If you’re going to create effective uniforms of oppression, it helps to think like a dictator. Take The Handmaid’s Tale and its Republic of Gilead. The novel, now adapted into a television series, takes place in the all-too-near future when a patriarchal theocratic dictatorship and the reign of “traditional values” has taken over. As a result, none of the women have autonomy over their bodies – or privacy: Even their bathing is policed. Margaret Atwood devised this dystopian fiction in 1984 (it was published the following year), and in it, fertile women like the titular Handmaid Offred live in sexual servitude, bearing children for the barren wives of the ruling class.
“I went with ‘this is the new normal’ and the current state of our lives,” series costume designer Ane Crabtree (Pan-Am, Masters of Sex) explains over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “It wasn’t hard obviously, given the political climate.” She developed the uniforms using the point of view of the Commander, who designed Gilead society with clothing as the key tool of misogyny, oppression and erasure. “I had to come at it from a male point of view, which was very difficult and, as a proud woman, emotional. But it actually helped fuel me to be really hardcore about it because that was his impetus: controlling potentially unruly women.”
The costume – a sack-like uniform, coded by colour according to her social function – amounts not only to negating the female form but anything remotely private or individualizing. After months of work on the series, the acclaimed costume designer’s experience is arguably the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation on the sartorial semiotics of the novel. In her research for the series, Crabtree touched a little on Hitler’s tactics. “He utilized a strong woman – Leni Riefenstahl – to get his visual politics across. Bizarrely, and painfully, he was so good at it,” she says, begrudgingly admitting that, like China and North Korea, he was a true artist of propaganda. An identically dressed sea of people become a graphic mass, human individuality abstracted to blocks of uniform colour.
Similarly, in The Handmaid’s Tale, clothing does not express personality but strips it away. The household servants, known as Marthas, don green sackdresses with aprons, the Aunts, responsible for training and indoctrination, wear brown, while the high-ranking Wives of the republic leaders sport the blue of moral purity and Christian iconography. The Handmaids wear loose crimson dresses and cloaks that embody the paradox of that colour: Having any sexuality even in highly controlled conditions makes them scarlet women, but it is also the red of Communism, of anger, passion and defiance.
The costume department hewed closely to Atwood’s precise and descriptive source material, down to the white winged headdress that obscures a handmaid’s face and subjugates her gaze, but the research and photo reference that lined the walls of Crabtree’s temporary Toronto office (the series was shot in Toronto and nearby Cambridge, Ont.) and costume fitting room take inspiration from details that run the gamut, from Japanese pearl divers and utilitarian workwear in turn-of-the-century utopian communities to contemporary religious sects and mystical groups in the United States and abroad.
Who gets pockets and why (Handmaids don’t, nor any other private space that could conceal contraband or a weapon), for example, plays with the sexist and politically charged history of pockets in women’s clothing. (Until the 1900s, if women’s garments had any pockets at all, they were tiny, often tied-on pockets, waist bags and chatelaines, for keys. The idea was that, unlike men’s wear, clothing (and women) as adornment came well before concerns for practicality.
The Marthas have pockets for keys to certain cupboards but these are not discreet: They’re for surveillance. “Specific and very visible, they’re designed to stick out,” says Crabtree. The Wives have pockets to make them chic of posture, “in a Katharine Hepburn way like a dame,” she says. Crabtree also gave all the Aunts a hidden pocket beneath a dress flap, for hiding their cattle prods. “I did that for the writers, so if she wanted to be horrifically sadistic, an Aunt could hide her cattle prod to inflict the wound even quicker and with more surprise on a Handmaid.” The soft-spoken Crabtree admits: “It is horrible thinking, but as a costume designer you have to go there.”
To promote the show’s upcoming premiere (on Hulu in the U.S. on April 26 and Bravo/CraveTV in Canada on April 30), ubiquitous billboard ads feature the indistinct image of a Handmaid – she could be anyone – with a single word starkly scratched out: Object. Depending on one’s emphasis, it has two very different meanings: a noun to be resigned to; for others, a call to arms. “Nothing has surpassed this moment for me,” the costume designer says recalling the day in March when 10 female activists in Austin – protesting bills that would limit female control over their own reproductive rights – donned homemade versions of the Handmaids’ iconic white bonnets and red cloaks to sit in at the Texas legislature, harnessing the visual grammar and tactics of fictional oppression into an act of real-world resistance.
“I wept openly when I saw that,” Crabtree admits. “Universally, internationally, some of the most amazing protests by women have been silent. The ones I remember growing up, like in South America with dance and Pinochet,” she says of la cueca sola, the Chilean phenomenon of civil rights violation denunciation in which a woman performs the national courtship dance alone with a photograph of a dead or disappeared loved one.
Having both her “brain and heart work towards something creatively that was also happening simultaneously in the press and the world,” Crabtree says, was an unusual experience. “The idea of present day, and to keep things rooted in the now is scarier than history,” Crabtree says.