The most visually arresting part of The Handmaid’s Tale, the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel, are the uniforms the Handmaids wear: bright-red dresses capped with stark white bonnets. The Handmaid’s Tale does much of the world-building of this near-future dystopia through its costume design. In this new totalitarian theocracy known as Gilead, women are divided into different castes according to their usefulness to the state; the uniforms follow suit. The Handmaids wear long red dresses because they are, quite literally, the reproductive organs of the new country. The costume designer Ane Crabtree calls the colour “lifeblood”.
Watch the first episode of The Handmaid's Tale here:
Crabtree wanted to toe the line between realism and surrealism in the clothes by mixing familiar religious dress with influences from the fashion and art worlds. “I’m throwing in a very tiny surreal mist to the clothing so it feels like a dream,” Crabtree said. “You can’t quite tell if you’re awake or dreaming or having a nightmare, and part of that is just the reaction to all that was happening in the States with politics.” Crabtree spoke to us about the inspiration behind each uniform she created, from the teal dresses of the Wives to the olive-brown clothes of the Aunts.
Crabtree wanted to create a look for the Handmaids that would be realistic, so she drew from cults and religious groups around the world from the 1900s to the present, including the Amish, a Danish cult called Tvind and others for inspiration. “But I throw in a little Matthew Barney, and kind of a Westwood-esque appeal because it is strange no matter how you look at it,” said Crabtree. The dresses specifically were very thin and lightweight so that they could catch the air and the women would look like “walking wombs”. “They would also be a flowing life force of blood,” Crabtree said.
While the dresses were made from the “thinnest of the thin” fabrics, the cape and cloak were made from wool that was meant to last. “When they’re wearing it, it weighs heavy. It feels like a sentence,” said Crabtree. Plus, they would be practical. During summer shoots, the actors could wear the dresses, and in the fall, they could wear the cloaks over themselves.
In a lot of ways, the “wings”, or the headpieces, were the trickiest design challenge. Crabtree said they considered a number of options, including scarves, but ultimately decided to stay true to Atwood’s book and created a tunnel-like bonnet that would not only obscure the Handmaid from the gaze of others, but acts as blinders on her vision — a deliberate, physical impediment to control the women who wear them. They would muffle sound for the actors, too, so they would have to listen in a different way. “We decided to use that as a vehicle to heighten the cages that they were in mentally, physically, emotionally. And then use it to reveal the eyes, reveal the emotions,” said Crabtree. “What was actually a hindrance became quite a helpful vehicle for a new way of acting, a new way of filming, a new way of designing.”
Crabtree drew inspiration from the older Korean women she would see around town who would wear large sun visors. “I’m in Los Angeles, so, when I go hiking, sometimes Korean women wear giant visors. It came from that reality in modern times,” she said. “I didn’t want people saying like, 'Oh, here come the nuns.'” She made the bonnets out of a material close to a linen so that they could play with shadow and light. “It has a beautiful slight opacity when you need it to, and slight luminosity for natural light and lit moments,” said Crabtree. “We didn’t want it to be this sort of concrete slab thing on the head. We wanted to do shadows on the faces.”
Crabtree based the Aunts’ uniforms off of a sketch she made while at the Duomo in Milan when she saw a priest walk by. “I wanted that kind of stance for the Aunts — that kind of authority,” said Crabtree. She used a heavy-duty wool in an olive-brown colour to construct their uniforms, because she wanted to convey that they were still powerful women in Gilead. “The best colours for that was this World War I British military brownish-green,” she said. She mashed that up with another unlikely reference: the hit TV ’70s show Maude starring Bea Arthur. “They wore these really long-ass vests that went over turtlenecks. If you look at the Aunts, when they’re wearing turtlenecks, it’s basically Maude, only with sleeves.”
She also added a “hidden secret” into their clothing that references Judy Chicago’s feminist work The Dinner Table. “There is an inverted vagina that only that person staring at them can see, or they can see when they’re looking down.” She also added a long, hidden pocket into their clothes where they could potentially hide the cattle prods they use against the Handmaids. “In my brain, if I wanted to play an Aunt, I’d want a secret compartment just because I’d want to switch it up and not unhook it from my belt,” she said.
“The Wives are the only place where there’s a bit of freedom, visually,” Crabtree said. “The Commanders’ wives were a place where I could expand my mind visually and create. We wanted to come from a place of reality.” And while the Wives of the elite wouldn’t be able to dress provocatively, she still wanted to create details — fine stitching, pleats — to create class differentiation. “There’s no grand design, there’s no flowery, there’s no excess,” she said. “What’s beautiful is how simple and plain [it is.]”
In episode two, when the women assemble for the birth day, Crabtree put them in different shades of blue. “I started playing with different tones of teal in the Wives and also in the Handmaids because if you have cardboard cutouts of people in the same silhouettes, in the same colour, it starts to look like a play,” she said. The more powerful women were outfitted in darker teals. “The colour has such a poignancy and shadow. And it has such pathos,” she said. “It’s like aged, beautiful, bird’s-eye blue. It’s darkened and withered and spoiled.”
The Marthas are the domestic worker class of Gilead; the house servant who cannot bear children, but can raise them. She created a look that she calls “domestic Russian communist meets Liz Taylor in the ’60s”, because even though something is ugly, she wants it to be “cinematically, beautifully ugly.” Crabtree discovered her inspiration for the colour of their uniforms in nature. “I found this beautiful close-up of a moth that’s quite furry, feathery, and it was faded like it had lost its colour,” she said. “That to me, emotionally, was the Marthas. They are not fertile, so they become the domestic servants of this world.” She added, “The Marthas are the ones that wither into their environment. So the costume, I wanted to reflect that.”
Crabtree decided that the more powerful a person is in Gilead, the darker the colour of their uniform. So the men with the most power, the Commanders, would be in black because it is “the colour that absorbs all other colour”. Still, she wanted to be careful of the kind of black she used, and went back to Alfred Hitchcock films as a reference. “To have somebody in matte black is so boring, it almost doesn’t equate to power,” she said. “So what I tried to find were old-school, ’50s, ’60s wools that had quite a lot of dimension in them, and a kind of classicism that not only is evident in Hitchcock, but also in Joseph Beuys’s beautiful grey flannel suit as an art piece.”
Crabtree, who is half-Okinawan, also threw in a touch of Shinto symbology, adding a white star on the shoulder of the jacket with some roping around it. “It feels sinister, slightly like animation because I also looked to the animation parts of the Wall for a little bit of that feeling. Matthew Barney and Shinto are impregnated into the Commander’s look as an officer.”
For Max Minghella’s character, the Driver, Crabtree got inspired by Cary Grant in North by Northwest. “We don’t know anything about Nick’s character season one, except that he’s quite mysterious,” said Crabtree. “We think he’s a Driver, but clearly something else is going on. So his clothing couldn’t actually say too many specific things. But it could be a uniform for life, and yet it was chic. It was mysterious. It’s navy blue; it feels less than the Commander — subservient enough colour-wise and silhouette-wise.”
The Handmaid’s Tale is available to stream at SBS On Demand.
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