The timeliness of’The Handmaid’s Tale, depicting a patriarchal, religious coup that gives rise to a theocratic society called Gilead in which women are stripped of their rights, forbidden from reading and writing, and forced to bear children for the society’s elite, wasn’t lost on costume designer Ane Crabtree. The first season premiered four months after President Trump’s inauguration, and at the tail end of last year, a groundbreaking expose on Harvey Weinstein unveiled decades of alleged sexual abuse, sparking the #MeToo movement and allowing women to come forward to share their stories. A protest at this year’s Golden Globe Awards (the series picked up two awards), which featured women in red handmaid cloaks, was meant to demand the end of sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry.
“To have women protesting in the costumes was always very poignant because it means things aren’t good, but it also means that women are coming together, making a statement, and utilizing something that on paper was used to oppress women and instead, using it to express themselves,” Crabtree tells CR. “To me, that was beautiful fuel to keep going.”
Outside of having a hand in sending a powerful message through the show’s costumes, Crabtree had the unique opportunity to expand beyond Atwood’s source material for the second season of the stunning adaptation, premiering today on Hulu. Picking up where the first season left off, a newly pregnant Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss) has been whisked away by the Guardians, Gilead’s version of the police, at the behest of Nick (Max Minghella), Offred’s spy-turned-love interest. Meanwhile, Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) are preparing for the birth of their first child.
To reflect the characters’ psychological state in the clothing, Crabtree experimented with different shapes and silhouettes for the commanders and their wives. Because the wives themselves mimic being pregnant as their handmaid prepares to give birth, Crabtree crafted a maternity-style dress with a focus on Serena Joy’s abdominal area to give the impression that she was with child, creating a blouson jacket over a tightly formed turtleneck dress and girdle. “That area will move further and further up as the season goes on to her waist and chest air, in a play on being pregnant that happens very slowly throughout the season,” Crabtree says.
As season one explored a schism within Gilead, in which top commanders wished to “clean up” and purge corrupted officials in their top ranks, Crabtree wanted the military dress of the commander uniforms to mirror this weakened, more vulnerable state, by giving them less structured silhouettes in the second season. She looked to traditional military garb but removed all intricate details, crafting a uniform that was very lean and close to the body. The minimalism showed both in the commander’s everyday suit and the uniform he would wear for tribunals.”It’s still pretty powerful,” Crabtree says. “When you see everyone all together, it feels like an army.”
Perhaps one of the most anticipated costumes for Crabtree to explore in season two was the looks for the Colonies, a barren wasteland filled with toxic radiation where exiled handmaids, professors, intellectuals, and LGBT women (or “gender traitors,” as they’re called on the show) are sent to work and die. The “Unwomen” are treated as prison camp workers and have six months to a year to live, spending the rest of their days turning over the ruined earth and cleaning up toxic waste. It’s where we’ll find Emily (Alexis Bledel), Janine (Madeline Brewer), and a new character played by Marisa Tomei.
For inspiration for the Unwomen’s costumes, Crabtree looked to Edward Weston’s black-and-white photos of 1930s migrant workers, Andrew Wyeth’s family portraits, Van Gogh’s famous “Potato Eaters” painting, Russian propaganda posters, and current photographs of migrant workers in Africa and California. The Unwomen uniforms, comprising six layers of fabric and rendered in a muted robin egg blue color, were created with these landscapes and utilitarian wear in mind. Located at the very back of their uniforms is a zero, symbolizing their disgraced status in Gilead.
“I’ve studied Amish culture, and they have a beautiful circular shape in some of their aprons; I decided to take that and throw it into the unwomen and make it a zero,” she says. “The least thing you can be is an unwoman.”
Crabtree also took inspiration from the Hiroshima bombing and Fukushima nuclear disaster for the head caps that the Unwomen wear. Crabtree, who is half Okinawan, grew up with her mother’s friend Eiko, who was a child during Hiroshima and had radiation scars from when she was younger that never completely healed. The sheer organza caplet, which Crabtree says Moss refers to as a “membrane,” resembles skin coming off the Unwomen’s heads as they take it off at the end of a long day of work.
The uniforms that the women and the soldiers are intentionally designed through the lens of the male gaze, a symbolic depiction of Gilead’s patriarchy (the handmaid’s winged caps, worn to hide women’s hair, is one example of this).
“It’s getting to a place of thinking of what a man in power would do if he could control everything, especially the outside of a person, because that’s the biggest form of imprisonment. Clothing is the first start,” she says. “I had to mediate on what would a man do if he had to create a society overnight and rebuild with the belief that his new world was going to be so much better. I think even our most scary moments in history have ultimately started with a positive, idealistic take on things.”
The scene in which Moira (Samira Wiley) was welcomed humanely as a refugee in Canada in season one was meant to evoke a subtle commentary on the current refugee crisis without being overt or overbearing. Fans get to explore more of that world in season two and what it means to be an American refugee in an alternative future living in Little America (otherwise known as Toronto). For the clothing, Crabtree wanted the wardrobe to look as authentic as possible, as though it could have been sourced from women’s church groups, Habitat for Humanity, or secondhand thrift stores. To match their dire situation, the clothes were cast in a more somber and dark color palette. Crabtree also turned to her niece, who works with refugees in Kentucky and show creator Bruce Miller’s cousin, who works for the United Nations, for research.
While Atwood’s work was published during the height of Reagan-era conservatism, the narrative has lost none of its poignancy in today’s uncertain political climate. One day while O-T Fagbenle, Offred’s husband Luke who managed to escape to Canada in season one, was getting ready to shoot a scene, Crabtree asked if they could write “Welcome refugees” on their hands. It happened to correspond with President Trump’s executive order in January to freeze refugee resettlements and to bar anyone from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S.
“We said, Let’s come at it from a real place,'” Crabtree says. “How that translates in the clothing is how we can respect real refugees who are escaping places where they have been abused and to tell their stories with great integrity. It’s always and forever art imitating life on a show, for better or for worse.”
Crabtree never anticipated the resounding cultural impact that the handmaid costumes would have on political protest and in fashion, with designers from Erdem to Vera Wang taking inspiration from the series. For Spring/Summer 2018, Wang debuted black handmaid caps and the trouser version of the wool cloaks. To have her work recognized in fashion, a world she thought she had left behind when she transitioned from stylist to costume designer, is, for her, the highest compliment.
“I’m still throwing fashion into the clothes via Serena Joy or Naomi Putnam and I even think Nick’s little jacket, this navy wool jacket, is very much industrial-wear and kind of like Yohji Yamamoto,” she says. “For fashion to be recognizing that on a show that’s so serious and religious is exactly what I wanted to have happened.”
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