Ane Crabtree, costume designer for The Handmaid’s Tale and more, sat down to share insight about her job and the engaging stories she helps bring to our screens.
Have you ever really thought about all the different people who help bring the most beloved characters and most despicable villains to life on screen? A large part of that work is performed by the costumer designer. The costume designer’s work is often celebrated in cosplay and the subject of engaging discussion among fans and podcasters.
I had the wonderful opportunity to interview celebrated costume designer Ane Crabtree who has worked in the industry for a long time on fan favorites such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Westworld, Rectify, Justified, and more!
Ane has most recently been in Atlanta designing for a new series for Fox called The Passage. The show is based upon a trilogy of novels by author Justin Cronin. I was so intrigued after talking to Ane about The Passage that I went out and purchased the first book the very same day.
In this interview, I will share what Ane had to reveal specifically about The Handmaid’s Tale. So let’s get started!
Working on a legendary tale
The Handmade’s Tale is based upon Margaret Atwood’s novel of the same name published in 1986. The television series streams on Hulu where all 10 episodes of season 1 can now be viewed in full. The series has also been renewed for a second season. I certainly hope that Ane will be working on season 2 as well, but we will have to wait and see.
The Handmaid’s Tale is told from the perspective of one of the oppressed handmaids, formerly June, now called Offred (as in “of Fred”). You see, Fred and his wife Serena Joy now “own” the young woman. The new society called Gilead has reduced fertile women, or handmaids, to the role of child bearing for the upper crust of Gilead who are unable to reproduce on their own. It is a tale of oppression, exploitation, and abuse at the hands of a few elite.
A colorful tale
Colors play a very specific role in The Handmaid’s Tale creating a visual delineation among classes. Ane was tasked with creating this visual with the character’s wardrobes.
I can assure you that Ane Crabtree holds Ms. Atwood in very high esteem, even professing to be star-struck by her. But while Ane wanted to honor Margaret Atwood’s story, she also chose to create elements that were more applicable to the story being told today.
Ane talked about getting started on The Handmaid’s Tale, her research for “the wall”, and how nature often influenced many of the shades chosen for Gilead.
What was it like learning your designs would be limited to only a select group of colors for Gilead?
Ane: “I was worried when they first said that ‘You only have these colors, try to make it work’ and I was like ‘How do you live like that? How does that even begin to look real and not like a play, like a fake world?’ The way you do that is to design silhouettes that are really modern but have roots maybe in the past, edges.”
I have to ask how would you describe the color that the Commanders’ wives wear? To me it doesn’t seem so much a green or blue but more of a teal. Is that accurate?
Ane: “That’s 100% accurate. Did you see the original film?”
No, I did not.
Ane:“That was like 1990. It was very specific to 1990 it was bright, bright red and bright royal blue, which were very 1990s. You know, it was also taken right from the book because the colors are quite specific in the book. The only thing we changed was the color teal instead of blue and also the econo wives were supposed to be in stripes and I changed it to gray.
The teal came to me and director Reed Morano because initially we found the red and there was a nature photograph of these maple leaves, red against the sky, and the sky wasn’t like the typical baby blue. It was a dark stormy teal color. And Reed said ‘You know what? This is interesting because they are always going to be in the frame together in the house.’ And they are kind of complements of each other. In the 1950s technicolor world it would be a red and a kind of Catholic blue or Wedgewood blue, so we shifted that to make it more emotional. So the red is really dark blood red, like a beautiful red like blood, and then the commanders wives are beautiful dark teal.
And it’s so funny [Ane laughs] because I hated the color teal forever and refused to use it, but but look there’s some on my desk now! But there is something about those two colors that are opposites, yet beautiful together, that I ended up loving it.”
Can you tell me more about using gray for the econo wives and the other colors used in Gilead?
Ane: The reason for using the gray is twofold, actually many fold. The original striping used for the econo wives was easy, we just felt that we had to show the past and present all the time cutting back and forth. Director Reed Morano , producer Bruce Miller, and I still decided to use pattern and texture. We can use texture in capes, but pattern and different colors together will be used to show the immediate past which is just 3 to 5 years prior. The future is only 3 to 5 years in the future, so it’s still about the same time.
So in order to not confuse people, you had to have a giant disconnect, Offred in a blood red cape and a pair of wings on her head versus June (her character in the past) in sweatshirts. She’s a feminist, raised by a single mother, and kind of tomboyish, [Ane smiles] just like me.
And so the thing about econo wives being in stripes, we said ‘that’s not going to work because it’s going to confuse people’ and it would be so jarring because everybody’s in solids, so I said ‘let’s make them gray like an every man kind of color’ and they won’t be as powerful as their husbands (they also have econo men), they won’t be as powerful as anybody in black like the commanders, and they won’t be as powerful as the women in this beautiful teal in the frame as the commanders’ wives.
Yeah, everybody had their very specific color. It usually came from nature. The Marthas’ green came from a moth, a beautiful moth, a fuzzy woolly moth photo. The econo wives just came from the grayness of Gilead. I wanted them to blend in so nobody would notice them.
–(correction 6/29/18: Ane refers to a “moth” in the above quote, not “moss” as originally posted.)
And the navy of the [Ane stumbles for the word and laughs] — the guardians! See, this is what happens, [amazingly] I forget these terms when I’m on a new project [even though] I’ve said only those words for 7 months!
The guardians wore navy because that, too, is less than the black of the commanders, the people in charge.
So it’s very specific. And the cool thing about The Handmaid’s Tale, what makes the costumes, I think, different than any other show, is when you see those things as a group, or as a tribe which I call them, especially outside, it so powerful.”
What can you tell me about all the photos on the walls here in your studio?
Ane: My research here [so far on The Passage], like this is nothing, the whole of my wall in Toronto [for The Handmaid’s Tale] was covered, surrounding me, as big as this, but all covered wall to wall. I had forgotten really until I saw a photo from The Hollywood Reporter, and I was like ‘Whoa! This looks like a mental patient!’ But, actually, its helpful because when actors come in or directors come in or or the production designer, you’re able just to say ‘This, this and this is that path to The Handmaid’s Tale.'”
[The photos covering the walls] show the research of where it came from, which is anywhere from the 1900s to the 1960s to 1930 — but, also, from current and present day cults and current and present day societies across many international countries and communities where women are subservient and made to feel weaker — in the States and elsewhere. So all of that research may look crazy when you first look at it but once you look at the whole of what we call “the wall” it’s actually an open encyclopedia that’s open to anybody who’s coming in that needs the information right away. Also, my team and I would have full meetings in the center of it so that you could just say ‘I want the econo wives to have that silhouette and that head covering’ (because almost everybody’s heads are covered). It’s kind of cuckoo.
Also, I came back to Los Angeles very quickly for Thanksgiving or Christmas and the world felt crazy to me. It really did and that was just after being not seven months in Toronto but five months, maybe less, maybe four. It literally seeps into your consciousness and you think that looks normal now, even the actors. It’s harder. Lizzie (Elizabeth Moss who plays Offred/June) shared something like jeans and whatever her outfit was for June were harder to put on then the dress and cape because it became such a way of life. She wore it every day except for flashbacks. It’s kind of cuckoo.”
Ane says “cuckoo”, but I say brilliant, the way the designs and color schemes can be so impactful.
Designs open to interpretation
The beauty of art in any form is that it is open to interpretation. Ane indulged me as I shared something that stood out to me regarding the handmaids’ red capes.
The handmaids are so enslaved within a horrible situation. But when they go out together in all those red capes, there’s almost something regal or powerful about them like when they [SPOILER ALERT] worked together as a team in the season 1 finale.
Ane: “I mean, yes, ultimately those women, any woman in Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale has no rights, and they are subservient and its all sort of going back to this dogma that Joseph Fiennes’ character Commander Waterford created.
But, of course, there are moments that I take advantage of as a costume designer to give the women power, even if its subtle. Regarding the capes, we always said anytime that the handmaids are outside and you’re looking at all that color in a landscape, its going to be powerful.
It may not be that they have any rights, but you’re right, visually, it becomes a wall of red, a tribe of red, right, like especially at the end, I think, combined with the song, which was Nina Simone, who is hugely powerful as a woman, you know, it does lend itself to eeking back some power for yourself even when you have no rights.”
Do you hope that people will find their own interpretations in your work?
Ane: “Yes, I believe that they are already, Tracey. I feel like, as soon as I came back, a week after I came back, the women who were protesting in Texas, they contacted me to ask how to assemble some costumes for their visit for women’s rights, abortion rights, to the Senate.
Also, individually, the show speaks to me and my own situation as a multi-racial woman who comes from the South or has an immigrant parent. It even speaks to my mother, which is so cool at the age of eighty she bought her first copy of The Handmaid’s Tale. And she lives in Kentucky and she’s been there as long as I’ve been around [Ane giggles], I was born here, so it’s cool for me that a book that was written over 30 years ago, I mean, Margaret Atwood was in her forties, but she felt something was turning and, man, was she so ahead of the game.
So much that it feels so current, her words, and that’s definitely what we we’re trying to infuse our TV show with. That this is now. And that it just so happens politically that it really was. So our joke is always ‘oh my god, we’re making a documentary, we’re not telling a fictitious story’ and I don’t think anybody – we started filming way back in September (before November) — but none of us could have known how symbiotic the story would be to real life. None of us want the story to be that symbiotic but it is, unfortunately.”
Its amazing how your costumes have become a symbol or logo like it makes a statement when you see the hat or the cape.
Ane: “It’s kind of crazy right? I think human beings as much as there’s a need for, this is what makes us Americans, a need to be individual and a need to have your own voice, I also feel that what’s been happening lately, which is beautiful, is that people are coming together to collectively express how they’re feeling. For me it’s a hard time to be a woman historically, but there’s never been a better time to be a woman because I feel that support that women are giving each other, and so if the costumes are a small part of that to help people to get together, I am so happy, overjoyed actually, it’s great.”
We talked about The Handmaid’s Tale costumes popping up on Saturday Night Live and making quite a splash in the cosplay world.
Ane: “You know, I know the designer of Saturday Night Live and I didn’t get to see that actual episode, but I heard he did an amazing job. You know what happens, Tracey? I go into this place of work and right now it’s very quiet because we’re going to be finished (on The Passage) by Wednesday or Thursday, but it’s usually so intense that I actually don’t even know what’s happening in the world outside of the schedule until like the day I’m done. I might hear snippets or might see a teensy bit on Twitter, but we work 20 hour days or more, me 6 days a week and so, yeah, the catching up process is long.”
The psychology of costume design
I had to talk to Ane about the gorgeous party dress worn by Serena Joy during the Mexican delegation’s visit to Gilead. It was absolutely stunning yet still conservative as far styles go. It turns out that there were both artful and practical aspects involved in the design of the gorgeous dress. I wanted to find out how Ane managed to create this dichotomy in a single outfit.
How did you manage to create this dichotomy in a single outfit, a gorgeous dress that was very feminine yet still conservative in design?
Ane: “That’s so interesting. So I fought against that fabric. You know I get very, I don’t know, on the negative side maybe it’s tunnel vision, on the positive side its like I’m very intense about the way to approach the how and why of the costumes. As soon as I design it I’m like ‘That’s it’. You know I just know that’s the way it should be.
With Serena Joy, we decided throughout the whole of the show there wouldn’t be any shine, wouldn’t be any zippers, there wouldn’t be any buttons that were evident, nothing that would be salacious that you want to open. Right?
And the shine, it was almost sort of with growing up in Kentucky, you know being around different religions and churches (I was raised Episcopalian on my father’s side and Buddhist on my mother’s), I would go to revival tents and all, everything, right? Catholic friends, whoever who was friend, I would go to there church. I was so curious.
But there was also this thing in Kentucky at that time, in church anyway, no shininess, not too much ostentatiousness . . .”
[I interject] Glitz.
Ane: “Yes, glitz. So that seeped into The Handmaid’s Tale, but with Serena Joy we had this fabric and quite honestly, Tracey, the truth of the matter is, when you are building everything, you run out of fabric. And there were no fabric stores in Toronto except for like this one that saved us that’s like a [popular chain store for fabric], which is limited. And because we had to order internationally for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of yards we ran out by a certain time.
The Handmaid's Tale's Yvonne Strahovski has sympathy for her “horrible” character https://t.co/qgTFxO8bCR
— VANITY FAIR (@VanityFair) May 17, 2017
That was episode 6. We only had 10 episodes, so I was running low on teal. And what was left was this shine. And I said ‘you know, maybe once this one time’ because I’d only do it if it’s in the script and Serena Joy was given the power to sway the Mexican delegation. In my mind she was using her religious “Tammy Faye Baker televangelist background” to kind of shine a little bit and sway and be feminine.
It’s so powerful and so pious, so the way I do that sometimes is maybe the collar is high, but your eye gets so used to them being covered up that if there is just a tiny bit of neck or collar bone showing you think ‘oh my god, that’s sexy’. Actually it’s only a tiny bit sexy, but physically I’m playing with the people’s minds who have watched the show and myself. You know, what is elegantly sexy is just a tiny hint of what you want tot see but can’t see, for men, I’m trying to be a commander.
And say, like you’re not allowed to be sexy, but you cannot deny Yvonne [Strahovski] as Serena Joy. You know she looks beautiful in the clothes and so you take the collars way high, but you construct it so it’s beautifully tight here [Ane points to the bodice] and then gets full.
Actually, Yvonne was talking about a certain sleeve that I had on “the wall” of Grace Kelly. (And I try to not to use Grace Kelly, Liz Taylor, all the greats, Audrey Hebpurn, because everybody uses them over and over, Marilyn Monroe. But you can’t help it now and again.) So there was this one photo of this incredible sleeve, the detail was so teensy and subtle, but Yvonne said ‘oh my god, I love those sleeves!’ So i gave her those sleeves in that dress.
Usually her sleeves are just straight and three quarter length, but there’s just the hint of a bit more, there’s a hint of a bit more here, and it’s very full and has a tiny amount of shine. So its all increments of being a bit shinier, a bit sexier, but incrementally percentage wise. It doesn’t’ take much for things to explode out of the frame when things are usually so plain.”
On religious influences and interests
Ane:“I kind of have always been obsessed. When I lived in New York I would go to the Amish country because it was so different than New York and the craziness of New York and it was so different than London and the punk craziness of that when I was there. And this kind of clean simplicity and beautifulness — I’d seen the movie Witness — I loved all of it, so I went often only when I was given a car on the job to drive (because nobody had cars back then, everybody does now in New York), but I would drive to Pennsylvania to these religious communities. It was beautiful, golden wheat fields, and the blue of their clothing. They have limited color palettes in the Amish world as well and I found it so incredibly beautiful. So I’m sure that crept into The Handmaid’s Tale as well.
In Kentucky, I worked at Wendy’s as a 15 and 16 year old, maybe even a 17 yr old. And I remember that Mennonites would come through because they were, I guess, allowed to go to fast food places. And I was so obsessed with how they dressed and that’s even less strict than the Amish.
I would follow monks down the street in New York. On my fathers’ side there were priests, Episocopal Church of England priests. I think I’ve always had a weird obsession with religion anyway, and then being mixed. and being exposed to East and Western culture and religion, I just get really bizarrely obsessed, so The Handmaid’s Tale was perfect for someone like me. You get to work out your obsessions a little bit.”
Ane and I continued to talk about her Southern roots and how they influence her work. We discussed how she is now working on her third dystopian series in a row and the “homework” she posts on Instagram as part of her research. She shared interesting insights about The Passage and some hints about what we can expect.
The interview would not be complete without telling you that Ane’s dog daughter “Georgia Earline” (adopted in Georgia, actually!) is by her side throughout her work day. “George”, as she calls her, even seems to think she needs to join the actors in the fitting room when trying on their costumes. So, of course, it was another highlight of my visit to be able to spend time with George as well and have my photo taken with her in the fitting room. What a special treat!
Finally, thank you so much to Ane for sharing so many amazing photos from her work on The Handmaid’s Tale.
Writer, interviewer in metro Atlanta. Always ready to talk TV and movies. Wife, mom, special needs advocate.