bit of a Midge in her day, setting out to break the mold of society’s norms. After moving from Long Island to Scarsdale, New York, Harper pursued a marketing career in New York City. In the ’70s, she took over the Kleid Company, a direct mail marketing group, and in 1982, she became the first female chair of the Direct Marketing Association, according to her nephews. She published a book, "Mailing List Strategies: A Guide to Direct Mail Success," in 1986, which is still available for purchase on Amazon.
“[Amazon] even talked about Rose, that she was also a person that filled in the blanks on a woman of that era,” Bob says. The character's style has been molded off the likes of Rosemary Clooney, Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy.
“Rose maintained a level in business at a time when women weren’t doing that,” Bob says. “She wore [those hats] on her commute daily from the Scarsdale Station to Grand Central Station where she worked nearby. She became a fixture in those days among the people who were commuting with her.” In turn, she became known as the "Hat Lady of Scarsdale," he says.
Some of her hats, including one Zakowska describes as a “mini garden” of silk flowers, were used in filming, while others served as period-appropriate prototypes. “This will make sense once you see season 3: the floral thing, with massive flowers, it becomes very big,” she says.
"Rose loved those hats," says Bob. A retired photographer, Bob snapped images of each of his late aunt's hats before handing over the collection. "We feel they have a good home now," Richard echoes.
The third season premieres on Amazon Prime Dec. 6.
Creating your own 'Mrs. Maisel'-approved look
While elaborate hats aren't as much a staple today as they were in the '50s, Zakowska says they're still very much on trend. If you're looking to add a bit of Midge-approved flair to your own look, the costume designer suggests not shying away from the drama. “I would just say go for it. It isn’t just about the top of the head," she says. "If you’re going to wear a classic Midge coat with volume, then you’ll need a hat that also has a bit of drama to it.” While Zakowska and her team searched a number of New York City-based vintage boutiques to find prototypes for Midge's one-of-a-kind pieces, consider perusing the shelves of a Long Island's vintage shop, like Paper Doll Vintage Boutique in Sayville, to piece together your own look.