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How the Costumes in the 'The Handmaid's Tale' Make a Dystopian Future Feel So Terrifyingly Timely

"There were constant parallels between real life and our script — it was rather shocking," says costume designer Ane Crabtree.
Handmaid Offred (Elisabeth Moss) in her wings and cape. Photo: Take Five/Hulu

Handmaid Offred (Elisabeth Moss) in her wings and cape. Photo: Take Five/Hulu

Hulu's upcoming small-screen version of "The Handmaid's Tale" is a brutal, harrowing and intensely thought-provoking watch — especially based on the context of the world today. Based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel, the dystopian future set in the former United States, now known as the Republic of Gilead, feels decidedly 2017, with “a return to traditional values," a fundamentalist theocratic dictatorship government, subjugation of women on all levels, a fixation on bread and a mandated female dress code, brought to the small-screen by costume designer Ane Crabtree

In the story, due to toxic pollution, most women are infertile, save the Handmaids who are essentially enslaved as breeders for powerful men, referred to as Commanders, and their barren Wives. Handmaid Offred (Elisabeth Moss), like literally "of Fred," fights for survival in this new, terrifying society while "posted" in the household of Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski).

Photo: Take Five/Hulu

Photo: Take Five/Hulu

The regulated society of Gilead also includes the Eyes, the menacing, dark-clad and machine-gun toting militiamen who spy for traitors in their midst; the Marthas, the domestic help; the privileged Commanders' Wives; and Econowives, the lowest ranking of the female spouses. The hierarchies are visually distinguished by Crabtree's powerful costumes, which were intellectually, painstakingly and meticulously designed, down to the shoelaces (or lack thereof). 

I literally felt chills down my spine while talking to Crabtree, who recently designed the also-dystopian Western looks on "Westworld," about the message and poignancy behind her costumes, what it was like designing dictator-mandated clothes for an imaginary world that seems pretty damn real right now and how it felt to see her Handmaid robes as an integral part of quiet protest over a Texas anti-abortion bill. I dare you to not feel chills, too.

Photo: Take Five/Hulu

Photo: Take Five/Hulu

"The Handmaid's Tale" series is set in the future, but with values from puritanical times, and yet the story is terrifyingly very now. So what influences and inspirations did you look to for the costumes?

I started by taking a peek at the original [1990] film, which I had seen in the theaters when it first came out years ago. It had a beautiful strong effect on me. [But] I had to pull away from what was already written and shown as a film. I started looking in two places, with the same amount of intent: present day, looking at religious cults that exist in America and other countries, because that would be the most dynamic parallel for now. Then I also looked at different time periods for fashion. I looked at the beginning eras of — to me — every important design-strong era for different facets of the costumes: the 1900s, the 1930s. The 1940s and '50s for the military vibe. Then the 1960s for men's suiting and some of the women's fashion. And, for the women, the '70s and the really clean Prada sort of thing that happened in the '90s.

Sketches: Ane Crabtree

Sketches: Ane Crabtree

There were numerous book covers, plus the 1990 movie. How much of that if any played into your version of the Handmaids' costumes? 

I love the film and the book, but I didn't think that it quite translated perfectly to not just 2017 but perhaps five years from now. Ultimately I was looking for a design that would be realistic for today. I knew inherently from the very beginning in talking to Bruce Miller, the show's creator, that we could not go down the road of a costume drama, because then nobody would buy it as present day. It would feel like something that happened in the past, or some sort of a garb or costume that people actually wouldn't wear in a real life that might happen in the future.

So it was really important to throw everything out the window and say, let's start again and let's try to think on the wings [the white removable blinders on the caps], cape and dress as an answer to a puzzle, in terms of what happens at the end of the world. What happens at a dystopian time, where you might only have one outfit to wear and it has to answer so many things: the weather, the piousness and religious vibe? Also, ultimately, it was designed with the intent to show a woman's womb or her belly and whether it would grow or not. Because the Handmaids are the only fertile women in the whole of this new world and the design — with an obi and a corset near the belly — was a way for me to think [like] a Commander, one of the small percentage of men in charge, and being able to see, 'okay, is that Handmaid getting pregnant or not?' And if they're not, they're going to get excommunicated and sent to the Colonies [no spoilers, but that's not an ideal place]. It's all mental.

Offred (left) and Offglen (Alexis Bledel, right) wear their capes differently. Photo: Take Five/Hulu

Offred (left) and Offglen (Alexis Bledel, right) wear their capes differently. Photo: Take Five/Hulu

The Handmaids are all supposed to look the same, but I noticed in the first episode, Offred's collar on her cape was looser than Offglen's (Alexis Bledel of "Gilmore Girls"), which was very prim and zipped up. What symbolism was behind that?

First, [the extreme Toronto weather] dictated how to design an army of Handmaids and make them look uniform, but also create an individuality in how their cloaks or capes would hang or whether or not they wore an obi or a corset. There were actually two reds of the cloaks, and one was more vibrant and saturated and the other was a bit more faded and that was just to show that maybe some of the handmaids had been there for a year or two longer. All of this world changed in only five years, right?

Secondly, it was how to reveal to the audience that these are not just cartoon cutouts of the same paper dolls but actually living breathing women that have many secrets. In the way that the dialogue goes between the handmaids, it's quite clipped and stilted, and little tiny things can mean big things and vice versa. So, Offglen's character is quite hidden and secretive and has things to share with Offred that she cannot in the presence of men who are guarding them. I knew there were going to be a lot of scenes with them together going down the street; it's their only moment for freedom and communication, so I closed up Alexis. The way she played Offglen was beautifully, emotionally walled and not present, so I tried to throw that into her cloak, because you have these things — two cloaks, two wings and a lot of focus on the eyes for interaction — so you have to find ways to subtly make changes or to individualize the costume.

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What is the significance in the design of Offred's boots, which the camera lingers on in one of the early episodes?

The boots are a direct inspiration from a pair of well worn boots of my own. I've always loved them — a little too much — as they have a spat, which renders them a kind of perfect military inspiration for the Handmaids' boots. I wanted to underline and exemplify the idea that the laces from their boots have been removed — much like in prison — so that they wouldn't be able to hang themselves. To add insult to that visually, I added a boot cover or spat on top, a short version for summer and a longer version for winter, made out of a kind of canvas duck. This reminder tells them that they cannot even think about hanging themselves. The laces are removed and even the grommets for those laces are visually erased. The freedom to even think on suicide has been replaced with this barrier.

Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Photo: Take Five/Hulu

Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Photo: Take Five/Hulu

What's is the meaning behind Serena Joy's and the Wives' shades of teal and the silhouettes of their costumes?

Every kind of group or tribe that exist in Gilead is set by color; the opposite of Handmaids — because they're always in these Commanders' Wives homes — is teal. Green is reserved for the Marthas, who are the domestics. Teal was a color that was poetically religious without going into a Catholic blue. It also has this weight, and you look in the frame and it bizarrely in a great way changes color with a certain actor's eyes. For instance, on Yvonne Strahovski, who plays Serena Joy, I just tried to use the color as a flash to mirror emotionally what was happening in the scene. So sometimes she's stronger and more saturated and sometimes she's fading a little bit. That also is revealed in the design or the structure of her dresses. 

There are so few Commanders and so few Commanders's Wives that we played a game that this world was created overnight. They have five tailors that are high end and only do their clothing, because even though it's pious, it's made to measure — everything is. Then, everyone else's clothing, the military guys and the Handmaids, was factory work. Hopefully in the viewing, you will see that defined in the tailoring and the finishing of the clothing.

Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). Photo: Take Five/Hulu

Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). Photo: Take Five/Hulu

The show started shooting in July of 2016 and finished post-inauguration in February 2017. Did any of the real life political climate play into your design?

I would say yes, and not in a giant earth shattering way, visually. I couldn't do that if I wanted to, because it would disrupt the frame and disrupt the story. But, of course, as an artist and as a creative person, a kind of emotional malaise comes over you and then the way you deal with that is you throw it into the work. You can't stray too far once [the show] starts shooting, but it was always in the back of my mind — most particularly in designing for the women in all different ranges of their groupings, whether it's Handmaids or Econowives or Marthas or even the Commanders' Wives. But it actually very much fueled and helped me in terms of the Commanders, because any imbalance of power where it's heavily influenced by white, wealthy, very powerful men who are used to being in power — to design that look, you just kind of go for it. I try to put myself in [in the mind of] real life folks that may or may not be in power now, and also the characters because they were parallel. 

That kind of political climate influence, it always fuels the work in a positive way, even if it might not be a positive thing that you're reading at the time in real life. There were constant parallels between real life and our script — it was rather shocking. I mean, that happens once in a blue moon when you're working. To have that happen every day, I think that really helped the actors, myself, the directors. I mean, we talked about it constantly. Being in this very bizarre place of looking into a mirror and experiencing it and then being lucky enough to be able to do something with it, as opposed to not.

What did you think of the activists in Texas wearing copies of your Handmaid costumes to protest the state's anti-abortion measures?

Those incredible women — I was so very proud of them and incredibly happy. They contacted me prior to that, which was really kind of them. They didn't have to do that. They had seen a very cool promo that I had designed for Hulu separately that came out during SXSW. They're from Texas and then one of them — it was a tiny group, but a powerful group — contacted me and I actually could not be a part of it, legally, and I was very bummed about that. 

But then opening Twitter on that day, I just remember sitting down for a solid hour looking at that and openly weeping because I couldn't believe a small group of women could do such a giant thing on their own, and most importantly be successful at it and to do it with such grace and such dignity and such quiet power. That is a very rare power these days. You need fireworks, you need special effects; they didn't need that. They just needed a strong female presence of quiet fortitude. And to this day, I get emotional. I was very much in awe of those women and wish I could have been a part of it.

You were, though, through the costumes.

I gave them my own support and just tried to give them advice on how to do that without getting involved. It really gave me a lot of hope as a woman, separately from anything at all involved with the costume design. It's women coming together. It's never been more apparent [we need that] than the fucking 1900s or the 1970s, like, it's time.

Follow Ane Crabtree on Instagram @AneCrabtree and Twitter @AneCrabtree. 'The Handmaid's Tale on premieres on April 26 on Hulu. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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