How The Handmaid’s Tale costume designer Ane Crabtree dresses the dystopian world

An exhibition of her costumes for the hit Hulu series debuts at SCAD FASH on May 1
The Handmaid's Tale Ane Crabtree
Ane Crabtree stands in front of a mood board for The Handmaid’s Tale.

Photograph courtesy of Hulu

When The Handmaid’s Tale took home a slew of Emmys and Golden Globes during its first award season, it was thanks in no small part to the work of Ane Crabtree, an Okinawa-bred, South Dakota-born, Kentucky-raised costume-design phenom who has clothed the likes of Dustin Hoffman, Antonio Banderas, and Sarah Jessica Parker during her career.

For her work on Hulu’s breakout streaming series, the Costume Designers Guild Award-winning designer—also lauded for her work on Westworld, Pan Am, and Masters of Sex—drew inspiration from the descriptions in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, but certainly added her distinctive spin. And thanks to a new exhibition debuting at Atlanta’s SCAD FASH Museum of Film + Fashion on May 1, fans can soon explore her imaginative creations in-person.

Composed of 45 ensembles from both seasons of the series, the “Dressing for Dystopia” exhibition is co-curated by SCAD FASH executive director Alexandra Sachs, director of fashion exhibitions Rafael Gomes, and recent SCAD alum Mangue Banzima, a fashion marketing and management grad who worked with Crabtree on a display of her Handmaid’s Tale creations at NYC’s Public hotel last summer. This is the museum’s first exhibition focused exclusively on costume design.

The Handmaid's Tale Ane Crabtree
Ane Crabtree

Photograph courtesy of Hulu

Much like the themes of the show itself, the display is undoubtedly ominous. The first gallery makes use of the Japanese tradition of “shou-sugi-ban,” which involves burning and blackening wood for a waterproof finish, proffering incredible textures and grain patterns. Elsewhere in the exhibition, visitors will experience light projections of scenes from the series, along with a monitor displaying a montage of Handmaid’s Tale actors donning the costumes on view.

We chatted with Crabtree to learn more about her creative process, her experiments on set, and how her own politics bled over into the memorable visuals she helped bring to life.

The clothing worn by residents of Gilead (the dystopian United States in which the story takes place) was detailed thoroughly in Margaret Atwood’s novel, so you had a blueprint for your work. In what ways did you deviate from her concepts?
Both the original novel and the [1990] film [starring Natasha Richardson] were definite “blueprints” for my designs. One deviation was using solid gray outfits for the Econowives (women married to poorer men) rather than the stripes depicted in the book because we needed a vehicle, visually, to [contrast] the former United States. In that world, we’d previously enjoyed using patterns [like stripes], a multitude of colors, jewelry—basically anything you no longer see in Gilead.

But it was very important to create something that would speak to Gilead in this time and space. I was looking for a specific modern dystopia that transcends the time frame of the U.S. at this very moment. So I designed from a point-of-view that is very classical and from many early time frames of each decade in fashion.

You can pinpoint many historical references in these costumes: Amish, Puritan, Japanese military uniforms. I’ve even read that you were inspired by certain European cults and a canister of Old Dutch cleanser. But since the series is contemporary, the costumes also had to feel current. How did you successfully merge past and present?
All of those references were important to me. The Old Dutch cleanser is something I’ve read that Margaret Atwood utilized to inspire description of the handmaids’ clothing. My [personal process] is to first research like mad, then select elements from each decade that speak to me and speak to the story, stopping along the way to examine that decade’s most classic elements. [The result] is a mash-up of past and present. Having studied fashion design [at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology] and not costume design, it has always been important to me to interject that element. We can’t escape the influence of fashion; it inundates our view without even trying.

The Handmaid's Tale Ane Crabtree
A close-up of one of Crabtree’s moodboards for the handmaids’ outfits

Photograph courtesy of Hulu

The handmaids’ red cloaks and white wings were first introduced in 1985, but they’ve had a recent resurgence in Trump-era protests. How do you feel about that costume reentering the cultural zeitgeist more than 30 years later thanks to your work on TV series?
I’m absolutely surprised and pleased by it, that my interpretation of Mrs. Atwood’s words became a visual metaphor for women’s individual rights and women’s collective spirit. I set out to do a job that I was hired for, and what followed was a visual dream, a reaction to many political beliefs I already align myself with. That can only be described as a dream come true.

Color was central to both Atwood’s descriptions in the novel and to your vision boards when researching the costumes. I read about how painstakingly you picked particular hues, even considering how they would look with different skin tones. But colors can appear different to viewers as they watch on their various screens—some fans felt the Econowives were dressed in pale blue, rather than gray, and the Wives’ blue outfits can sometimes appear green. Do you feel that your artistic vision comes through even with these variations?
Everyone’s [creative] eye is different, including my own. I find the variations on screen exciting, rather than limiting. So much can be changed with the turn of a dial. I do feel that my artistic vision comes through, and welcome the changes that come—whether via post-production or through the lens of the viewer. Ultimately, I hope that the visitor [to the exhibit] finds the differences enlightening.

The costumes convey a clear delineation between the social classes of Gilead. A more fashionable, figure-conscious mode of dress is reserved for the highest class—commanders and their wives. Aunts, who oversee the handmaids, don a matronly-meets-military style; Marthas, who tend to housework, wear homely outfits; and there’s a clear oppressive nature to the handmaids’ cloaks and winged headgear. In a time when many feel as though social classes are becoming more and more divided, how does your manner of costuming illustrate this?
While I always design [for Handmaid’s Tale] from a male point of view—as the “architect of Gilead”—I can say that my creativity was only further fueled by current events. I also come from a mixed-race heritage, with an immigrant mother, so I had my own fuel to add to the proverbial fire.

Atwood has long upheld the interpretation of her story as a plausible future rather than science fiction, so I imagine you wanted viewers to contemplate genuine possibilities, rather than simply suspend disbelief. In what ways have you made the garments more believable than typical costumes?
Mrs. Atwood considers The Handmaid’s Tale “speculative fiction,” as it is birthed from real stories and histories. This is Gilead; I try to imagine a place where there is no fabric, no money exchanged. Honestly, we haven’t been definite on the where, why, and how these costumes were created, but my perspective is that someone—like Economen in factories—assembled Gilead’s uniforms as a service to the community. Or perhaps a commander like Waterford hired people to design the looks as a kind of modern nomad template for the masses.

I’m coming from a pragmatic point-of-view with the clothing; it has to last through various weather—like a prison uniform that can stand wear and tear. I also designed each look for the seasons of Toronto [where we film], which is super hot in July and cold in October, then freezing for January through April. Due to on-set rain machines and sub-zero temperatures, I’ve been making use of VorTex and other waterproof fabrics, which get thrown back into the design as a reality check. This very well may be my first “method” costume design show.

The Handmaid's Tale Ane Crabtree
The Handmaid’s Tale costume designer Ane Crabtree

Photograph courtesy of Hulu

Costume design is not all seriousness and cultural commentary; it’s also a vehicle for creativity and fashion. Drawing upon classic Hollywood influences (Marlon Brando, Cary Grant), as well as design houses such as Prada, Yohji Yamamoto, and Comme des Garçons who play with military silhouettes in their collections, you’ve created something artful and fun. What are your favorite components of your designs? Perhaps something whimsical or surreptitious that visitors should look for at the exhibition?
I love all of it, and would wear all of it. That’s the basic gift I try to give the viewer: I’m creating clothes that can be worn forever, much like all that you mentioned above. I guess my favorite component is the layering—from the cobweb-style underwear to the cotton layers, the petticoats, the boot covers (definitely a fave), the high-waisted trousers, and the one Shinto star the commanders wear. I also love the triple-thick suits I’ve made for Commander Waterford. They’re a kind of David Byrne shout-out.

Are there any prototypes that didn’t make it into the final series that will be on view? How about any of the smaller items and accessories (such as the intentionally unflattering brown stockings handmaids wear)?
I’m into showing my failures as much as successes in terms of design. Early muslins will be on display in the SCAD FASH lab as commentary on the beginnings of the design for the whole show. And yes, I will have the brown stockings on the mannequins! Those came from being a kid in the South in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, always noticing that people of color never were given the choice of the right shade for hosiery, myself included. That dead brown color is a statement on how I grew up.

Why was SCAD FASH Atlanta chosen as the venue for the costumes’ debut?
[Assisting curator] Mangue Banzima, who created my costume show with Vogue at the Public hotel in New York, is responsible for introducing me to SCAD FASH. I knew about SCAD Savannah and was excited about the prospect of Atlanta as a place to show the costumes. I have a long love affair with Georgia; I’ve worked on Rectify, the Sundance TV series filmed there; a film called Lila & Eve with Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez; and, finally, a dystopian pilot called The Passage, which filmed last year in and around Atlanta. My “dog daughter,” Georgia Earline Oconee, was rescued at a shelter near the Oconee River and is a constant reminder of all of my time in Georgia. I’m a Southern girl at heart, and I wanted an exhibition and premiere to blow the east coast/west coast (both places I have lived) mythology out of the water. This is our Southern version, and it’s going to be a real blow-out party.

How will the SCAD FASH exhibition be curated to show off the designs and offer viewers an immersive experience?
I’ve always wanted a costume experience that was completely immersive, one that integrated costumes with the sights, sounds, emotions, and psychology of the brilliant words of Margaret Atwood and [show producer and writer] Bruce Miller, along with the full experience of this expansive series. SCAD was completely open and generous in the process of creating this exhibition, and combining that moment with education and exposure for students promises to make this such a memorable event. I hope everyone comes out to experience it with me.

 

See the exhibit (and a new episode before anyone else)
The first two episodes of the new season premiered on Hulu on April 25, and SCADFILM will hold an advance screening of the third episode at a free-to-the-public preview event on April 30 at 7:30 p.m. at SCADshow in Midtown. The event will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Handmaid’s Tale cast and crew, including Crabtree and actors Madeline Brewer (Janine) and Ever Carradine (Naomi Putnam, the wife for whom Janine bears a daughter). Reserve tickets at scadfash.org/handmaids-tale.

Preceding the screening from 5 to 7:30 p.m. is a special VIP reception for SCAD student and faculty ID holders and SCAD FASH Museum members at the SCAD FASH.

The “Dressing for Dystopia” exhibition opens on May 1 and runs until August 12.

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