The iconic red cape and costumes packed with meaning on season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale

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Apr 26, 2018, 3:01 PM EDT

Politics, pop culture and fashion all feed off each other, a spider web of interconnected influences and ideas. Nowhere is that presently more apparent than the way the red gown and white bonnet of The Handmaid’s Tale has been utilized in real life protests, featured on TV shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race and Brooklyn Nine-Nine and inspired collections by designers including Vera Wang and Preen.

Award-winning costume designer Ane Crabtree is back for Season 2 of the hit Hulu series, expanding the world beyond the uniforms we have come accustomed to. SYFY FANGRRLS caught up with Crabtree to discuss the first three episodes (spoilers ahead), including June (Elisabeth Moss) ditching the red cape, the previously unseen areas of this world, new characters, flashbacks and the global scale influence of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Returning to a project can have its benefits; the foundation has already been laid. But when the reception has been overwhelmingly positive, there is extra pressure. The first season was created in a vacuum; this time there are expectations, something Crabtree was acutely aware of. “I absolutely ran into creative blocks. Because [Season 1] was so powerful and so important to me.”

The Colonies, the bitter, dusy place that Emily (Alexis Bledel) has been sent to, posed one of the biggest challenges for Crabtree. “This bitter earth” is how Crabtree referred to the Colonies, while she was twirling her pencil. A song rather than an image led to conceptualizing what Emily would wear as a designated “unwoman.”

After typing the phrase “this bitter earth” into Google, she found a mash-up of the Dinah Washington song by the same name, mixed with Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” (from the Shutter Island score). Crabtree refers to this as her “creative trigger,” adding that the song “sounds as though she’s [Washington] speaking the lines as yet unwritten by [Margaret] Atwood. Her voice is belonging to the unwomen.”  

Production designer Mark White, a close friend of Crabtree’s, was her creative partner at the start of the second season (he departed early due to medical reasons). White’s stamp is felt in the colonies, the living quarters of the Econo-people and the Boston Globe set. Crabtree refers to building these areas together as “poetry.”  

Clothes in the Boston Globe building play a pivotal part in understanding June’s physical and mental health during the second and third episodes. This is the location where June spends most of her time in isolation, after escaping her handmaid red robe shackles. It is one of the only times we have seen her in pants and shorts.

When we pick up with June, however, she's wearing clothes Nick (Max Minghella) has brought her, but also garments left behind: gym clothes for that lunch-hour workout, a sweatshirt borrowed from a boyfriend on a cold day, a forgotten T-shirt. Items we don’t tend to think about, now infused with meaning. “The emotion comes because you find those heart-tugging things that belonged to them,” suggests Crabtree. It’s why the discarded court shoe, lost in the chaos is so devastating—especially when June finds the other by the execution wall. There is nothing ambiguous about what happened to its owner. Crabtree explains that these clothing cues reinforce “the absence of people.”

June spends her time trying to keep active, both physically and mentally. She is free from the red attire, but she is still stuck. Wearing clothes of a pre-Gilead era helps her focus, and running laps around the printing press is one way to fill the two-month period. It is also a stark reminder for the audience of the way things were. These clothes look alien in this landscape; this is no more apparent than in “Baggage,” when June finds herself in an Econo home for lower-ranking Gilead citizens— even if the all-gray wardrobe is contemporary by Gilead standards.

Crabtree describes the Econo attire as the “modern quotient of the show.” The utilitarian factor is important; function over style matters, as “there are not a ton of resources in Gilead.” Like everything that is part of the Gilead vision, this clothing comes from a male perspective.

Weather also impacts the design of the costumes on The Handmaid’s Tale. Shooting begins in September when it is warm in Toronto, but the temperature drops by quite a significant amount during winter—and this is not a setting where characters wear heavy coats. Adding layers is how Crabtree keeps the actors warm while staying true to the Gilead aesthetic. When they shot June’s attempted walk to freedom in “Baggage,” it also “tells the story of weather. When you add more layers and textures [you realize] ‘Oh, it is cold now.’ It was freezing on that day and it wasn’t supposed to be.”

The Handmaid's Tale

Credit: Hulu

The grueling sequence in the rain in the Season 2 premiere is something Crabtree had to consider; it's a punishment that is meant for handmaid, not actor. “I always cringe when the words 'rain machine' come into play,” she said. It involves a tricky process using waterproof Gore-Tex materials and layering techniques—and while she does what she can to make the actors comfortable, they still end up soaked.

Red capes aren’t required for much of Episods 2 and 3, flashbacks to June’s Handmaid training aside. Instead, other pre-Gilead aspects are explored. As Emily, Bledel is shown not only in the Colonies, but also as a professor before the world came crashing down. It's hardly perfect in that past, either, as the effects of the Commander’s actions are shaping the world. Crabtree notes that she hasn’t seen Gilmore Girls, so Bledel's former role as Rory didn’t shape her vision for Emily's wear.

Instead, the designer looked to Joan Dideon, Susan Sontag, Gloria Steinem, Anjelica Huston and Meryl Streep’s style from the 1970s. The reason? Crabtree often gravitates to women from this period for inspiration. “You’re not really noticing the clothes. There is something so classic about them. All you’re noticing is how beautiful and smart [they are].” She wanted to reinforce that Emily was “forward-thinking and modern. Young, full of life, progressive and normal. Just like a normal woman.” Now, she fights for survival.

Emily also wears something you don’t tend to see in Gilead: glasses. Crabtree loves to use this accessory, so she was thrilled she could do that here. Even as the world is crumbling around her, there is a stark contrast to the Emily we see in the flashbacks and the one at the Colonies.

Politically, The Handmaid’s Tale has struck a chord. This show is not an easy watch even at the best of times, but there are parts of Emily’s flashback relating to how she is treated because she is a lesbian, an educator, a mother and a wife that feel worryingly familiar. It is chilling when she gets reprimanded for having a photo of her wife and son on her phone. In real-life, protests across the U.S. including Texas, Missouri and New Hampshire have seen women wearing the Handmaid’s red and white uniform, but it has spread further to countries including Costa Rica and Australia.

Clothing that is intended to isolate the woman of Gilead is being used to amplify voices across the world. We asked Crabtree how she feels about the adoption of this costume and she believes, in part, it is a means for people to connect to the show on a personal level. “It is astounding and of course it is bigger than me,” explains Crabtree. And she is quick to underscore the importance of the source material: “It started with Atwood and not Crabtree.”

June’s mother Holly was an active part of the protest movement. Played by Cherry Jones, Holly plays a vital part in the pre-Gilead flashbacks in Margaret Atwood’s book, but is only introduced in “Baggage.” As it turns out, Jones is someone Crabtree has previously worked with. “I was incredibly ecstatic when I heard it was Cherry,” she says. “Because she comes with this force of self.” Holly’s workman boots, jeans and Carhartt-style jacket imply she is always on the move; she hasn’t always been there for her daughter. She is a feminist, a healer and a doctor—or rather, a “doctor without borders” as Crabtree describes her.

Holly’s look is in direct opposition to June’s office attire, as she verbalizes her dissatisfaction for the career her daughter has chosen. Despite these battles, there is harmony—and not just when the pair sing-along to “Hollaback Girl.” They are both caught up in this nightmare-turned-reality. “What I wanted was a modern woman that gave birth to a modern woman, that was then imprisoned as a not modern woman," Crabtree says, adding: “I wanted change and that longing for freedom, longing for liberation, longing for women’s rights. All of that is wrapped up into Holly.”

Motherhood is at the center of The Handmaid’s Tale; Crabtree focuses on Serena Joy’s (Yvonne Strahovski) stomach—she admits is a “horrible thing to do to an actor”—because this character feels a void. “That abdomen, which is the source of creation, is empty. But it will be filled as time goes on.” Crabtree refrains from saying what it will be filled with—or even if Serena Joy wants to be pregnant with a child or if it is something more symbolic. Maybe she wants to be pregnant with ideas, or freedom.

Her husband, Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) is someone Crabtree describes as the “face of all Commanders,” adding, “There are other people behind the scenes working, but he is the dark Kennedy.” Gilead is a twisted version of Camelot. But even he is losing some of his resolve; this is reflected in his costumes that look less starched, the solid black will be no more. The cracks are beginning to show.

Bradley Whitford doesn’t appear in the first three episodes, but Crabtree did spill a couple of details about his character, Commander Lawrence—or, at least, what he will be wearing. Whitford, described by Crabtree as “heaven on a stick," will be dressed unlike any Commander previously encountered, “He is a kind of maverick in the west, who doesn’t play by the rules and you will see that in his clothing,” she reveals, mentioning Thomas Jefferson’s neckwear, a dandy from Savile Row and a Mad Hatter genius as a combination of sartorial influences for Commander Lawrence. Sounds like quite the trendsetter!  

And The Handmaid’s Tale has already had quite the impact on fashion, with Vera Wang and Preen both producing collections drawing on the bonnets and capes of Gilead. Crabtree also walked the runway for Vaquera last year. She explained the experience as “coming full circle” as she was a fashion stylist before turning to costume design.

The red cape and bonnet is instantly recognizable as being from this show, and it is never going to get mixed up with something else. It was particularly thrilling for Crabtree to see the cape and bonnet on Season 3 of RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars.

Inspiring others is something Crabtree wants to do. When she won the Costume Designers Guild Award for The Handmaid’s Tale, she said, “It’s a great time to be a woman and it’s a great time to be a multicultural woman… to every brown skin little girl or boy, if you have a dream, dream big.” Now Crabtree is taking her iconic work to SCAD in Atlanta as part of the “Dressing for Dystopia” exhibition. Crabtree mentions how the internet helps spread these ideas and influences, including how a red cape can mean resistance. “It’s like magic. It’s like a fragrance or a song, something in the air that infuses the world immediately.” Unlike the Commanders and Wives of Gilead, Crabtree is here to expand experiences, not restrict them.

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