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The Feminist Fashion of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ now adapted for TV, all women wear a uniform whose style and color proclaim who they are and what their role in society is. Watch out for the hidden vaginas.

On March 20, 2017, a group of women filed into the Texas State Capitol wearing full-length red gowns and white bonnets with wings that obscured their faces.

They were dressed in the uniform of the Handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale as a protest against the anti-abortion measures that were being discussed on the Senate floor.

In a particularly apt and eery symbolic move of the dystopian novel’s new relevance to our current country, photos began to hit Twitter showing a group of the protestors sitting silently in the balcony with four security guards standing watch over them.

When costume designer Ane Crabtree saw the photo, she says she “just sat on a ladder and I couldn’t move for an hour, I just wept.” Crabtree had just returned home from shooting the first season of Hulu’s adaptation of Atwood’s novel, which premieres on Wednesday. Now, she was seeing women taking inspiration from the story and her designs for the show and using them to fight for their own rights. “They are fucking awesome women…I’m quite inspired.”

In Atwood’s dystopian novel, a not-too-distant future America has been overthrown by religious extremists who relegate women to strictly proscribed roles.

Because of the rampant infertility in the country renamed Gilead, any woman who successfully gave birth before the regime change is deemed a Handmaid and sent to work in the elite homes of the commanders where they are forced to participate in a monthly ritual with the married couple that amounts to state-sanctioned rape.

If they are successful in their duty, they will give birth to a baby who will be considered the child of their commander’s wife.

Since it was published in the mid 1980’s, The Handmaid’s Tale has been a seminal text for young women. When Crabtree first saw the original 1990 movie adaptation and read the book after moving to New York from Kentucky at the age of 21, she says “it does something to you. It lights a certain fire…like an ire that is reactionary.” The story was terrifying to her, but it was just a story that could never happen, right?

Starting in July of 2016, Crabtree, now 53, found herself relocating to Canada to help build the world of Gilead for the TV screen. Over the course of the next seven months of filming, the cast watched as America changed in front of their eyes.

“I’m not trying to be dramatic, I’m just being truthful. It felt as though, as in the book, America was replaced with Gilead while our eyes were shut and we were in Toronto making this story,” Crabtree tells The Daily Beast.

The costume designer had a particularly difficult task. In Gilead, all women wear a uniform whose style and proscribed color proclaim to the world who they are and what their role in society is. Rather than fashion as a means of empowerment and self-expression, here it allows the overlords to maintain control. As the costume designer creating the look of this world, Crabtree had to, in effect, become the patriarchy.

To get into the masculine headspace, Crabtree says she thought of egotistical and military-minded rulers like Mao Zedong, and how they would have wanted everyone to look the same so nobody could have power. She used the descriptions in the novel as a guide post and created the social style divisions that would define each strata of women.

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Handmaids don identical long red dresses that are stripped of all sex appeal down to voluminous white undergarments and drab brown socks and boots. When leaving the house, they wear white bonnets with large wings that hide their faces from view and also restrict their vision.

“I wanted you to watch this and think, my sister’s been taken away and the next time you see her, it’s three years later and she’s wearing this crazy outfit. And yet I didn’t want people to look at these crazy red outfits and these crazy white headdresses and think, ‘Oh, that’s some bizarre costume. It’s fashion or it’s affected in some way.’ It should look as though it’s the new normal everyday wear that prisoners have to wear.”

The Commanders’ wives are a little posher, with a semblance of greater freedom that’s purely superficial. Teal is their color, but they are allowed to wear their gowns with very slight variations in shade and style.

Crabtree is meticulous when it comes to detail. It’s hard for her to choose a favorite character or group of characters because, she says, she gets to know each of them so intimately and has to know just as much about their backstory as the actors who play them.

Her Instagram account is a treasure trove of research and source material (she gives #homework a new meaning), and, in our conversation, she brings up a vast range of inspiration that includes everything from Rosemary’s Baby, Georgia O’Keefe, and Comme des Garçons to Hitler and the Garanimals mix-and-match sets she used to get at Sears in her youth.

Her process for creating the outfits worn by the Commanders and their wives exemplifies her dedication to an exhaustive preparation that may not even catch the notice of many viewers. As Crabtree imagines the almost overnight change from America to Gilead—in seemingly a day, women are stripped of their right to work or own a bank account—she imagines that garbage trucks might have been sent through the streets to collect every lick of clothing from every citizen.

The lower stations were then supplied with mass-produced uniforms that conformed to their newly designated groups. But maybe, just maybe, the commanding families were allowed access to tailors to give their new wardrobe a bit more of a couture feel. To replicate this idea, Crabtree included pick-stitching, a bespoke form of hand-sewing, in all of the Commanders and their wives’ costumes.

As Crabtree’s prolific Twitter and Instagram presence attests, she is outspoken when it comes to women’s rights and her personal political beliefs. (“I am a multi-racial child of an immigrant. I am an indigenous person. I have Black and Native American in me and Okinawan. I have to have a voice. It would be stupid if I did not have a viewpoint,” she says.)

Given this background, one can imagine that this exercise in world creation and domination as “the kind of masculine brain instigator and controller of feminine strength” started to have an effect on her. So, as the Handmaids themselves do, she found little ways to rebel.

“And then, as I got more and more angry about what was happening [in the election] and also just kind of getting crazier by the moment from the script because it was so real, I started throwing little things into the women’s clothing for them,” she says. She reveals that as the season progresses (only three episodes were available to the press prior to the premiere), “you will see a very subtle shift and sometimes a seismic shift in the women’s clothing. It was my greatest victory.”

She also included secret feminist messages in some of the garments that you may not notice unless you’re looking for them. One of the biggest of these was in the costumes of the Aunts, the older women who oversee the Handmaids and are charged with their indoctrination and punishment. In an homage to Judy Chicago’s feminist work, The Dinner Party, Crabtree created the subtle illusion of an inverted vagina in the layers of material on the chests of the Aunts. It’s a joke against these women, who subjugate their fellow sisters, but also a subtle sign celebrating women that could help bolster the spirits of the Handmaids who are suffering at their hands.

A preview of the series made its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last week and created some not-so-welcome buzz when many of the series’ stars, including Elisabeth Moss who plays the lead Handmaid, Offred, told the audience that they were not trying to make a feminist statement with the show. Twitter erupted in outrage.

While Crabtree is clear about her own feminist beliefs—although she says she “did not come to this project to shout out my own personal views on feminism”—she defends their response and brings a bit more nuance to it.

“I think, that group, hell yes they’re doing it for feminism, but you’re not only doing that. You’re an empty vessel who has to tell a story that’s been written. It’s not your story; it’s the character’s story,” Crabtree explains. “But I saw those people grow and shift—I’m talking about the actors as the characters—and utilize their emotional pain from what was happening in the States and throw it into the work in such a beautiful way.”

Crabtree likens this criticism to that of the show Westworld, on which she also worked as the costume designer. In that show, many critics at first spoke about how it was such a male-dominated Western world. It wasn’t until the end that this portrayal was subverted and two of the main female characters were revealed to be more powerful than they had at first seemed.

As for the impact of her current project, and what comes next, Crabtree laughs. “I guess I’ll be pining for The Handmaid’s Tale because there’s so much unresolved stuff in the world, in the news, but I have to let it go. Probably by tomorrow.”