Oppressive designs: Ane Crabtree talks about clothing the characters in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

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In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” costume and color are used to powerfully signal status and state of freedom for the different social groups. Costume designer Ane Crabtree says the producers wanted to give it a sense of being completely current, and not a costume drama.

Ane Crabtree, costume designer for The Handmaid’s Tale, poses with a framed photograph of author Margaret Atwood at KCRW (photo by Avishay Artsy.) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The word “timely” has been used repeatedly to describe Hulu’s new series “The Handmaid’s Tale.” So timely that it’s already earned a parody on Saturday Night Live.

This dystopian story stars Elisabeth Moss as Offred, a woman coming to grips with a new regime in which women’s rights have been sharply curtailed. The show is based on the novel by Margaret Atwood and is set in a future where toxic pollution has led to mass infertility, and the “handmaids” are the few women still able to give birth.

In both the book and the adaptation costume and color are used to powerfully signal status and state of freedom for the different groups — including the Handmaids, the Aunts, the Marthas, the male Commanders and the Econowives and their husbands. The barren wives wear teal (departing from the book where blue was the color for the wives), the Aunts wear military brown, the Commanders black, while the handmaids wear long dresses that are a deep red, chosen not as the color of power but rather for its biological symbolism.

The costume designer, Ane Crabtree, says a major focus for director Reed Morano and producers of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was to give it a sense of being completely current, and not a costume drama.

“You have to feel as though it’s your mother, your sister, yourself being handed prison garb. The world changed overnight. You have to believe that when you watch it,” Crabtree said.

Crabtree has worked on lots of other shows, including The Sopranos, Westworld, Masters of Sex, Rectify and Luck. Several of the shows she’s worked on include themes of feminism and of women’s sexuality. She says her interest in the subject may be tied to her upbringing.

“I often felt like a bit of an alien when reading these scripts, throughout my 28-plus-year career. But it’s interesting, the sexuality thing, because I wasn’t exactly raised a feminist. I was born in 1964. The world was changing.”

Crabtree was raised in “a very racist Southern town” in Kentucky. Her father was in the Navy and Air Force and was away quite often.

“I dress like a little bit of a tomboy,” she said. Crabtree came to the interview wearing a wide brim hat, brown overalls, a chambray shirt and a necktie. “That ultimately came from wearing my brother’s clothes growing up, out of necessity. I can design a mean sexy gown. And I can do it in a heartbeat, But I do kind of rebel against anything that’s an easy answer.”

On this DnA, Crabtree talks about creating vivid red dresses that repress as they signal femininity: “I wanted to create something that would imprison her (Moss) and hinder her in a way that was helpful to her character. . . within that I also wanted to (show) their waistline because that was the theme of the show —  is anyone pregnant, if not they’re going to get sent to the colonies.”

She also explains the dramatic bonnets, which were almost not given the green light, because “nobody ever lets you have sunglasses or hats in TV and film — the real estate is too important to show off the actor.”

After experimenting with various options and test-shooting them on Elizabeth Moss, the actors, director and producers loved them, Crabtree says — for their drama, their ability to conceal, and their unintended impact as “beautiful light box” for the faces of the women wearing them.

Crabtree also meditates on the attraction of religious clothing to high fashion designers, and the joy and pride she felt when activists donned similar outfits at an Austin-based protest for women’s rights.

Listen to the full interview on today’s DnA.