The Establishment speaks with award-winning designer Ane Crabtree about symbolism, feminism, witches, and Handmaids.
Warning: mild spoilers ahead
E ven if you haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian feminist novel, or seen its Hulu adaptation, you’ve probably seen images of the women’s uniforms in Gilead — red robes, white bonnets, hiding women’s faces and bodies, marking these women as men’s property, not people. These costumes have been donned by activists in many public protests in the last year and are now a widely recognized symbol of resistance.
At least some of the credit for this powerful sartorial movement can go to Ane Crabtree, the costume designer for the Emmy-winning series adaptation. Ane’s been a costume designer for film and television for decades. Some of her work includes the pilot for The Sopranos on HBO; episodes of Rectify on the Sundance Channel (a great series loosely based on the true-life story of Damien Echols); and episodes of Without a Trace, LAX, Vanished, Justified, and Westworld (about to debut its second season).
Ane and I talked about the ways in which her upbringing informs her work, and the importance of color in the symbolism of The Handmaid’s Tale. Also, witches…
Peg Aloi: You were born in South Dakota, raised in Kentucky. I’m very interested to know if your upbringing in what many people would call “flyover country” informs your work in general, and maybe your work on this show in particular. In The Handmaid’s Tale we see many references to the proud liberal city Boston once was, and what it has turned into.
Ane Crabtree: I definitely think that is something that informs everything and everybody, where you grow up. I moved to Kentucky from South Dakota when I was 3, and I’ve done all my adult growing-up away from Kentucky; I haven’t lived there since I was 18. Since then I’ve lived in other places usually for about 15 years, with the exception of England, where I lived for two years. I left because I was a young kid wanting different things at a young age. But I do reach back sometimes, to use things in a creative way as an adult now. I love South Dakota. Oddly, with Kentucky, work is what brought me back and I was just there recently. In my fifties now, I want to spend time with my family and get to know it again. There was some bad stuff that happened there, personally and politically. But the landscape inspires my work in a very personal way. And a very prolific way, and also in violent ways.
PA: I think one of the most interesting costume moments in the first season is in the episode “Jezebels” [in which characters visit a brothel in Gilead]. Did you have fun with that?
AC: I did. It was funny, though; we never had a lot of time, because when you’re doing television everything is on fast-forward. “Jezebels” was something that was very well-known in the book. I had to speed through it much faster than I would have liked. It was really awesome, though; a departure in so many ways. The whole vibe was so different, where the women were dressing provocatively.
It felt as though all of a sudden you’re seeing women as sexy, which is so normal, but it felt not normal. I designed everything in those scenes, from the leads down to the 40 women working at the brothel. I really wanted to make each one a distinct character, but as I said, it was all very fast. Funnily enough, I think my fashion show experience helped me, because I had to move quickly through all 40 designs, and so it was a bit stressful.
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PA: Whitney Friedlander’s interview with you for Variety discussed the color palettes and the blue dresses of the wives, which are referred to as “peacock” colors. In Margaret Atwood’s novel, the wives’ dresses are referred to as sky blue (sort of a Virgin Mary image), and in the first film adaptation the dresses are a very primary blue, sort of cobalt or royal blue, which, paired with the very bright red of the Handmaids, had this American patriotism thing going on, flag colors.
I find it so intriguing that your designs for the Commander’s wives contain a variety of colors within this palette: emerald green gowns for formal occasions, dark blue dresses for everyday, and sometimes other shades. Why is there this subtle gradation of color for them, and what kind of symbolism is contained in the color choices for these costumes?
AC: It’s a very subtle thing. I am a huge rabid fan of Margaret Atwood, and of course followed the novel for much of what we did. When we first got started with Season One, the design went into a very dark emotional version of the red and the blue in the book, which is one reason we didn’t do sky blue. Our red became blood red, and the idea for the teal blue followed thereafter. We play with color in the camera work and the use of filters in our show, and we wanted something that was hauntingly beautiful, and hauntingly disrupted. I’m a fan of the original film, and Margaret Atwood is a producer on our show so I could write to her and ask questions at any time. I followed Margaret’s story for many of the costume ideas, but I did change out the striped dresses for the Econo-wives; instead I did grey.
The original movie had that bright blue and red, as you said, and those were really perfect colors for the 1990s. But for our show, which premiered in 2016, it felt like the colors we were using were really the perfect colors for right now. There’s so much black in these colors. Being a painter that’s one way that I look at it: These are like blackened colors.
PA: The color palettes of the show’s production design often seem to arise from the costume colors, as if those points of color are the inspiration. I noticed in this season, where we see the “Unwomen” working in the Colonies, cleaning up toxic radioactive waste, there is a lot of grey in the costumes and interiors, but a lot of golden light when we see the women working outdoors. That feels almost nostalgic to me. That’s such an interesting contrast, the sunshine and all that greyness, a bit of beauty and romance amid all the horror of that place. How did you go about envisioning the costumes for these segments?
AC: When we were pitching the season, me and (production designer) Mark White came up with the visuals, and for the Colonies we looked at so many different places for inspiration. Mark and I have a very symbiotic way of creating, because we’re best friends, basically. We both adore Andrew Wyeth, and that kind of dry brushed gold you see in his paintings, that golden light that comes in winter; you know it because it’s all over upstate New York. It also occurs in Kentucky, and also in Toronto where I was living for a while. It doesn’t necessarily fill you with a feeling of warmth, there’s a coldness to it. So that straw colored shade of gold was in our original ideas for that place and affected how we chose the location.
It’s a tricky thing to ask, though: What color is radiation? Most of us are lucky enough to never even have to consider this question. I grew up with several Japanese families in my neighborhood, they were mixed families, women who had married American servicemen during the war. One of them was this amazing woman who introduced me to collecting rocks and gems, which I still do to this day. Also, in a very macabre way, she was trying to help me with understanding her story: She showed me her wounds from Hiroshima. It happened when she was a little kid and it stayed with her through her entire life. She had horrible health problems, but she was a very formidable, strong and vibrant woman. As a child, she was outside when the bombs fell and so she was exposed. So this woman’s experience found its way into the costume designs and what happens to the women over time. Fukushima, which is a much more recent historical example of this, that was also an influence, so this research all went into the costume and production design for the segments taking place in the Colonies.
This place isn’t shown in Season One, but the color blue was seen in so many places, not just costumes: a color that is tinged with sadness. So what we did was just added some grey to that for the outer layers of the costumes in those scenes. Those costumes have a lot of under layers too, and you can almost imagine it like layers of skin peeling off, which is of course what happens. You have all good intentions for things to be a certain way, but as is often the case in Toronto, there are weather changes, so I had to redesign so many things between Seasons One and Two.
‘The color blue was seen in so many places, not just costumes: a color that is tinged with sadness.’
We ended up adding more layers to the costumes of the Handmaids when they’re outdoors, and also for the women in the Colonies. The underlayers of those costumes is a sort of onion skin look, made from sheer organza that was transparent, and these went underneath these 1920s-style slip dresses, and all of this would cling to the skin, if they were bathing, for example. In one or two scenes, you can see this fabric hanging out from beneath the outer layers, you see it on Emily and Janine. One cool thing was that Lizzy [Elisabeth Moss, who plays June/Offred] saw it, and while she doesn’t wear any of those costumes, she’s just so beautifully inspired and supportive, and she said it looks like a membrane around a newborn baby. So that definitely became kind of a very meaningful icon, even though it was such a tiny part of the total design. And that idea of the onion skin, the different layers of a person and what’s left of them as they’re being literally worn away.
PA: I noticed the Commander’s wife, who winds up in the Colonies, gets to keep her blue dress.
AC: We could spent a lot of time discussing what happens to the women of Gilead; the process they go through when they’ve done something wrong, like if they’re a “gender traitor” or an educator. So for example when we see Alexis [Emily/Ofglen, who plays a professor and a lesbian, aka a “gender traitor”] and her lover go on trial, we have to think about what would they wear when we see them. Same idea for Marisa Tomei’s character: Because she was a Commander’s wife, they allowed her to keep her clothes until the very end. In our script, she was the first of the Commanders wives to go there, and in a way having that color as a reminder of who she is allows the other Unwomen to be very angry with her and it causes a chasm. It’s the way to fuel the fire, visually.
PA: I have noticed in the new season that there is a great deal of imagery that is reminiscent of the Salem witch trials. Or maybe that’s just me. Did this inform your designs at all, the idea that the Handmaids are witchy figures? Also thinking of Emily who is a sort of witchy healer figure in her time at the Colonies. And the Marthas, whose outfits feel very Puritan and Colonial-era to me.
AC: Wow. It’s mind blowing to hear this. Listen, what’s really cuckoo about it is, I have never researched any of that. I am sitting here with my mouth agape, because while I am very curious about all of that, in fact, oddly enough my grandfather on my mom’s side from Okinawa was a healer, so that’s in my family. But also, Margaret Atwood talks about one of her relatives being a sort of witch, in that she went against the grain in different ways. I had read about that in relation to The Handmaid’s Tale. Also, one of my favorite films is that one with Daniel Day-Lewis, oh what’s the name of it?
PA: The Crucible! Such a great film adaptation.
AC: I found out that my neighbor played Goody Nurse in that movie, and I never knew she was an actress. This is just so interesting and inspiring. And I have to say, sometimes when you’re dealing with creativity, there are things that are just inherent, so who knows how or why people bring their own thing to a book or piece of music or a painting. One thing I did refer to was that Old Dutch cleanser label, this beautiful image of a girl with a pair of wings, it looks very Dutch. Margaret Atwood had said this image just horrified her as a child, and so she really wanted to use that as inspiration for what the Handmaids wore.
PA: In addition to the costumes having a sort of puritanical look — well, apart from the color red, but then that’s reminiscent of The Scarlet Letter, which takes place during those times as well — you have all the imagery of the gallows, the public stoning and then the way that women in the household are treated like servants. But also, like you see in The Crucible, there’s this sexual tension with the man of the house, so basically that was all just screaming at me during the first few episodes of the second season.
AC: Again, this is just blowing my mind! I mean, maybe that symbolism was in the minds of Bruce Miller or some of the directors. TV goes so fast in production, you design and research all of it as much as you can, then you just have to run with what you’ve got. I’m sometimes embarrassed when people ask me about specific things, and I realize it’s something that was unintentional or came out accidentally, but I guess that’s how people often respond to film and TV. It’s fascinating.
‘Sometimes when you’re dealing with creativity, there are things that are just inherent.’
PA: I love that! As a film and TV critic I sometimes ask directors about things like this, and sometimes am amazed to find that some piece of symbolism or some aesthetic that I think is completely intentional was not even something they had considered. It’s really mysterious and magical to me sometimes.
Okay, one last question. There’s a lot of bad stuff happening in America now. Do you think regimented clothing or dress codes for women or other groups may soon become a reality?
CA: I think those in power are trying to take things in that direction, and I don’t think they’re going to get very far. I don’t know why I’m saying that, because we have already seen so many changes; but in my mind, I am completely optimistic. We’ve been through so many things in my lifetime. I know someone from a country that experienced severe repression of women in the late 1970s, I’ll just leave it at that without identifying the country by name. She wrote to thank me for the design of the Handmaid costumes, and she thought that I took the idea for that design from her country as a metaphor for those times of regime change. But in terms of that kind of thing happening here, I think it would take years and years, and I don’t think we’ll get there. Because I think women will just become stronger and stronger and will fight against it.