When conceiving the looks for Hulu's dystopian hit The Handmaid's Tale (new episodes stream Wednesdays), Ane Crabtree was adamant that "it not look like a costume drama," she says. And since the series is set in a world in which women are stripped of all rights, the form and function of the actresses' clothing was absolutely crucial. Here, the designer reveals how her aesthetic choices play into making viewers "deathly afraid that this could happen to themselves, their sisters, their aunts, or the woman down the street who’s all of a sudden gone missing. She shows up a few years later with this red cape and white thing on her head."
Once Crabtree (seen here sketching at her desk) signed onto the project, she opted to avoid Margaret Atwood’s novel and the 1990 film adaptation, so as not to influence her own vision for the series. “I read the scripts instead,” she says. “I researched present-day cults, religious groups, Hitchcock films, and French and Italian New Wave cinema.”
For the uniform, Crabtree put herself in the mind of the man behind the madness: the Commander (Joseph Fiennes). “He doesn’t want to spend money on Handmaids, so the clothing is cost-effective.” That’s why Crabtree designed a wrap skirt and cape with fishhook closures: “If they got pregnant, it would still fit.”
“The walls of my office were a little bit nutty,” says Crabtree, who layered so many images on top of one another the surfaces were covered many times over. “You would think you went into someone’s mental cave. But it was the only way that I could visually share with my team— the tailors, actors, and directors. My office was our meeting ground.”
After considering endless paint swatches, Crabtree finally looked beneath her feet to nail the Handmaid’s hue. “I was working in a former glass factory in Toronto, and there was this blood red paint on the concrete. I was obsessed with it and said to everybody, ‘This is the color, I know it!’ It was literally at my feet.” She says the shade reminded her of blood and found it to be a universally flattering color for the varied skin tones of the cast.
For day one of filming, Crabtree created 100 linen “wings,” the Handmaids’ lampshade-esque headgear. “We made slightly different wings for each actor with a speaking part — they were all custom-fit,” she says, and some versions were even made with plastic to withstand rain scenes. Why were so many necessary? She laughs: “They don’t stay white!”
“The women in the story had to wear these outfits as their prison uniform, and during filming, they had to wear them every day from September to February. It was 100 degrees when we started,” says Crabtree, pointing to a shot of the actors needing to take a break and lie down in the heat. “And by the end, we were in 30 below weather with frozen lakes.”