handmaid's tale

Emmy Contender: The costume designer on Handmaid's Tale made such great designs, they summoned literal ghosts

Contributed by
Aug 15, 2018

Hulu's The Handmaid’s Tale can be a strange show, says costume designer Ane Crabtree, and not just because it takes place in Gilead. Throughout the production of Season 2, she says, some very strange things were happening in the costume department’s breakdown room (where the fabrics and footwear are aged and dyed) – and Crabtree is serious when she says she thinks the space was haunted.

As Crabtree created her Emmy-nominated designs for a new range of characters within Gilead’s world, including the Unwomen in the Colonies, the child brides for the Guardians, the off-kilter Commander Lawrence and his wife, she spent a lot of time in her workshop, a converted glass factory in Toronto. Sometimes she worked odd hours and weekends, with only her dog for company, and was puzzled when the pooch started cowering and creeping out of the room to hide “like she was being abused."

"At first, I was like, 'Okay, that’s weird,'" she recalled. "I had no idea why she was doing that."

But Crabtree had other concerns. She had to come up with some color schemes, and she settled on using a lot of white for both a mass wedding in Episode 6 (a moment of birth) and for the hospital scene in Episode 8 (a moment of death). She saw this as "a way to cleanse the palette." Even though Gilead is so color-coded — red for handmaids, teal for wives, green for Marthas, brown for Aunts, and pink for little girls — we don’t often get white, except in undergarments. 

Handmaid's Tale costume 2

Crabtree decided that white would be a neutral transition color, to be used for girls who are turning into women. So she started designing wedding gowns inspired in part by Russian nesting dolls, by a Tamara de Lempicka painting, and by eggs. "In Gilead, there’s this focus on infertility," she explained, "and that led me to the thought of eggs, the lack of them, the whiteness of them, and the shape of them."

She researched mass weddings in different cultures, found a few where the brides wore white winter coats over their dresses, and decided to give her brides caplets, sloped very closely around the shoulders. (The sloping was a matter of necessity — she was running out of fabric and had to come up with a visual solution.)

Maybe it was all this white in Crabtree’s costume shop, or maybe it was just a trick of the light, but visitors and coworkers started seeing in their peripheral vision — black shadows, or black smoke, or even a man dressed in black, they said. "Mark White, our first production designer, came by," Crabtree recalled, "and he said, 'There’s a man behind that column.' I said, 'There’s nobody there.' He said, 'I know, but there’s a man…'"

Handmaid's Tale wedding dress

Crabtree began documenting her team’s accounts of the sightings on Instagram, "because there was a new story every day." Then little "pranks" started happening. Things would disappear and then reappear a week later. Crabtree would find a hat that had fallen on the floor, put it back on a desk — and then find it somewhere else shortly afterward. One day, the breakdown artists were treating the rubber boots for the Unwomen characters in the Colonies so that they looked muddy. 

They placed about 30 pairs of boots — lefts and rights together — on one side of the room, then left for lunch. When they came back an hour later, head ager/dyer Madeline Brian noticed that her section was all lefts, no rights. They found the right-foot boots on the other side of the room.

"We thought, 'Okay, somebody’s playing tricks,'" Crabtree said. "It was a sort of weird playful thing."

In the normal course of things, there would have been a perfectly logical explanation for these occurrences. But none was forthcoming. And then the security guards and the cleaning staff told the team that the room was notorious, and that they didn’t like to go in there, either. Still, little more than amused, the breakdown artists built a shrine to Milli Vanilli for protection, and a few of them even started burning sage to ward off evil spirits.

Crabtree continued with her designs and became engrossed in differentiating the various Commanders’ wives from each other, especially for the finale, when a number of them share the screen. ("We jokingly called it the wives’ fashion show," Crabtree said. "I try to do a Suffragette thing in all of their costumes in that episode.") Of particular interest was the wife of Commander Lawrence. "I went a little crazy on her," Crabtree said, laughing. "I was so looking forward to that couple because they’re the black sheep."

Handmaid's Tale Commander Lawrence sketch 2

Possibly under the spell of the poltergeist haunting the costume studio, Crabtree sketched an initial design for the wife character where she "bizarrely looked like a ghost," she said. "I didn’t want to make her a ghost. I just wanted her to be someone who was fading away -- a fragile shell of someone who has been eaten away by these absurd new rules of Gilead. A person who is deteriorating."

This wife’s teal was hand-dyed to be “very, very, very” faded. Crabtree also gave the character a knitted collar, so it would seem as if she were being choked, and a long train on her dress, so that even when the character left a room, her dress would linger. “It was a kind of metaphor for me,” Crabtree said. “It was the first and only time in two seasons where I said, ‘I’m just going to go with the craziest thought I have, because this is my memento mori, of what used to be before Gilead.'”

Meanwhile, the sightings continued. Crabtree finally caught a glimpse of … something. “Only once, out of the corner of my eye, at 5 a.m.,” she said. "It was so fast. I thought, ‘I’m going crazy.’ But I was actually scared -- I believed it now." Things that didn’t have easy explanations started happening to her team — things that weren’t quite so playful anymore.

Handmaid's Tale Commander Lawrence

One breakdown artist described a hanger suddenly winging off a rack as if someone had flung it at her, making a strange noise. And that same day, another breakdown artists said she saw a vision of three flames coming out of the table, from nowhere. At the exact same moment, a woman working on the opposite side of the table from here felt something… move through her. Now Crabtree started to worry.

So a psychic was called in, and during an ensuing chat, he noticed a sketch of Commander Lawrence’s wife and her costume. "He said, ‘That’s it! That’s the one! That girl, there!'" Crabtree said. "And he pointed to me, and he said that I drew something that caused the poltergeist to come around. And it was this drawing of this character. He said it was making the spirit more aggressive."

Soon after this, in classic ghost-story fashion, Crabtree’s team had to relocate. Snow on the roof was causing the ceiling to start falling in on them, and the space started leaking, and then flooding. Was it a spirit, or just an old building finally giving up? Crabtree and company didn’t stick around to find out.

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