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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ designer loves seeing her costumes at protests

Hulu’s hit show is providing protestors with a new uniform.

“The Handmaid’s Tale.” CREDIT: Hulu
“The Handmaid’s Tale.” CREDIT: Hulu

In March, Ane Crabtree, the costume designer for Hulu’s new series The Handmaid’s Tale, got an unusual request: A group of women in Texas wanted to dress up like Handmaids for a protest. Could Crabtree help?

Handmaids are the enslaved women in The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s chilling vision of a possible, nightmare future, where the few fertile individuals left are imprisoned and systematically raped by officials of the state, a totalitarian response to panic over plummeting birthrates worldwide. If a Handmaid gets pregnant and manages to deliver a healthy child, she must give the infant away to the Commander — her rapist — and his wife. If a Handmaid can’t get pregnant, she is sent away to die. The book was published in 1985; like a few other dystopian classics, it scaled the bestseller lists in the wake of the 2016 election. And the latest incarnation of this oft-adapted work is a critically acclaimed series on Hulu, starring Elisabeth Moss, which premiered last month.

Atwood’s novel describes the red robes and white bonnets worn by Handmaids. Crabtree’s design is lurid and stunning: The red is lush, evoking bloodshed and sexuality at the same time; the bonnets are the picture of Pilgrim-esque modesty from the outside, suffocating from within. Screenshots from the series have become a social media shorthand, recently used in response to the House passage of a health care bill, which, among other draconian measures against women, could make insurance coverage more expensive for rape survivors, whose conditions stemming from being assaulted may be deemed pre-existing conditions.

Crabtree told ThinkProgress that the message she received from these Texas women, via Twitter, was “essentially, woman to woman, are you able to help us?” One of the women had seen Handmaids costumes at SXSW — part of the series’ promotional road show — and wanted to see if Crabtree could give them advice about how to replicate the costumes “and make it look right.”

“I don’t think there’s ever been a moment bigger in my whole career. But it’s beyond my career. It has nothing to do with that, in the same breath. What it did was grab my soul.”

Legally, Crabtree was in a bind: She couldn’t just replicate the original costumes, and she didn’t have time to come up with something else. “I’m not able to create another Handmaid.”

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But she wanted to help. “The point is this amazing plan to be this strong, quiet voice of womanhood and using this iconic thing that really has nothing to do with me. It was really moving, to be honest with you,” she said. So she passed along some ideas — “what I would tell anybody who is, on the fly, trying to make it look the same” — and told them, “good luck, I wish I was with you. I am in spirit.”

Less than a week later, decked out in red robes and white bonnets, Texas women protested at their state capitol in defiance of SB 415, which would, as Slate reported, “effectively ban any safe and common operations for abortions in the second trimester,” and SB 25, “which would allow doctors to lie to pregnant women considering an abortion if they detect any anomalies.”

Crabtree watched “photo after photo” flood her Twitter feed. “I’m looking at all these photos and I’m like: I fucking did it. I did it. These women got together and decided to make a difference, and it was so pivotal and so big for me. I don’t think there’s ever been a moment bigger in my whole career. But it’s beyond my career. It has nothing to do with that, in the same breath. What it did was grab my soul.”

“I was behind them all the way,” Crabtree said. As she looked through the images from the protest, she “sat and couldn’t move for an hour” because she “was sobbing so hard with joy.”

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“The biggest thing for me is they did it with such quiet elegance,” she said. “There was no blaring noise. There were no special effects. It was so Neo-Luddite quiet. It was women with signs as women have done since the beginning of time, quietly and effectively stating: This is wrong. And to see them surrounded by guards and bullied it was like, nuh-uh, these sisters aren’t moving. You’re going to have to look at this giant red in the room.”

Inspired by the protest in Texas, Missouri activists did the same: Six weeks later, eleven women dressed in Handmaid-chic and carrying signs that read “Don’t let Missouri become Gilead” marched silently into their state capitol. (Gilead is what America becomes in Atwood’s fiction, an authoritarian patriarchal regime where women have no rights and, honestly, the men don’t wind up too happy either.) At stake was a budget amendment which would bar the Missouri Women’s State Funded Health Services Program from covering care at any clinic that provides abortion services.

They took seats in the gallery to watch the session, where they were were made to remove their bonnets. Perhaps the irony of forcing the women to take off the bonnets, when the women were referencing a story in which women are forced to wear bonnets — that their visual homage to a specific style of restrictive female attire was, in reality, restricted even further — was lost on the Missouri lawmakers who, since the dawn of 2017, “have introduced around 40 bills that, in various ways, would negatively impact Missourian’s access to sexual and reproductive health care.”

“I never thought that a girl from my upbringing, from Kentucky, from a very conservative place, from my background, I never thought that I would have anything to say, even indirectly, via costumes.”

This Tuesday, women in Texas were at it again: In Handmaid gear from head to toe in the Texas Capitol Rotunda, chanting “Shame! Shame!” in protest of an anti-abortion bill. Expect to see more Handmaids at a state capitol near you in the future. Crabtree got another note two weeks ago from someone planning an upcoming protest. “Every time it happens I actually, physically fall to the floor crying, because it’s more than emotional. It goes through my soul, when I read this. I never thought that a girl from my upbringing, from Kentucky, from a very conservative place, from my background, I never thought that I would have anything to say, even indirectly, via costumes.”

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By protesting and sharing these photos, Crabtree said, these women created iconic imagery of their own. “That gives me hope. There is something we all can do, and it may not feel big at the time, but it resonates. And thank God for social media, so more people can see it.”

Protestors at the Missouri capitol dressed Handmaids. CREDIT: Screenshot, @PPGreatPlains Twitter
Protestors at the Missouri capitol dressed Handmaids. CREDIT: Screenshot, @PPGreatPlains Twitter

The reproductive rights movement — whose supporters, more often than not, find themselves taking to the streets specifically when abortion access is on the line — has long relied on one go-to symbol: the coat hanger. But the coat hanger is complicated, fraught, stylistically simple but narratively complex. Though abortion rights are far from secured, the coat hanger specifically is, for the most part, an artifact: Modern women are more likely to terminate unwanted pregnancies with pills than with wire hangers. In the 2010s, even stomach-punches are a more common method of abortion-induction. For all the activists who believe the hanger is too evocative and iconic to abandon, there is the very real possibility that it is a dated reference, that it risks conveying misinformation about abortions today.

The Handmaid’s Tale robes and bonnets sidestep most of those complications. Women dressing as Handmaids aren’t bringing up the past; they’re role-playing as envoys from a possible, terrifying future. The costumes carry with them all the complexity of the story from which they’ve been lifted: A society that not only denies women reproductive autonomy and health care, but also financial independence, sexual pleasure, the right to read, to move freely, to be free, period. It is both a hyper-specific reference about pregnancy — and the termination thereof — and a broad one, about the precarious state of all women, all the time, everywhere.

Since the Women’s March, plenty of feminists have taken to announcing their activism through pink pussy hats. The image, up close, is cozy and cute, and the wearer can opt for any shade on a spectrum from pastel to neon. But that choice, while popular, is still a fraught one: It is, by design, a reference to Trump, to what he infamously said and how he said it. Can the pussy hat ever transcend its origin story? What if you don’t want to protest Trump’s anti-woman policies by invoking his language? What if “cute” is not the activism aesthetic you’re aiming for? (Also, what if you don’t know how to knit?)

From left, all dated January 21, 2017: A women’s marcher in Seattle (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson); marchers in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magaña); D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks to the crowd during the Women’s March rally (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
From left, all dated January 21, 2017: A women’s marcher in Seattle (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson); marchers in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magaña); D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser speaks to the crowd during the Women’s March rally (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

“For me, I have a hard time with pink,” Crabtree said. “And I had a hard time putting on a pink baseball hat in Toronto [for the Women’s March] to protest. I didn’t want to wear the pussy hats. I’m always the one who doesn’t want to wear what everybody else is wearing.”

The Handmaids costumes sidestep those issues, too. The source material is in keeping with the ethos of the wearers, and the robes and bonnets are relatively cheap and easy to make, wear, and share. (As Crabtree points out, appropriate for a society that does not regard women as individuals, “it’s one size fits all.”)

And Crabtree thinks that red is an undeniably powerful color. In her research for the show, she kept returning to the idea of red as “the shaming thing, like The Scarlet Letter A.”

“I think the color red, in and of itself, is so specifically wanton woman. The elephant in the room. The stain of a woman wronged, or a woman who has done wrong. It has many connotations, even religious.” Not to mention it is impossible to ignore: “Our eye goes to it, immediately, and there’s a response.”

When people — the protesters and the protested alike — see these Handmaids costumes, Crabtree said, “I think perhaps what [they’re] feeling is, you can’t turn away from it.” And having seen imagery from the Hulu series, where the Handmaids’ red pops against every background, “You know it is going to stand out from the landscape of green if they’re outside or concrete in Manhattan. It’s a beautifully effective tool.”