'The Handmaids Tale' Costume Designer on Creating the Show's Timely Color-Coded Dystopia
Says award-winning costume designer Ane Crabtree of the show in which women are differentiated by the color of their capes, "Even in our scripts, it's like the things that we say are bizarrely simultaneous with Trump."
Surrounded by vision boards representing a plethora of reds, blues, greens and grays in her on-set Toronto office, costume designer Ane Crabtree lights several candles and looks around at her dwindling department. The Handmaid’s Tale is just wrapping production on its inaugural season, a season that just so happened to develop during an American election that makes this show about a dystopian and misogynistic society feel eerily prophetic.
Based on the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood and developed for television by Bruce Miller, the 10-part Hulu series is set in the present day and follows one particular handmaid, Offred (Elisabeth Moss), who is charged with helping an elite couple bear children. Set in the world of Gilead, all women fall into specifically designed roles: the red-wearing handmaids, whose purpose is to bear children; the blue-hued wives; green-clad marthas, who take charge of the household chores and cooking; and the grey-washed aunts, who direct the handmaids like cattle.
there's a moment for me when everything clicks on a show and if i'm lucky it happens in the early part of shooting. this was the second or third day and the costume dept and i were racing to get the world of gilead in front of camera. we had rolled many times that morning, it was over 100 degrees, i had taken my first deep breath. the handmaids taking a nap after a pivotal scene made me smile. we had made it. please enjoy this window into our show, and for the next two weeks, feel free to give me a wishlist of what you would like to see/know more about. all photos/videos taken by me. #behindthescenes #handmaidstale #handmaidstalecostumes #allofushandmaids #underhiseye we're all handmaids. love, ane. -A.C. @anecrabtree
It’s a color-specific world intent on using uniforms to define women and their roles, a world that Crabtree took great care in creating. The designer (who has been nominated for awards for her work on Westworld and Masters of Sex), sourced thousands of inspirational photos and color palettes to home in on these looks and create pops of color against the show’s moody sets and backdrops.
It’s here in this office, in between texting series star Joseph Fiennes, that Crabtree chats to THR about what “dressing like a woman" means in the context of the show, crafting the visceral costumes and how she managed to find and create identity within a sea of uniforms.
@anecrabtree1 and I tested many shades of red for the Handmaids' dresses...in every type of lighting, against many different skin tones & with many, many different color corrections, before we landed on a keeper. Ultimately, it came down to a very iconic shade of red and a very particular shade of blue that worked best together as well as being striking on their own. - RM @reedmorano #HandmaidsTale
What kind of mindset did you have in approaching this show given its relevance right now?
It’s such an intense show. It’s so in tune with what’s happening in the States, which is so interesting because it’s all so recent — the elections and the rollover. What’s been happening simultaneously on set is the story is so closely mirroring that. We say it every day, we’re just sort of bracing. It’s been amazing fuel, creatively.
#DressLikeAWoman has been trending, what does that mean to you when creating a world in which women are actually defined by the colors they’re told to wear?
Margaret Atwood wrote this book so long ago that it feels like she was quite psychic. It’s so prophetic. Even in our scripts, it’s like the things that we say are bizarrely simultaneous with Trump. It just makes me think of Melania. It makes me think of every reactionary shot we’ve seen in the news and how the position [of the woman] is so, always completely in support of the president.
How do the costumes on this show help to inform the female characters, who are in essence so uniform?
By episode 10 you start to have these beautiful epiphanies and the women, they get much stronger. The women’s costumes, in particular Serena Joy’s [Yvonne Strahovski] begins to come very high up and it’s quite rigid, almost like armor. Whereas the Commander’s [Joseph Fiennes] suits, they become black as night. He’s almost sort of dissipating on camera because he’s becoming slightly weaker. Because the words are so powerful and yet everything is so intimate and quiet, if you take too big of a gamble with the costumes it’s stupid and big. And the costumes should never be big on a show like this. They should be mental and quiet and kind of go into your soul and grab you. But it shouldn’t be like a POW! on camera because then it would be ineffective and showy, and this show is anything but. It’s more pious, quiet, controlled. It’s a regime.
How did you approach that particular, understated look back when you first started sketching?
Since the very beginning, since June or July when I started sketching the show, I came from a place of deliberately designing all the costumes, all of Gilead, as if I were in Joseph Fiennes' head as the Commander. Especially the women, I was covering up their waists. I was trying to detract from their chests and their silhouettes. But whenever you do that you actually start to emphasize other parts of the body. All along since we’ve started filming in September, everything has been with the idea that the commanders, especially Fiennes, are in control.
And how did that evolve as the episodes went on?
It’s just basically heightening certain parts of the body to make them look taller, stronger, more formidable. In a dress, it was about playing with rigid collars. Everything has been — not soft, but religious and pious and taking a step back from the men, who are in black and in quite strong silhouettes like walls, or mountains of power. The women were a bit softer, a bit subservient.
Can you walk through finding the perfect red hue for the handmaids?
Coming up with that is really intense. I used to be in another office that was quite small and with concrete floors that had leftover paint from whenever it was a glass factory. I would bring in my crew and say, “This is the red. This red, embedded in the cement. We have to find this red in the fabric.” It was all the way from that to literally putting hundreds of reds on different skin tones because we knew it was going to be a multi-ethnic show. I’m biracial so we’d always put it on me, for the yellow. We’d put it on my assistant for the pure white. And then Moira, Samira Wiley, is black so it really had to translate well as our imprisonment color but also cinematically it had to be beautiful because we were going to see it all the time. Red can be deadly on camera.
But we also wanted it to look like liquid blood. We knew there would be huge scenes and we wanted it to be visually important en masse. It also had to work for just Elisabeth Moss alone in a scene in an all-white, tiny imprisoned cell of a bedroom. So we had to find the right red for that, one that would also work in weather that was like 100 degrees over in July when we started making stuff.
How did you go about making the uniforms feel individualized?
We tried to add minimal details. As the winter started to get colder, we wanted to make it so that it was almost like wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, it just happened to be a red dress. The same goes for the aunts. They’re the most individualized. It’s still a militarized army of looks but, you have to have tiny details of realism otherwise the eye stops looking at it.
How do the handmaids’ collars and necklines inform their characters?
So we started playing with that because all of these women came from different backgrounds. Some of them were professors before. Some of them were prostitutes on the street. Some were drug addicts. Some were moms. And they all got rounded up and brought to this place. So it’s a tiny detail to show maybe some of them were religious or conservative. Maybe some of them were abused and covered up their bodies. Or they’re covering up tracks, needle marks. All of that tells a story when you have a hundred women dressed the same. They’re not just cattle, although they’re treated like cattle. And a lot of the details actually came from real life. I looked at photographs of different religions and cultures — pearl divers from Japan and this interesting cult that is happening in Denmark that also bizarrely mirrors our show. The research for this was really enticing and exciting but it is from real life. As I’m sure Margaret Atwood, when she started, was writing from real life.
Do you imagine where these clothes would come from in such a world as Gilead?
We’ve had thousands of discussions about that, logistically. This world has only existed for five years. So imagine actually really trying to do that in life. We’ve tried to show it in the story but it’s like, basically you go and bomb Washington. You have a hostile takeover and then what? You get dump trucks and go around to the houses and say, “Give us all your clothing because now you’re going to be living in this monochromatic, simple world?” It’s interesting to think about how to really show that and not f— that up because you’d be able to tell.
i look at each first fitting as a kind of talisman for the ones that follow. my first one, luckily, was with @elisabethmossofficial. it is rare that you have the kind of kismet that happens with fitting your lead first! all visual connections are drawn from that moment. here she is in a dress that was a precursor, and not the final handmaids dress for offred. i love that it shows how wearable and modern and not unlike (non-handmaids) normal dresses of today. as i write this, i'm reminded of the recent women's march and how we all might end up wearing this dress in the future... #margaretatwood knew way back when. #behindthescenes #handmaidstale #handmaidstalecostumes #allofushandmaids #underhiseye love, ane - A.C. @anecrabtree
This is set in the modern day, so how did you avoid making it feel like a period drama?
It was important that it didn’t feel like a heavy costume drama. Elisabeth really wanted something where — because she was going to be in it 24/7, pretty much — she wanted something that would flow, something lightweight and modern. We wanted a dress that would look good on every body type and that, if you didn’t have crazy wings on your head and a long giant cape, you might be able to wear it in New York, walking around in the summer. And actually I took loads of shots of her walking around with flip-flops on and whatever, just to see how the dress would look. Did it look like the girl next door? Did it look like something your sister or you might wear? We really wanted the audience to look at this show and be able to relate. It was very important for [showrunner] Bruce Miller to design the whole of the show to come at it from a place of, “These clothes have to be real.”
So what I do — and this is with the men’s and the women’s clothing — I always try everything on myself. Because I’m a really normal body; I am a tomboy or whatever, but with a really womanly shape, so if it works on me it works on the actors. I’ve done that throughout my whole career, like I used to wear Dustin Hoffman’s clothes [on HBO’s Luck] to make sure that it looked good. For this project, I wore Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia costume way before she ever put it on, just to make sure. She was going to wear it every day, zapping people with a cattle prod. It had to look not like a cobwebby, costume drama.
The Handmaid’s Tale debuts April 26 on Hulu.