One of the most striking things about Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is the matching crimson capes and gowns; the uniform of every handmaiden in Gilead and sign of the oppressed. Costume designer Ane Crabtree brought these looks to life taking the words from Atwood’s iconic text and set the visual tone for the series in an instant. When you think of Elisabeth Moss as Offred, the mandatory red outfit is a vital part of this image.
Before the series began we got to take a look at Ane Crabtree’s work space including her image boards and what influenced this interpretation of the handmaid’s costume. Now I’m checking back in with Crabtree to discuss other aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale costuming including flashbacks and life outside Gilead.
[This conversation includes spoilers of everything up to and including episode 7]
The last time I spoke to Ane Crabtree, she was in the midst of shooting The Handmaid’s Tale in a very snowy Toronto. Flash-forward five months and Crabtree is now working on something new—another dystopian set project called The Passage—in the much warmer state of Georgia. But this doesn’t stop me from kicking off our discussion with a question about weather. Regular readers will know this is an area that fascinates me from both a practical and narrative perspective. Rather than create a specific winter and summer gown (which Crabtree felt would appear too “made for film”) it was all about the subtle changes and layering.
When everyone is wearing the same thing there are still ways to show character individuality, as well as address the seasonal shifts through costume tweaks; Crabtree explains “But then as the weather got colder I said to Bruce Miller – the show’s creator – that the most interesting thing and the most logical way to make the handmaids slightly different is to use different character, very subtle character differences in their layers.” So Offred has a red scarf, while others are more buttoned up. One scene we discussed is from last week’s episode “A Woman’s Place” as they scrubbed blood off the walls. Crabtree confirms it was as chilly as it looked “That location, in particular, was brutally cold because of where it is in Toronto, it is almost like a wind tunnel.”
Miller told Crabtree that he didn’t want a “giant sea of red without distinction.” Elisabeth Moss herself suggested a potential backstory to the layering. Moss’ idea is that all red clothing had to be donated prior to the construction of the handmaid’s uniform and that each handmaid got to pick one item like a red sweatshirt that could be worn inside the house to help keep warm. “I called the sweatshirt or sweater the ‘special,'” Crabtree told me, “and each handmaid would have their ‘special’ to don while off duty from the ceremony, going to Loaves and Fishes etc.”
One of the main things we discussed is how costuming aspects of the past relate to the characters in the present. For June and Moira, we see them dressed casually; hanging out drinking wine, going for a run and doing all the pre-Gilead things that look so familiar. “The flashbacks were really important to keep things in what we’re calling the past, but the present of reality today,” Crabtree said. “The base thing for them [June and Moira] was a way for people on the outside to also relate to these women because it is difficult to relate to just the red dresses, even though they’re amazing actors and their faces are what you relate to.”
For Serena and the Commander, we also see their pre-Gilead looks including a pink and black skirt suit that Crabtree found in a Toronto thrift store, which was then tailored to look like a classic Chanel. What this says about Serena is this woman “hasn’t changed on the inside” and she has always been drawn to classic styling that also fits her need to look moneyed as a successful author and televangelist. When Serena and the Commander aka Fred go to the movies his look matches his first name and not the scary moniker he now has. A blue buttoned up polo shirt relates to Ane Crabtree’s experience growing up in Kentucky and the infusing of preppy-conservatism is Crabtree showing “a part of my upbringing in the Commander.”
This flashback in “A Woman’s Place” is chilling as they discuss their Gilead making plans surrounded by the regular kind of people who are about to have their lives destroyed; everyone is so oblivious and showing off much more skin (bare arms!) than we are used to seeing. It also demonstrates what kind of man Fred was and how he became the Commander.
“He’s a mastermind of how to concoct and create Gilead,” Crabtree said. “He was the tiny nerd and then he started putting all the garb on as the Commander and he became more powerful in the way that – I’m not only using Hitler [as an example] – but in that way as well. Pulling out all the stops via propaganda and costume. He created a world that was fictitious and then everybody had to eat it and buy it.”
Serena is very much part of the Commander’s image making. Despite the limited teal color palette the amount of styles she has at her disposal is vast in comparison to the handmaid’s wardrobe. Serena’s including knits for gardening in, a painting jacket as well as more formal attire. Flashbacks show Serena in suits (never pants) and the gown she wore to the big dinner last week had a slight shimmer.
When I mentioned Grace Kelly, Crabtree confirmed that she went against her usual avoidance of iconic figures like Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Lauren Bacall—she prefers to use “an unknown person in a photograph”—but on this occasion she “couldn’t get away from it. I made that dress way before the episode and it was the first time that I introduced a very slight sheen to the fabric. It was a little bit of a play in terms of Serena’s business awareness because it is the first time they invite another country in. To see how and why they are so proficient at fertility.”
Don’t go looking through the Grace Kelly archives trying to find the exact dress that inspired this look, though. “It wasn’t exactly a distinct dress per se. It was more Grace Kelly herself in this one photo. It was her body and her hair.” In fact, when talking about her process, Crabtree explains that “I often don’t even look at clothing anymore,” that it’s “usually black and white photos of something not even remotely related.”
The Mexican delegation visit in episode 6 included two other figures as points of costume reference: Hillary Clinton and Prince George. The pantsuit worn by Mrs. Castillo (Zabryna Guevara) is one of the many nods to how things used to be, and how they still are in other non-Gilead countries.
“Everything is purposeful. I’ve been dying to use pants and create the whole Hillary Clinton, in a weird way, pantsuit. I wanted to nod to that without being stupid about it,” Crabtree said. “This woman is in charge. She is a delegate from Mexico. Everybody is expecting a man and he happens to be her fucking translator. Not in charge. I even almost gave her an evening pantsuit, but then I thought, ‘now it is going to look stupid.’ [Guevara] is such an amazing actress; we don’t need that in the scene. We can have an elegant black skirt and top. We made all of that for her.”
I commented on the children introduced in the celebratory dinner scene, and how their outfits (especially the boys) reminded me of photos of my grandpa—who was born in 1913—when he was very young. It turns out that this period was a reference as well as photos of Prince George. Crabtree talks about what effect this has in the scene and how it went down on set:
“It was to present and create these children as presents. It’s their selling point; we’re able to have babies and nobody can. It was weirdly bizarrely magical on set. People fucking freaked out. I’m talking grips. All those kids came out and even those kids themselves; the little boys were like “we love these outfits” and they were holding hands. It was so strange because it was having the same effect on the crew.”
In episode 5, while Luke and June are having lunch, there are some school children playing outside in the background. What the children are wearing is of great significance; if you spotted it then this will make Crabtree a very happy costume designer. “I’m glad [you noticed] because I tortured everybody to make those costumes and we did not have the time to do it or the fabrics. But I just said, ‘I don’t want to hit people over the head, but red is such a giant part of the story and if you use too much it’s gross and no one is going to care anymore because they’ve seen it too much, but if there is a way to introduce it subtly in the frame, even far deep background then all is well.””
This brings me to the big reveal and change of pace in this week’s episode “The Other Side” as we spend time in a world inhabited by people who aren’t forced into wearing outfits of one color. Luke is very much alive—even if it was touch and go—and it is jarring seeing how the rest of the world is pretty much as it was in terms of the ways people dress. We got this from the Mexican delegation, but it is reinforced in this Luke-centric episode. Also, in the same way, there was compatibility between Serena and Fred in their flashback styling, the same goes for Luke and June.
When we were discussing June’s style, Crabtree points out that June is a bit of a tomboy and there is a thread between her look and Luke’s. “They’re not hipsters, but they’re younger and they’re growing up on the East Coast.” And that while actor O-T Fagbenle has a bit of a model-y look sometimes, she wanted “still make him a father, but if you think about men in Brooklyn who are younger and have kids.”
Luke is now in Canada trying to find out what happened to his wife and daughter; we’re introduced to “Little America” in Toronto in this week’s episode and Luke looks very much the same. Again, it is jarring to see this level of normality as he still has the same glasses – based on Fagbenle’s actual glasses, which he promptly lost when he arrived in Toronto for filming so new ones were acquired – and very much the same young Brooklyn dad vibe. It is in stark contrast to Gilead as his individuality shines through.
Red handmaid’s gowns are not just limited to the pages and images of fiction as this garb has taken on new life in real protests in the Senate Chambers of Capitol buildings in Texas and Missouri. I asked Crabtree what it feels like seeing her work adapted in this way:
“It has been so beautifully translated by real people, women who just want to make a difference and so that alone is the biggest thing that has ever happened in my life. And yet I can’t take credit for any of it because Margaret Atwood is the one who created the sea, who birthed the sea thirty years ago. As a woman who wanted to make change, I just translated her words into a more 2017 or 2020 or 2022 version of her book.”
The whole idea of using these costumes to show resistance is one that has touched the costume designer. “Those women, there’s so few of them and they bandied together and they just said, ‘let’s try this.’ It was so fucking brave and amazing that they wanted to stand up.”
“I could say it is all just circumstance and parallel lives,” she continued. “I do believe in kismet and I do believe that through the arts things come out, of course on their own timeline, but you can’t not look at synchronicity in terms of inspiration, art, politics. Everything influences everything. It is not just our show. It is people’s minds. People’s attitudes that are changing.”
Crabtree weaves the personal into her work (as I also found out when discussing Westworld) and this relates to how these costumes are being used in the real world as a form of resistance; at the end of our conversation Crabtree told me “I am a person that’s multiracial, that’s from the south, that has been oppressed for years. And an immigrant. Everything that I am made up of is wrong according to the new establishment and so I’m saying [to those resisting] keep going.”
Emma Fraser is the creator of TV Ate My Wardrobe and spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion and costuming; Abbi and Ilana’s Broad City style, the wigs on The Americans and Mindy Lahiri’s pajamas are just as vital as talking about ’90s, ’00s teen shows. Emma has a MA in film and television, and she probably holds Angela Chase responsible for this path. You can find her on Twitter @frazbelina.