Costume Designer Ane Crabtree On Creating The Handmaid's Tale's Ghastly, Gorgeous Dystopia


If you’re watching Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing sends a chill down the spine like the visage of Elisabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, or any number of Handmaids obscured by the “wings” of lily-white bonnets and bedecked in ominous, hooded red capes. (If you’re not, weeze a friend’s password asap and binge the first five episodes, the most recent of which was released last night.) It’s the uniform of childbearing women, stripped of their rights and distributed as property to the ruling Commanders—and their infertile wives—of a Puritanical near-future society called Gilead.

L.A.-based costume designer Ane Crabtree, 52, is the mastermind behind the show’s remarkable, and remarkably terrifying, look, from the military-esque suits of the men in charge to the dour robes of the Aunts, who rule the Red Center where Handmaids are beat into submission with doctrine, cattle prods, and the occasional eye plucking.

It’s a fictional world that, since Trump’s election in November, has a tendency to feel all too real, even for the woman who helped bring it to life. “I watched the pilot three times before it came out, and then I watched Episode 2 and I couldn’t,” Crabtree says. “With everything that’s happening in the world right now, it’s too much to bear.” The crossover is visual as well as visceral. On March 20, a group of women dressed as Handmaids descended on the Texas State Capitol to protest the discussion of anti-abortion measures. And on May 3, the day the designer was setting up the pop-up exhibit of her Handmaid’s Tale costumes at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills (through May 14), a group of protestors in Missouri donned the blood-red cloaks. “I just sat sobbing in the corner because I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s happening again,’” she says.

After creating the look of Gilead, and Westworld before that, Crabtree has become the de facto queen of dystopian design. Jezebel caught up with her by phone from Georgia, in the wee hours of the morning before she was due on the set of her new project, the pilot adaptation of Justin Cronin’s post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel The Passage. She told us how the cloak and bonnets came to be, what secret feminist messages she’s hidden in plain sight, and how she feels about inadvertently dressing the resistance.

JEZEBEL: The Handmaids’ look is so iconic. How did you begin to tackle it?

The very first conversations we had were about, How do we present this world so that it’s not some elegant beautiful period piece, some abstract idea? There’s a really fine line with a costume so bizarre-o, these white bonnets and bright red dresses and capes. The only way to approach that was to say, How do I design this to make it seem like the everyday? It’s a pious, religious connotation of a garment, but at it’s very base it’s like jeans and a T-shirt. It has to look like people wear it that way or else it’s a costume.

What did your inspiration board look like when you were thinking about that design?

I’m a Virgo moon, so I’m very compartmentalized visually. I looked at old Dutch and Italian masters paintings. I looked at the initial film, The Handmaid’s Tale, because it moved me to tears. I wanted there to be glimpses of reality in the clothing and to do that I researched religious and cult groups. There’s this very interesting New Zealand cult—they probably call it a religious group—the Gloriavale Christian Community. They have a very old-world culture, much like Gilead, where women are baking bread and children are dressed quite close to the women of the group. The essence of that is in the relationship between the handmaids and the daughters that have been taken away from them. In Episode 1 you see the little girls coming out in pink. It’s so scary to me to see children dressed the same way as the Handmaids; the color’s not the same but the silhouettes are. That kind of scary-creepy, it creeps into my work a lot. And I think it’s because I have vestiges of Hitchcock in my brain, my mother really loved him. She’s Okinawan Japanese; they love scary stuff, man! So that Children of the Corn kind of stuff always creeps in. It’s subtle but it’s there. I might look to Gloriavale, but then it goes off on a whole kid’s version of a nightmare.

I imagine finding the right red was a real journey.

For me the best red is always the color of blood. Because everyone has the same color of blood, right? What’s cool is that someone had found a picture of red beautiful maple leaves against a blue sky, tinged dark so that it looked teal. In the book [the colors are] red and blue for the wives, and in the movie it was royal blue, but those two colors look very ’90s. So this photo of the leaves against the sky, [director Reed Morano] said, “This is interesting because they’re opposites, they will fight each other in the same frame. So if you can imagine handmaids standing in the living rooms of the wives, they can be compatible or clashing, depending on the scene.” It was the perfect scenario, this photo. That’s why the wives became teal. Sort of a darker, more intellectual version of ’50s Technicolor, but you tone down all the light.

You essentially had to assume the role of the oppressor to create these costumes for everybody. Did that fuck with you mentally or emotionally while you were doing it?

One hundred percent. The only way to tell the truth in the clothing was to become the Commander, and try to get into that headspace of, Why do I want to destroy the world? What is it that made me so enraged as a white man? Growing up in Kentucky I lived across the street from a public library, thank fucking god, and the books that I would check out were often very macabre images of war—Imogen Cunningham, Margaret Bourke White, books on Hiroshima and the bodies that were shredded and/or damaged. I was drawn to these scary things. It really informed the Commander for me, and the aftermath of what he did. I tried to be the Commander looking, sketching: If this is a new world that is being birthed out of my brain because I’ve destroyed the old world, what does that look like? What do the Handmaids look like? They should be non-sexual. They should be bright red so I can always see them coming, so I can have my guardians check and see if they’re pregnant, see if they’re flirting with each other. Every tribe that you see, I came at it from a male’s point of view.

Growing up in the ’70s and watching news, I remember being in love with Anwar Sadat from Egypt. And, I’m embarrassed to say, I had a crush on Kissinger, I don’t even know why, he is a fucking madman and a tyrant. I had these weird crushes on men in politics. There’s something about wanting to get into those men’s brains. I think it comes from a place of growing up in extreme poverty with a brown-skinned mother, nobody looked like us, and trying to find, Who can help? But also, Why do men in power crush people like me? All of that informed the costumes in Gilead. Did it make me fucked up? Hell yes, sister! Because at the end of the day it’s coming out in your brainwaves and your heartwaves and your fingertips to sketch it, and you’re putting that sentence on women, on actors. I was very depressed, and then [with the election] the whole world changed in the States while I was filming in Toronto. But what you try to do is create beauty out of that pathos. You have to make a conscious choice: You can drink yourself to death or you can say, I’m not a politician but there’s got to be something I can do to mitigate the pain and also speak out, protest, silently through a story. Yes, it’s fiction, but it sure as hell has some poignant messages about reality.

Can you divulge some design Easter eggs that we as viewers could look for, things we wouldn’t notice on first watch?

Sure! So there’s this element of a vagina, inverted on the Aunts’ outfits. And the reason I did that was many fold. When I was young, I’d heard about Judy Chicago who did these installations in the ’70s. It was my first exposure to feminism in artwork and it really had a giant effect on me. I remember [in “The Dinner Party”] that she had painted female body parts [on plates] and I thought, Wow, that’s amazing because you’re eating it, like, your food’s on top of it, it’s in your face. There’s no way you cannot see that and react to it. I loved that. So part of that came from Judy Chicago, but it also came from that whole sentence I gave myself to be a Commander, creating these imprisonments called costumes for everybody. I wanted to put little “fuck yous,” little humorous secrets for the women in the clothing. Like, “You might think that you’ve put this military, long, priest-like robe on me as an Aunt, but there’s not gonna be a cross around my neck, there’s gonna be a fucking giant vagina!” [laughs] For me it’s a way to scream without physically screaming.

And this one’s really abstract. There’s something that happens to me in times of great concentrated creativity, where I wake up at 3:33 a.m. I started reading into, What does 3:33 mean? Being from the South, being raised Christian, I called up people in Kentucky and they were like, “Oh, that’s the father, son, and holy ghost, that’s the trinity.” So that happened for the first time in my costume career in Toronto while prepping Handmaid’s Tale. I was like, you know, this 3:33 means something so I’m gonna throw it into the costumes. From that came the white nightgowns that they wear in the Red Center; there’s three “windows” on their chest. And I did it in the clothing of the Handmaids. When Offred gets undressed to take a bath, you barely see her bloomers, but there’s a triplicate folding on the legs. During the ceremony, the rape essentially, there’s a petticoat that they wear; there’s a triple folding at the bottom, which again, it may never be on camera.

I love it, it gives me chills.

Oooh, I’m glad it gives you chills. It gives me fucking nightmares, honey. And I did it to myself! [laughs]

Tying the show back into the reality that we’re living now, just this week more women protesting in Texas against the slew of anti-abortion bills dressed as handmaids. How does it feel that these looks you’ve designed for a fictional world have become visuals for the real-life resistance?

I’m not gonna lie, it feels fucking awesome. But, in that same breath, I think the thing that fuels me as a person, as a human being, as a woman, as an artist, and kind of lastly as a costume designer, I have this soft spot from my upbringing for the underdog and for people that aren’t heard or aren’t seen. I’m gonna start crying—this show has made me so emotional! Anybody who is an everyman, an everywoman, a working person, an immigrant, these are all things that are my family. A person of color, a girl who’s not the typical girl visually—anything that feels like you don’t feel a part of society and now you’re feeling like even less, anytime anybody who is feeling that, from any group, racial, political background, belief system, gay, straight bi, whatever, anybody who feels repressed, oppression, victimized, violence against them, I’m rooting for those people. And to feel like folks are so impassioned about changing, about righting the wrongs, that to me is everything, because that is pure human spirit at work. It is not about the costumes anymore.

Lisa Butterworth is a writer and editor covering food, fashion, feminism, pop culture, and all things awesome in L.A. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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