Costume designers are rarely given due credit for their contributions to film and television. Most viewers see them simply as commodified fashionistas, when in reality a costume designer is integral to character and story development. No recent property has illuminated this importance quite as much as Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, where every character's iconic garment must act as shorthand visual Cliff's Notes for a speculative-fictional world both unlike and like our present day. Ane Crabtree, the designer responsible for these evocative wardrobes, has become a kind of spokesperson for costumers everywhere since the series' premiere. Crabtree has an adroit way of discussing the philosophies behind her design, and she's been rightly honored with a pop-up exhibition of her work at the Paley Center for Media (on display through Sunday, May 14). Crabtree answered via email some of our burning questions about how she dreamed up these nightmarish dresses.
You said you had looked at the wardrobes of present-day religious cults both in and outside of America for inspiration. Would you mind elaborating and giving us some examples of specific design aspects you found in specific cults? What was it that drew you to them?
I hesitate to point out specific design aspects, as nothing I do is really specific. I am more borrowing the kind of emotional pull that I feel the inspiration gives me. The inspiration is from within the human being and not necessarily in the costumes themselves. The vibe or aspect is illuminated through the feeling of the clothing of the character, more than a specific visual, as I am never interested in duplication. … My eye/brain/heart cannot think/design in this way. It wasn’t just religious cults but also various forms of religion and even practices that have nothing to do with religion, but more a way of life. These are not in order: the Amish (the braces and trousers of the commanders, the simplicity of their clothing); Gloriavale Christian community in New Zealand (kind of an all-over inspiration); and Shintoism in Japanese and Okinawan culture (interspersed it in the commanders military uniforms). I truly drew from any culture or way of life where people dress similarly. It was easiest to find these inspirations in religious-based societies, but also I looked to 1900s workwear [and photos by] August Sander, Irving Penn and Brassaï.
Were you worried about drawing too heavily from any one specific source?
Always. I find it creatively lazy. I think my eye wants to experience the normal in a new way. Also I think that it’s exciting to see classicism in old meeting new … kind of no era/period. Timelessness that creates a kind of netherworld that could have happened long ago and now (as it has, throughout extreme times of war, poverty, religious movements).
You've talked about how the design of the handmaids' dresses were in a way to make it easier for the male characters to see whether or not a handmaid was pregnant. You've also talked about the slight differences in fading and fit for each handmaid. But can you also speak to the material? How did you settle on this particular cloth? It's not flimsy. It's quite sturdy and thick, almost like armors. What's your process for selecting materials in a project like this?
Well the dress is very fluid. it has movement built in. I chose the lightest rayon that would lift with the wind and/or sudden movements. Part of this was to be mindful that without movement, these costumes could be quite boring … like moving mountains. I didn’t want the characters/actors to get lost within them and we lose sight of the human underneath. Also, it was so hot in Toronto when we started, over 100 degrees, and it was out of love and care for the actors to choose something light. Lastly, the lightness would add pathos/wrinkles that were individual to the wearer. The capes were thick … I purposely chose wool gabardine, as I wanted something that would realistically look/feel as if it were lasting. These are uniforms, prison garb as it were. the clothing needed to work in 100-degree heat and below-30 frozen-lake weather. it needed to withstand time, weather, hard work …
It's no secret that the cast and crew were highly aware of what was happening in real-life politics during the filming of the show. You've said that you often talked on set about how much it was paralleling the script. Could you share any of the conversations you had on set? Was there any particular moment, for instance, where you were costuming someone, and the costume you designed suddenly seemed a bit scary to you?
It happened every day, all day. in costumes this simplified, this pared down, what happens is (at least to me) that the wearer and the creator feel a kind of emotion in the clothing. It is so stripped away of artifice that what you experience is yourself and whatever is happening in the script. I believe everything became more heightened because of its simplicity. Each day the world was changing in the States, and each day on set we/I was experiencing a kind of seismic shift in my own reactions to real life and the story we were creating. The two mirrored each other so closely. Perhaps one of the actors felt visually like Pence to me — but that was my own combining of real life and the [fictional] one I was hired to create.
How were the actors responding to your costumes as real-life political turmoil was hitting in the US? Were they becoming more uncomfortable?
I think that we were all individually using the story as somewhat of a safety net, and also a great instigator — we were trying to just complete a really intense project, honestly. And then real life happened and made everything take on an ominous tone. I cannot speak to the actors’ personal stories, as what we do as artists is so personal. I can only say that we all used real life in different ways to heighten our experience in various ways.
What does it mean to you that these costumes you've designed are about to become an enduring symbol of female oppression/resistance? Is this something you ever expected?
I did not expect this. And i cannot take the credit. Margaret Atwood wrote this long ago. iI was birthed from her creative impetus long ago. What I tried to do is to respect that, honor it, then take it down a path of the right here, right now. I wanted these costumes to be modern and to be frightening, I guess. I simply wanted people to feel that this could happen, that it was a surreal, abstract way to control women and society, and then real life took its course. I happened to be a spider spinning a web, and then someone in the states took power, and made it all too real. That person — he made female oppression real and modern. I was trying to tell the story the best way I could through the clothing. But I’m not going to lie. I went through tremendous anger, rage, disbelief at what was happening and at the rapid pace that it was happening. I most certainly threw that back into the clothing, as I had nothing else in my power to use.
You put an inverted vagina on the aunts' collars. Are there any other sneaky ornamental details we should be looking out for in the costumes?
Beyond this, I put a design element of 3s into some of the women’s clothing. This happened because of a mix of religious upbringing — Buddhist and Christian (Episcopalian). I think because of my mixed race/heritage, I approach religion and elements of it in my own way. The idea of “threes” in my upbringing in the south/midwest is kind of summed up in this idea. I was at a painting/writing program in Pennsylvania, living in an old, stripped-down, all white painted church. It was beautiful and quite surreal … all elements of anything religious were gone, but the facade of religion, the church, was still apparent in the structure or frame of where I was living and working. Each night/morning, I was waking up exactly at 3:33 a.m. I loved this, as I felt it was probably a highly charged creative time, but also, was terrified, as the church was haunted by a few ghosts and I was afraid to work in the dark. So I would lie there terrified, awake, until the sun rose. When I asked folks in the small farming town what it meant, and folks back home in Kentucky, they said something to the effect of it being “about the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.” I knew and didn’t know precisely what they meant. but i decided to throw that experience and its meaning into The Handmaids Tale. for the first time, since that residency, I was waking at 3:33 each day in Toronto while working on The Handmaids Tale. I felt it was probably going to come out in the work, and it did. There are threes, hidden and not hidden in the handmaids nightgowns (which i called “the trinity”), in the undergarments and petticoats of the handmaids, in the overskirts of the little girls in pink, who i call “the innocents,” that they wear over their dresses. It is in small details everywhere. This comes, of course, from religion, but also from the natural topography of Canada [and other] places that I visited. I decided that it probably would mean something big later in my life (as I haven’t quite figured it out yet), and so I threw it into the clothing.
Paley Center Pop-Up Exhibit: The Handmaid’s Tale: Costumes by Ane Crabtree, 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills; through Sun., May 14. paleycenter.org/handmaids-tale.