Emmys: How 'Handmaid's Tale' Costume Designer Showed "Mental Oppression" Via Shoes

8:30 AM 6/5/2017

by Cathy Whitlock

That's just one of the secrets revealed by six costume designers from shows including 'This Is Us' and 'The Crown' as they approached similar ideas — status-defining accessories, 1970s staples and adorned gowns — in diverse ways.

Courtesy Photos

This story first appeared in a June standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • Footwear First

    'Handmaid's Tale' and 'The Young Pope'

    Courtesy of Hulu; HBO

    Designing the color-coded uniforms for various classes of people in the totalitarian theocracy in Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale presented several challenges for costume designer Ane Crabtree. Symbolism was paramount, since even the smallest details (like the handmaids' laced boots) give viewers clues. "The boot symbolism, all the laces, shows a kind of mental oppression," she says. "The wings, or bonnets, on the heads of the handmaids, as birthed by Margaret Atwood [who wrote the novel on which the series is based], were a way to control their gaze. It is also a kind of mind control — making them feel like little girls in bonnets to take away their power."

    There was no shortage of source material for The Young Pope's costume designer Carlo Poggioli, who referenced "paintings and sculptures from hundreds of Roman churches and the original garments housed in the Vatican," he says. But even after all the research, it was the red shoes worn by Jude Law's Pius XIII that became the costume designer's most interesting creative departure. "My inspiration came from authentic papal red shoes that symbolize blood and the passion of Christ [that are] on show in the Vatican museums and that have been used by popes since the Middle Ages," he says. Knowing the shoes would be the subject of numerous detail shots on the HBO limited series, Poggioli had none other than Christian Louboutin design one of the two pairs used. Louboutin crafted the shoes out of an extremely soft red leather. The finishing touch? Red soles, of course.

  • Disco-Era Dressing

    'This Is Us' and 'Guerrilla'

    Courtesy of NBC; Showtime Networks

    For the 1970s-era flashback scenes in NBC's breakout hit This Is Us, costume designer Hala Bahmet referred to vintage fashion magazines and Sears and JCPenney catalogs for all the bell-bottom jeans, crocheted garments and floppy hats she created for the family drama. "We successfully avoided cliches by not blindly following the obvious fashion trends," she says. "Instead, we immersed ourselves in the lives of our characters as our primary starting point, separate from fashion. From this base, we worked to create an authentic and seamless portrayal." Rebecca's (Mandy Moore) vintage lace bohemian wedding dress and backless Kelly green dress worn when she first meets Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) were among the season's standouts.

    Costume designer James Keast looked to Steve McQueen's iconic 1968 film Bullitt when constructing the costumes for Showtime's limited series Guerrilla, which is set during the civil rights protests in 1971 London. Keast found that blending decades worked for some costumes. "It is easy to find obvious 1970s clothes, but I have tried to be subtler and use more late '60s clothes, especially for the older characters," he says. "The most challenging pieces were the denim jeans. None of the actors enjoyed wearing them, and it's such a shame, as jeans were very important for young people in the early '70s. [The jeans] had to enable the actors to move, sit and run. It reminded me of [costume designer] Irene Sharaff, who designed the costumes for West Side Story and had to make jeans that enabled the actors to dance."

  • Palace and Brothel Intrigue

    'The Crown' and 'Harlots'

    Courtesy of Hulu; Netflix

    Creating coronation and wedding gowns for a young Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) was obviously the most visible part of the job for Michele Clapton, costume designer for Netflix's The Crown. But coming up with a wardrobe for Elizabeth's sister, Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), proved to be an equally interesting assignment. "She was so much fun to explore," says Clapton. "The playful arc of Margaret's character was a nice contrast to the queen. Margaret cared more about clothes. She would also have three fittings, whereas the queen would only have one." With the luxury of an eight-month lead time, Clapton designed more than 50 items for the queen alone, and some 300 for the rest of the cast. In many cases, vintage was not an option. "We didn't use it much since it was hard to find and the sizes are so small," says Clapton.

    For Hulu's 18th century-era drama Harlots, about the world's oldest profession, costume designer Edward Gibbon relied heavily on strong color. "We were all keen to steer away from the traditional look of 'heritage' drama series — the sepias and browns and tasteful Georgian paint-chart colors of historic homes," says Gibbon. Color primarily was used to distinguish the worlds depicted in the drama series. "The world of brothel owner Margaret [Samantha Morton] was full of earthy, sensual colors. Each of her girls was a jewel, and she dressed them as such. Lydia [Lesley Manville], on the other hand, strived for her world [a higher-class brothel] to be the epitome of taste. Nancy's [Kate Fleetwood] world [of S&M] was dark and pulsing with danger — emerald greens and blood reds that referenced the bruises that were her stock in trade."