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The Handmaid’s Tale’s costume designer on making those red robes "look like blood”

The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Even if you haven’t watched The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s new adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, you’ve probably seen the posters featuring women shrouded in red gowns and cloaks, winged bonnets on their heads that block their faces from view. You might also have seen the protesters in those instantly iconic costumes at the Texas state Senate, protesting abortion restrictions.

The woman behind those ensembles is Ane Crabtree, a costume designer who’s also worked on Westworld and Masters of Sex. She sat down with Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff for this week’s episode of I Think You’re Interesting, and explained how exactly she came up with those immensely disturbing costumes.

Although the theocratic society that created the Handmaids is ruled by a quasi-Christian puritanical cult, Crabtree’s influences are more diverse. “I knew that I wanted all sorts of religious iconographies peppered in,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be just Christian.” So she drew from the aesthetic traditions of multiple religions — anything “where they control women” — and from non-Western traditions like Shinto.

A Shinto priest (kannushi) with a "tamagushi", an offering made from a sakaki-tree branch and strips of paper, silk, or cotton.
A Shinto priest.
Wikimedia Commons | Urashimataro

She also drew from secular influences, like the suits worn by Japanese pearl divers and the uniforms of the Chinese Communist Party — “any society where the people dressed the same,” she says. “I flooded my brain with those images.”

Female pearl divers next to Kokichi Mikimoto, inventor of cultivating pearls. Japan, 1921.
Japanese pearl divers.
Flickr | Parelduikers

Once she had the basic elements of the costume in place, Crabtree met with star Elisabeth Moss — who’s also a producer on the series — to finalize everything. Crabtree wanted, she says, to give Moss the freedom to use the physicality of her face and body in her performance, while simultaneously inhibiting her. “I wanted to give her that freedom while still controlling her, as maybe a religious leader might,” she says, “in giving her this kind of prison garb to wear every day, shackled.”

The Handmaid’s Tale Hulu

The final step, she says, was to have Moss try on the different versions of the costume while Crabtree filmed her moving around in them:

The thing that she wanted was something that was comfortable; the thing that I wanted also was a very painterly swaying of movement that was feminine but not sexual. I wanted something that would look almost lighter than air in the way that it could move for the camera — to help the [director of photography] but also to look like blood flowing, when they would be in large expanses of environments or landscapes. I wanted it to be a kind of David Lynchian surreal painting, of this bright green with this red flowing line of Handmaids. I think it worked.

The result was the unsettling costume that shows up every week on The Handmaid’s Tale: constricting, uniform, and somehow suggestive of violence. It screams off the screen.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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