there are secret feminist messages sewn into the handmaid’s tale costumes
The costume designer for the new adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s chillingly prescient novel discusses misogynist dictatorships and slipping subtle jokes into the women’s clothing.
ane crabtree. image courtesy of hulu
Los Angeles-based costume designer Ane Crabtree wept for an hour when she saw what happened at the Texas State Senate on March 21. Sitting in silence, a group of female activists staged a visually powerful protest against an incoming series of anti-abortion regulations. After consulting Crabtree via Twitter, they had made their own versions of the red hooded robes worn by characters in The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's alarmingly less and less implausible 1985 novel. Crabtree designed the costumes for the forthcoming TV series based on the book.
Atwood has always insisted that The Handmaid's Tale is speculative fiction, not science fiction; that its fundamentalist America is within the realm of possibility. The Hulu adaptation will be available to stream on April 26, a little over three months after Trump's inauguration. And the novel has never been more poignant than during his presidency, when pro-choice legislation and institutions are increasingly endangered. The Handmaid's Tale has experienced a 200 percent increase in sales since the election in November 2016.
Staying true to the book, but with canny contemporary updates, the ten-part series follows Offred (Elisabeth Moss) as she navigates her duties as a handmaid, a fertile woman conscripted into the home of the ruling elite to bear children in an increasingly barren near-future New England. In this theocratic state, The Republic of Gilead, dress is used to signpost different social classes: for example, Atwood specifies in the novel that handmaids wear red, male commanders wear black, and high-ranking wives wear blue. Clothing is regulated and codified to the highest possible degree. As Crabtree says, "every piece of real estate means something."
Her task in 2017, she says, was to make the plot's events feel as viscerally real as possible. She's used to creating new, immersive alternate realities (she also designed the costumes for Westworld), but The Handmaid's Tale presented an entirely new set of challenges. "We knew that this was going to be very impactful," she says.
Margaret Atwood is a consulting producer for the series. Did you speak with her about the costumes?
I actually didn't want to ask her about them. But I did have a great moment with her in her dressing room, because she has a cameo in the first episode, as an Aunt [a female overseer] at the Red Centre [where the handmaids are inducted]. There are very descriptive passages about the wings and capes in the book, and I took a lot of notes, but there was also breathing room and trust. Bruce Miller, the creator of the show, said, "Please let's not make a costume drama" and I was so delighted, because I had very little interest in doing that. We had to make it feel real.
For a while, we even thought about not doing wings [the handmaids' head coverings]. We wondered how we could make them believable. But we kept coming back to the genesis of what Margaret wrote. We wanted to honour it but also make sure people would believe this is truly the new normal.
What does Margaret wear? How did you decide to dress the Aunts?
I had a colour chart on my wall that I always looked at. The commanders are all in black, then there are the Guardians, who control the handmaids, and next to those guardians are the Aunts. I knew that I wanted to put the Aunts in a military colour, so that you knew that they were separate from the wives (in teal) and the handmaids (in red). But it also had to be an earth colour. The colour specifically came from WW1 uniforms. I also thought about Hitler. Margaret Atwood has spoken about the parallels between Gilead and Hitler's Germany. He was, though hated, an inspiration for this show -- because he came from an artistic background, he studied art, but he wasn't good at painting people. I used that idea to infuse the character of the commander who created this world. Everything came from the commander and the whole idea of this colour scheme came from him, so I used him as my muse.
When I was designing the Aunts' costumes, I also hid a little pocket on the inside that was for their cattle prods so that they could whip them out and shock the handmaids. I added lots of little secrets so that the actresses could really use the costumes. I didn't want to just create a world of shapeless capes.
I wanted to ask you about the handmaids' thick brown stockings. They're only visible in the show for a few seconds, but they leave a strong impression...
Do you like them or hate them?
They seemed like exactly the kind of functional, deliberately desexualising undergarment the regime would make handmaids wear.
Those fucking brown socks. They drove me crazy. We initially said, "The handmaids have to be in head-to-toe red" but it looked too costume-y. I wear these super old brown boots that have a spat on them. They look military and unisex, so I thought, "Why couldn't they have these?" As soon as women land in the Red Centre, all the laces are pulled out of their boots so that they can't hang themselves, it's just like prison. So a spat or boot cover would make that even worse. Any freedom is absolutely taken away from women as soon as they are captured. It's really heavy. Even the freedom to think about using your shoelaces for hanging yourself. The socks we just decided to make an ugly brown. We kept dyeing and dyeing and dyeing them to get the colour. It looks wrong on every skin tone, which is the point.
You mentioned that Amish dress was an inspiration. The costumes also made me think of Puritans and the first generations of American settlers.
Yes to all of that. I have a huge appetite for research; it's my favourite part. I surround my space with imagery, which helps the whole team. On the walls were images from the 1900s through to the 90s -- the very beginning of those decades had the cleanest, purest lines. I also researched a cult in Denmark, which reminded me of the male and female dress codes of Atwood's book. I looked at some films, too. Bruce Miller loved Carrie Grant so there is some Carrie Grant woven into the commander. Max Minghella's character, Nick, is a chauffeur and there's a little jacket that he wears. It's slightly military looking and based on a still of Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront. But it was also a nod to Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons -- the way that those designers use uniforms -- and to early Prada. Then I looked at any religious society in which women are covered. I even looked at the headgear of the Japanese pearl divers.
Do you have any favourite details that might not be visible on the screen?
There are three that come to mind. I'm Okinawan, and I wanted to put a little secret into the clothes. For the commander's military uniform, I didn't want it to look like the American military because it had to be the military of Gilead. So I created a rope trim with roots in Shinto. The other influence was Matthew Barney. Another thing is that I kept waking up at 3:33 everyday during production. So I decided to throw the number three into all of the costumes. Nobody will know but me.
I got very depressed, at times, while creating these clothes designed by men to oppress women. The only way I got around it was by creating visual jokes and visual "fuck yous" for the women. The Aunts' jacket-and-dress combination actually looks a bit like an inverted vagina. They can only see it when they look down, so it's more for the handmaids, who have to look at them all the time. I don't know if people will see it, but I do. When I was 14, someone introduced me to Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party. I had never really thought about feminism until then. She made these allusions to genitalia on the plates and I threw that into the costumes.
Working on the costumes for Westworld, did you also try to put yourself in the headspace of a male designer?
Yes, I was designing as a man and the man was Anthony Hopkins's character Dr. Robert Ford. It's interesting. For The Handmaid's Tale, I used my church roots. I didn't come from a Baptist family, but I was an altar server growing up. I loved the ceremony. I just tried to think in terms of a religious leader who had such an ego that he was going to destroy everything we knew and create a whole new world. What type of brain would do that? It has to be a creative brain, no matter how fucked-up it is.
With the costume design, I had to get into the head of "I don't want to be attracted to these women," "I don't want them to have more power than me," and "I want to be able to stand on a mountain, look down, and see these tribes fall in line" - in this totalitarian misogynistic way. The only way out of that was to give them tiny freedoms.
'The Handmaid's Tale' will be available to stream on Hulu on April 26.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Images courtesy of Hulu