If you ever find yourself in the radioactive wastelands at the edges of Gilead in The Handmaid's Tale, hope that you have proper clothing. As evidenced by the battered garb and wounded skin of the Colony workers, everything about this land is toxic. A Colony worker's proximity toward her end date — death — is evidenced by the state of her clothing. The deeper the blue, the fresher she is to this region's unique horrors. The paler, the more time she's been digging polluted land, and the less time she has to live.
Newly liberated from the confines of Margaret Atwood's book, the second season of The Handmaid's Tale ventures to different landscapes of Gilead. Ane Crabtree, the Emmy-nominated costume designer of The Handmaid's Tale, was tasked with sketching out that world through costumes – and every detail, from the washed-out blue of the Colony workers' uniforms to the hand-me-downs Canadian refugees wear, is a deliberate decision. During a recent phone call with Crabtree, it became apparent that the key to understanding Gilead is embedded in the characters' costumes. Take something as small as fit: The Commanders and their Wives wear tailored suits and dresses contoured for their bodies; the rest of Gilead's citizens have a limited and ill-fitting wardrobe, waiting for for factories to manufacture the uniforms that have only been necessary for the last five years.
Each detail matters and signals something important about the world of the show. Crabtree walked us through what viewers should be on the lookout for while watching.
I love seeing how June dresses before Gilead. What is June’s style, and how did that influence your understanding of her character?
"Cherry Jones and Elisabeth Moss coming together in season 2 helped form who June is, and who June isn’t. The arc throughout all of the episodes and all of the characters is mother, in whatever form that takes. It doesn’t have to be literal. For June, it’s a young woman raised by a single, radical-thinking, forward-thinking feminist mother. So June's a little bit of a tomboy. I wanted someone who’s comfortable in her skin and still wildly sexy because of her intelligence and drive and spirit. She’s still sexy as a handmaid. That’s so interesting. It doesn’t go away in a person, it’s just harnessed in a different way."
The clothes don’t matter, to a degree. Attraction is still there.
"It’s so cool to be reminded of that in the doing of the show."
The Aunts in the Colonies are very different than Aunt Lydia. They walk around with these masks. Can you talk a little bit about their costumes, in particular?
"I love Georgia O'Keeffe. My best friend sent me a million photographs from [an] O'Keeffe exhibition that happened in Brooklyn while I was designing the Aunts. That kind of scarf on head with brimmed hat comes from Georgia O’Keeffe. It was also a means to give a kind of religious piousness to the Aunts that’s different from their city counterparts, and to protect their skin from sun, wind, and radiation. It was a very scary silhouette, especially when you put the hats on top.
"We wanted the audience to know immediately how toxic the world was. The Aunts, the Guardians, and their horses should be protected. Everyone except for the Unwomen, because they are slave labor, and they know they’ll pass between six months to a year. The silhouettes and colour of the costume for the both the Aunts and the Guardians are more faded, softened, withered. Because anybody that gets sent to a place like that to guard the Unwomen probably doesn’t have a long life expectancy as well. They’re at the lower ranks of Aunts and Guardians in Gilead. With those two groups and the Unwomen, I tried to come from a place where everything is returning back to ashes. There’s mud and dirt and ash infused into the fibres of their clothing. And painted, actually, so it would stay."
Refinery29: The Unwomen in the Colonies have such such strikingly bleak appearances. Could you talk about your inspiration for their costumes?
Ane Crabtree: "I started with very basic industrial workwear. I’m from Kentucky, so I grew up with it. I know what it looks like. That’s the stuff I love the most in real life to wear. Because it’s an invention made for mankind. It’s an invention made to be used for work. Then I started looking at different eras of that. To get my mind going, I started looking at Russian Constructivist posters. I looked at the prison uniforms at Dachau, where I ventured when I was young at school in England. I looked at fashion, which is a strange thing to throw in there. I also looked at very organic things. Like onions, and the layers see-through skin. I looked at research photos of Fukushima, which is one of the most current places to get real-life inspiration from, unfortunately. Being Japanese, I grew up with a woman, one of my mom’s best friends, who had been a child during Hiroshima. She showed me her scars that were still wounds. She lived with wounds that never healed.
"I was always interested in shocking images of war. Maybe my dad was away in the service, so that fuelled my interest. All of those things are in the Colonies. Van Gogh’s paintings are in there. Wyeth paintings are in there. I wouldn’t say it’s indulgent, but I was able to take elements that inspired me and throw them into the colonies. It was a poem to my past. To my rural past."
We get to see the universe of the Econo-people more. Each Econowife wears a slightly different costume, but all are within the same colour palette. It seems like they have slightly more liberty in what they wear. How would you characterise the Econowives’ dress code?
"For the Econopeople, the idea of grey is the only thing I changed from the book. It was just a means, season 1, to keep any present day Gilead story separate from anything happening in flashback. We keep patterns, prints, jewellery, and skin showing in America – which is the past. And in Gilead, it’s all solid colours and tone on tone. Gray was perfect for the kind of concrete colours we were painting of Massachusetts. It's this everyman colour that blends in with the environment.
"Red stands out. [Handmaids] are cautionary tales. We’re supposed to be aware of where they are at all times. The teal stands out. We’re supposed to notice that they’re these pious queens of the commanders. Black stands out, because it’s all the all-knowing, non-colour, the void, the magic colour. Gray was the one of the working class male and female. Econowives do have the ability — these are all rules that I made up along the way — to wear different things. They don’t have a lot of clothes, because the society has only started five years ago and everything is being made for them in a factory unless they’re a Wife or a Commander. They have different sweaters, scarves, sweatshirts, maybe slightly different jackets, but they all wear the same head coverings. There is very, very little difference if you look at them as a whole. This is always the idea. I want to be able to look at each tribe as a whole and then zero in on their individual faces and then realise the teeny tiny touches that make them individual. It’s a hard deal, but it’s been easier season 2."
What was the process of selecting the clothes for the refugees in Canada like?
"The idea was to come from a real place. That real place would be church groups and women’s groups in Canada donating supplies for home furnishing, and clothing. In season 1, we see Moira (Samira Wiley) being given a brown paper bag, along with a calling card and some cash — in that bag is clothing. My niece works in Kentucky with refugees, and she’s a source of inspiration for reality, as is [creator Bruce Miller's] cousin, who works for the U.N.
"In Moira’s case, there’s a lot of heaviness. She went through a lot in season 1 as a handmaid and as a jezebel, so I’m trying to show that in her clothes. And I’m also trying to show that these also aren’t really her clothes. The fit is off. She’s got ugly sneakers that she’s running in that belong to someone else. Same with Luke. Same with the clothes that June finds in the warehouse in the Boston Globe. We went to thrift stores. Those are clothes from real places."
You’ve created a social movement. People wear the costumes you created to protest. They’ve become iconic. How has it been for you, to see your costumes mean so much to so many people?
"It’s a dream come true, for lack of a more poignant phrase. I’ve done this for 28 years, and certainly have had moments in my career where people were moved by something. Or somebody was inspired by something. To have this kind of giant scale from politics to religion to fashion speak on the costume and utilise it for their own expression is a wondrous thing, and bigger than me."