Dressing for dystopia: The costumes of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Talking to the costume designer behind the upcoming Hulu series.

CREDIT: Hulu
CREDIT: Hulu

What would you wear to the end of the world? What about the start of a brave new one?

If you’re prepping your end-of-days attire, the best person to consult would be Ane Crabtree, the costume designer for the highly anticipated Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The novel, first published in 1985, is now one of several dystopian classics to climb the bestseller charts in the wake of the 2016 election; the Hulu series premieres on April 16.

Ane Crabtree at work on “The Handmaid’s Tale.” CREDIT: Hulu
Ane Crabtree at work on “The Handmaid’s Tale.” CREDIT: Hulu

For the uninitiated, The Handmaid’s Tale imagines an America ruled by a puritanical patriarchy — the Constitution was suspended and ultimately discarded amid mass disease, infertility, and panic — in which women, all prisoners in their own way, are divided by caste. Handmaids are, in theory, the most valuable resource left: They’re the only women who can still bear children. After a violent initiation-slash-brainwashing period, each is assigned to Commanders with infertile wives, forced to conceive and bear children they must immediately give away, or be killed.

Atwood has said one of her rules in writing the novel was to “not put any events into the book that had not already happened in what James Joyce called the ‘nightmare’ of history, nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities.” The story continues to captivate because of how possible it all feels, how prescient and close.

Crabtree had the formidable task of outfitting the world of the novel, known as Gilead, one that readers had already imagined and that plenty of viewers have already seen in some format or another; The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted many times over since its publication over 30 years ago on film, in theater, even as a ballet, and that doesn’t even include the movie each reader imagines as she experiences book for herself.

She spoke with ThinkProgress by phone about designing for the series, the thinking behind each uniform, and why she thinks men who attempt to control women will be “foiled at every turn.”

What was your first exposure to The Handmaid’s Tale?

I was backwards: I saw the film first. When it first came out, i was a young woman in New York, and read the book second, soon after. But the film, it came out in 1990 and it had such a huge impact on me. I think I saw that film alone, and certainly when it ended, I sat there in the theater with the credits rolling and I didn’t leave for half an hour. I was so stunned. It had a giant, lasting impact on me, because the feeling was: This is fiction, and yet, what if this ever happened? And now, it is happening. It is real life. So when you ever get a chance to replay that in your adult life?

How much of an influence did the look of that film have on your initial vision for the Hulu series? Could you get it out of your head and go directly back to the book?

Creatively, how I handled that, I of course started reading the book again and looking at old footage of the film, and then I kind of had to stop.

I wanted the look of the clothing to be quite timeless, literally, so that it wouldn’t feel like a costume drama, and you could relate to these women, you could relate to everybody, and feel as though this is really happening in real time. So what that meant in a nutshell was: You think on a dress, a cloak, a pair of wings, and it feels quite abstract, even costume-y. So we had many incarnations of the dress, the cloak, and the wings, to make them not feel like something you would see in a play. And [Elisabeth Moss, who stars as Offred], thank goodness, we had her to work with first. I made maybe ten dresses for her to try, and I had her move around in them, because I knew she was going to be in this dress day in and day out, with the exception of a few flashbacks. We did the same with the cape, the wings, and the caplets. There were a million versions, and it was kind of painstaking work.

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But in the end, we got something that was quite a beautiful color for all different skin tones, and I think quite a beautiful dress and cloak that feels like something you would wear every day. It’s basically what I’m calling their prison garb, because all their real life clothing from what was America has been taken away from everybody, and they’re given this sort of tribal uniform that they have to wear everyday — not just the Handmaids but everyone else as well.

So where do you start?

I really started with the beginning of every era, to begin the costume process. So I looked at the 1900s, for men and women, and I looked at the 1930s, and I looked at the 1950s and ‘60s and the ‘90s, and all of those moments, the very beginnings of those eras. Because design construct was, it is exactly a moment in time where everything is super clean. The basic thing that I wanted to do is, whenever I’ve seen dystopian things, I tried to think about the cleanest, purest design from any era. You get the cleanest lines, the initial idea of a certain waist in a dress.

CREDIT: Hulu
CREDIT: Hulu

And the Handmaids look very feminine and beautiful, in their way. Even though the clothing is restrictive and it has the second-order significance of being something they are forced to wear.

You know, it’s funny, right? Because beautiful to me might be different than the next person. I tend to have — I’ve been told — a skewed view of what is sexy or sexual or beautiful. But what I did is, I tried to come from a real place, thinking: This world of Gilead has only been around for five years. This dystopian future is actually now, it just happens to be a darker world. There’s more Zika virus, there’s more infertility, there’s more AIDS. So how to present that dark world, and yet, the person who thought of a lot of this is the Commander. And in a bizarre way, it does mirror our own Commander-in-Chief in real life.

Honestly, it came from a place, when I started sketching, of: Okay, a man designed this world. A man designed this world who was coming from a bit of a marketing or branding background. The Commander character. So he is going to be really good, as a kind of present-day Leni Riefenstahl. He is going to know what is quite utopian. Joseph Fiennes [who plays the Commander] and I had many conversations — and Margaret Atwood, too — discussing Hitler, because she got it! When I was showing her the Aunts’ costumes, she was like, “Ugh, this is so Hitler.” She got it.

“When you put a covering over the waist, like a corset, you’re actually accentuating that part of the body. You’re actually covering up a part of the body, the waist, and what it does is accentuate the boobs. You’re foiled at every turn. You can’t win, by trying to have that control as a man, as a Commander. And that was my ‘fuck you’ as a woman to the whole process.

It’s the idea of [me] being a woman who is marginalized and biracial and has an immigrant parent, and then say, “Okay, I’m going to turn the tables, and I’m going to be the brain of that dictator, that Commander.” And I’m going to come from a place where, sometimes people are not inherently bad, sometimes they’re painted bad, and sometimes life asks them to be more bad. I think, in some weird way, there must be something good about our Commander-in-Chief, and in our story, there is something good about our Commander, Joseph Fiennes. He is coming from a place of: “I wanted this world to be better, I wanted to get rid of the Kardashian thing and Tinder.” And in its place, he put this utopian idea and ideals of a pious, religious, military society that gets in line and listens and follows the rules. So it can be beautiful, and it can be hideous, depending on who is being dominated.

I think that’s such an interesting point to draw out here — that even people who think of themselves as progressive and open-minded still have a visceral reaction to, say, hook-up culture or the way the Kardashians dress, and probably don’t think of themselves as participating in the same kind of policing of women that is going on in The Handmaid’s Tale. But it’s all of a kind.

I tried to literally and figuratively put myself in the creative head, being the Commander, designing the world of Gilead for all the tribes — starting with myself, that’s ego, and making these men more powerful and black, and the Guardians in navy, and the Aunts in brown because they shouldn’t be overpowering the men, and into the green of the Marthas, the teal of their Wives, and the gray of the Econowives and men. And in looking at what’s beautiful in the body or in looking at what’s pleasing, if you want to think about the Commander-in-Chief, who says “dress like a woman,” what does that mean to a man?

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In my mind, a man would — a pious man would try to erase boobs and a defined waist and hips. But in doing that, the twisted thing is, I came from that place design-wise, and while trying to erase what used to be a silhouette of a woman’s body, what happens is, when you put a covering over the waist, like a corset, you’re actually accentuating that part of the body. You’re actually covering up a part of the body, the waist, and what it does is accentuate the boobs. You’re foiled at every turn. You can’t win, by trying to have that control as a man, as a Commander. And that was my “fuck you” as a woman to the whole process.

One of the strange experiences watching the show is that the “past” — what happens in flashbacks — is the part that looks like the present, and the present looks very Puritanical and retro. What was that like for you, in the wardrobe department and on set? And that’s also a deviation from the other adaptations, which take place in their respective presents; this is the first Handmaid’s Tale where the flashbacks could be to 2017.

We had segregated clothing. I’ve never worked on a show like that: Huddles of red, huddles of teal, and nothing else. But we had what we called “America,” and it was the only area where there was patterns, where there was different colors mixed together. So that was kind of, not an easy way out, but a direct through-line to separating the past and the present. There was this visual feast of pattern and texture and color and worlds colliding, as opposed to the antithesis of that, which is: We’re going to put up walls and you’ll stay in your tribe.

“He is coming from a place of: ‘I wanted this world to be better, I wanted to get rid of the Kardashian thing and Tinder.’ And in its place, he put this utopian idea and ideals of a pious, religious, military society that gets in line and listens and follows the rules. So it can be beautiful, and it can be hideous, depending on who is being dominated.”

So there was America, which is a tiny thing, there is Gilead, which of course is all the tribal uniforms, and then there was sort of pre-Gilead, where the world is — the early time for the Commander and his wife. There’s a pre-Gilead where you start to see subtle changes. You start to see not religious zealots, but people of different religions starting to have conflict. So I’m trying to show that in the clothing. It’s just different religious groups are starting to rise up. It’s not that that was written; I just decided that was the off-screen story in my head. We didn’t just rush into this world. There wasn’t a hostile takeover overnight; it happened slowly. There was a deliberate planning of events and they became successful at it. So the clothing is separated in that way. And [America] is a lot sexier! Skin and shorts and people, male and female wearing similar clothes.

That reminds me of Jezebel’s, the secret, illegal brothel frequented by Commanders. What was the thinking behind the costumes we’ll see there?

It’s very interesting; there is nothing you can throw away, design-wise, on this project. It’s so intimate. And the story is so pertinent to the times that any tiny change feels like a giant sea change on screen. So within that world, of course we will get to Jezebel’s at some point. I did reread Margaret’s words, but also Bruce Miller, our show’s executive producer and creator, he had some specifics about what he was hoping for because it is a world that is basically for the white men, the white males, the 10 percent, who are in charge, and who created this world. All of the worlds. So I actually tried to come from a place of that. What would that mean on paper and what would it mean on camera?

CREDIT: Hulu
CREDIT: Hulu

I remember from the book that the costumes at Jezebel’s are a kind of parody of what is sexy — this gross, exaggerated idea, something women would (likely) never choose themselves. And what you’re saying reminds me of that moment in Ex Machina when the main male character realizes that the robot, played by Alicia Vikander, was designed based on his internet porn searches. This idea of a woman constructed totally to appeal to one man’s specific gaze and desires.

I did Westworld — and of course, I saw Ex Machina — and I remember thinking, I’m so glad I didn’t see this while preparing Westworld.

There was sort of a growing number of Jezebels. It was supposed to be 20, and it became 45. I honestly decided to have a challenge where each Jezebel was — you might be able to tell from her costume not only what kind of sexual male fantasy she was being, but also, what was her story before. And so there’s 45 background people that each have a different story as a Jezebel, plus the actors with lines.

I definitely came from a place of: “What would the 10 percent of the population, men in power, want to see, within not just women but certain races of women and certain cultures?” But I also — always — tried to throw in a little tongue-in-cheek for the ladies. Like, joke’s on you! I tried to have a little twist to their looks, so it wasn’t just a cliche, and it wasn’t just a certain kind of fantasy.

The red of the Handmaids’ dresses is so striking. While watching these first few episodes, it was sort of jarring to think they let Handmaids wear a color that naturally draws the eye, that invites attention. That the wives allowed the Handmaids to be so attractive, in the literal sense of that word.

So we talked about that! Why red? And everyone sort of said, collectively, they’re walking wombs. If you think about the idea that hardly anybody is fertile anymore, in a weird way, it’s not that the women are prized but their wombs are prized, and their fertility and blood and all the workings of their body are prized. I think I get the red because if you look at all the colors of the world, black is the anti-color, the powerful one, and navy is next in line. So these are quite military colors.

“It’s not that the women are prized, but their wombs are prized, and their fertility and blood and all the workings of their body are prized.”

I think red, for me it’s like, when you see all the Handmaids, it’s like a sea of liquid blood. And it’s like a wanton woman as well. As a woman watching, I feel like the only kind of discord or anger about it being red is from other women — the Marthas, the Wives — because you can’t help but see that red in the room. It’s always angry and loud. Being that they are not fertile and the Handmaids only have one purpose, I feel like the anger and hostility only comes from other women. Whereas the men are like: Those are the cattle, we can find them in the crowd.

Another thing that surprised me — this is outside of the costuming, but I’m wondering if you have an opinion about it — is why, if this is the future so they have access to modern technology and science, and if fertility rates have plummeted and babies are so precious, why is everyone giving birth at home without doctors, hospitals, and medicine? Did all the drugs run out or something?

I think it’s the whole old morals, and old ways of life. Women should just be surrounded by women to help them through that. There are drugs in Gilead. They drug the Handmaids to get them to the Red Center. But I think it’s the old values thing, and they’re coming from this bizarre biblical place. So to be surrounded by women to bring a child in, knowing that that child came from [someone else’s] coitus with your husband, in a weird way it makes sense to me. Think about all periods of time — even liberal women [today].

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Now that you’ve been able to see some of the finished product, what surprised you about how this whole project came together? Are you noticing anything about the costumes that you didn’t see before?

I think what surprised me was that, even though it’s basically prison garb, there’s something quite stunning about seeing everyone in these colors all the time. Walking together down the street in red, all the wives together. that feels normal now. I think that in the film life, and also in real life, it doesn’t feel like a crazy notion, because I for one love industrial clothing and I love clothing that solves problems. My favorite piece of clothing is the overall. It’s quite industrial and it always looks right.

So the thing that took me by surprise is, it didn’t look crazy on the first day of shooting when there were 100 Handmaids with their wings and their cloaks. It didn’t feel crazy; it did not feel like a dream. It felt like real life.

CREDIT: Hulu
CREDIT: Hulu

I’m curious how much of an influence the new political reality we’re living in had on the production of the show, and your work in particular.

That’s a really great question, because I’ve basically been in Canada since July. So this whole world changed while I was here. And I’ve only been home briefly, really briefly, like a few days in between. So what I believe, and what I’ve been saying to the actors, because we were all really thrown by being in this — what we call the new normal, this world — we were very much thrown. And I think you would have to be a robot or a cretin to not be affected. I remember just coming out of a fog to work and just being in a kind of stunned, being stung by a bee all over your body and living in that sort of pain and fog.

[The actors] and I both were just trying to be normal and go through the story and costume changes, but the story is so aligned, it’s so crazy surreal how aligned this script, every script is, with everything that was happening on a daily basis, it was overpowering. Because it was life repeating art, again, it’s so beautiful and so painful at the same time. If you’re really lucky as an artist, you’ll be able to experience that in your career.

I find this to be the most incredibly poetic and poignant thing that I’ve done, because of the mirror to real life. There’s no way to say that except to say that you just try to do your best, and you respect the time, nothing is flip, nothing is an accident in the frame. And hopefully someday this piece helps some girl who watches it.