The opportunity to design costumes for Hulu’s dystopian drama series The Handmaid’s Tale—based on the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, and created by Bruce Miller (The 100)—was a full-circle moment for Ane Crabtree. Having read the novel many years ago, upon it’s initial release, and seen the 1990 film adaption in theaters, Crabtree was tremendously inspired, feeling nonetheless that the events in the novel were too unreal to ever be acted out in real life.
30 years later, Crabtree found her assumptions proven inaccurate, as real-world events spiral further toward the realm of speculative fiction. Of recent, the costume designer has spent a great deal of time with fictions mirroring and commenting on real life, not only with The Handmaid’s Tale, but also with Westworld, the tremendously popular HBO series from creators Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy. Speaking with Deadline about both series, Crabtree discusses the real power costumes hold—the power to elevate the individual, and the power to oppress.
You have two excellent dystopian series in your hands at the moment. What attracted you to The Handmaid’s Tale?
When I heard about it, I was excited because I had actually read the book many, many years ago—possibly, right when it came out. Many things were opening up for me as a young woman, and then I saw the film [adaptation]—also the year that it came out—and was completely floored; sat in the cinema for at least half an hour as the credits rolled. It had a deep impact on me. I remember sort of thinking, “This is too surreal for real life. It could never happen; but what if it did?”
Cut to 30-plus years later. It’s just very rare that you get the opportunity to relive a seminal moment in your career that inspired you, for what you do for a living. You can probably count them on one hand, if you’re super lucky. That drew me in a big way.
It didn’t go past me that there was an air of change happening, politically. It was last May, I think, that I met the show’s creator, Bruce Miller, and [executive producer] Warren Littlefield.
Bruce really wanted this to be real life that was happening in present day, so that it wouldn’t alienate the audience and so that it wouldn’t feel like a costume drama. That really excited me—the fact that they wanted these handmaids to be your mother, your sister, your best friend, the lady down the street that went missing.
And also, how do you take a really abstract idea, like a giant red cloak and a white hat on your head, that’s almost like a nun’s habit, and make it really like the new normal? That was a real puzzle that I thought, if I could solve this, I can maybe do anything in my career.
Did you draw visual inspiration exclusively from Margaret Atwood’s novel, or from other sources, as well?
After looking to the book as I was driving around Toronto to get inspired, and looking at stills of the film, I just decided to throw it away and go from the script, and everything else that inspired me. Really, the first places I looked were real life—real-life cults and religious groups that have a similar construct or viewpoint of women in their society.
From that, I created a solid wall of visuals, that always kind of wraps around the room where I’m working, so that it’s always in the ether. I went from different eras, where the cleanest lines lay, in terms of the purest form of design.
For Gilead, we’re building a new world, and I just thought, of course, it has to be pious and somewhat religious, but let’s go further. The lines came from the very beginnings of any decade—specifically, the 1900s, the 30’s, the 40’s, 50’s, and times of war.
All that means is it was minimalistic—this world, everything’s been erased from what we know of America, visually, so that I could utilize the reality of America for flashbacks. There was no pattern in the present day; only pattern in flashbacks.
The inspirations were that, and even as obtuse as like Japanese pearl divers, those beautiful older women in all white.
The commanders, I even throw in a little Matthew Barney—I looked to him and his short films, and even Japanese Shinto, so that things would be rather iconic and abstract.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, it seems like you use color to delineate between groups and create a strong feeling of separation.
The way that I started the kind of ideology of designing that, and that restrictive thing in the clothing for the different tribes, was to come at it from a male point of view—to pretend, while I was sketching, that I was one of the small percentages of white men in power, one of the commanders. I thought, let me just come at it from someone who’s actually trying to be quite idealistic and iconic, in the way that people during wartime were.
That’s where I came at it, knowing that I was going to apply restrictions. For instance, the handmaids and those restrictions basically were in the script. Offred is saying they’ve removed everything, including a lamp or a light fixture, where the previous handmaid hung herself. I thought about what happens in prison—they remove your laces so you can’t harm yourself. I took all the laces from their boots and sewed the grommets down. To add insult to that, I put boot covers over the grommets, to erase the grommets visually, so that it would be very subtle, but very impactful for the actors who had to do that—to sort of oppress their freedom to even think about suicide.
Within that, there were also these waist detractors, for lack of a better description. It’s a take on a Japanese obi or corset that is meant to hide the waist—the sexual part of a woman—and yet, what it does is it emphasizes their boobs and their hips. The commanders are foiled, while trying to control something. I did that for the women.
The idea was that from very far away, the commanders and the commander’s wives could see that their handmaids were getting fuller or not—were getting pregnant or not, by having these waist things. Once they were pregnant—which is a rarity in Gilead, because of infertility—then they could no longer wear the corset. That was another thing to control them. Obviously, all the women, except for the commanders’ wives, have head coverings. Their hair’s covered because hair is quite sexual.
The Marthas, they’re the kind of servants of housework and domestics—their color actually came from moss—like, a beautiful green moss.
We actually decided on the red of the handmaids and the teal of the commander’s wives first. [Director] Reed Morano wanted a certain red that of course would look beautiful for the Alexa, which we used for the camera. Reds are probably the hardest thing to translate on film in the frame.
After many shades of red, that was the perfect shade, because it looked like blood, and there would be this beautiful visual river of blood, of these handmaids traveling. Ultimately, what was incredible and miraculous was that that red actually looked good on any skin tone. After so many trials and errors, that was the perfect red.
Your designs have become a symbol of real-world resistance: In March, a number of women appeared at the Texas Senate—dressed in the handmaid’s garb—to protest the restriction of women’s reproductive rights. How did that make you feel?
You know what? What I thought was, it was f*cking amazing. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve experienced in probably my whole career, over 25 years, and that’s because they contacted me. It was right after Hulu did a promotion for South by Southwest—I designed some costumes for that. What’s amazing is it was a tiny group of women that got together, normal folks trying to make a change, and a difference, and they succeeded.
They contacted me to say, “Hey, can you help us? We love what we saw,” and I legally could not, but I completely supported them. It was so cool because they were just sort of talking about maybe using choir robes and things that are found quickly, because it was coming up very fast. I love them because they made it happen.
I will tell you that my reaction was weeping for a solid hour because it just made me realize that normal, everyday folks can make this beautiful, Neo-Luddite statement. You don’t have to be big—you can be really quiet, and really powerful in your silence. It reminded me of the women demonstrating against [Augusto] Pinochet, dancing silently with photographs of their people. It was so beautiful to me that that kind of echo could happen, and I align myself with them, in terms of their beliefs. We’re facing a lot of stuff right now.
You also have Westworld this year. What was the experience like with that job?
Westworld was an interesting job, nothing like I’ve experienced before. I likened it to being quite zen in the approach to design, because basically you had to jump off a cliff without a safety net, and trust that having no control would take you to a place of absolute beauty, design-wise. That’s exactly what happened, and that’s because the whole job was quite secretive, and in a brilliant way, Lisa [Joy] and Jonah [Nolan] were able to pull it off.
I knew that there would be a transition for the women, and was excited about it, because I knew that at first glance, some people that were watching it, some feminists were saying, “Oh, God. This is so backward.” I was like, “Ah, just wait!”
It was an amazing end result and having the costumes exemplify that was pure joy, as a woman. I love the whole idea of the purist Western, and if you combine that with a dystopian future, it’s really incredible, because it’s quite masculine, and it’s beautifully masculine. To have Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Wood gain this kind of power, it was really palpable when they stepped out in their costumes, for men and women.
It was revelatory, and it was completely, amazingly brilliant to experience that. With Thandie, besides being naked, and feeling more powerful naked than in her madame’s costume, my proudest moment was when she tried on her black trousers and black lab coat, posing as an employee, and she said, “Oh my God, I feel like a Black Panther.” And I thought, “Jesus Christ, yeah!”
Are there visual parallels in your work on these two series that are apparent to you?
Probably more than I imagine, right? Because it always takes a minute—I’m just now getting ready to prep something else, and it’s dystopian—not because I only do those, but they’re just becoming more popular, story-wise. I probably would be able to answer you better in six months, but I think that the through line, for me, is that I’m always looking for the thing that speaks to classicism, even though I’m not sort of classic and conservative, myself—the beauty of classicism, so that something is timeless, rather than some of my favorite futuristic, dystopian films, like Logan’s Run, but it’s quite specific. You try not to go crazy so that you don’t date yourself a year after the thing comes out.
I had watched Westworld more than 20 times as a little kid, thinking that it was a TV show—there were so many re-runs of it in Kentucky—and I was in love with Yul Brynner, and I wanted to be the cowboys, and so that same girl who fell in love with Michael Crichton’s idea of the future, and that same girl, at 21, in New York City, watching The Handmaid’s Tale—that same girl is 53 now, and I still love both films and look at how it’s been mirrored in my life.
I think that’s what classic design does—you’re a part of it.