Oppression by design: The costumes of 'The Handmaid's Tale'

When Offred appears in her distinctive red dress, cloak and winged, white-lined bonnet, there's no doubt about her lowly rank as handmaid. Nor do we doubt the higher rank of the wife, Serena Joy, dressed in the teal required of all wives.

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India Hayes
Katia Hetter (CNN)
ATLANTA (CNN) — When Offred appears in her distinctive red dress, cloak and winged, white-lined bonnet, there's no doubt about her lowly rank as handmaid. Nor do we doubt the higher rank of the wife, Serena Joy, dressed in the teal required of all wives.

In the fictional future of Gilead, Commander Fred Waterford and other men wear clothes that communicate their absolute authority over the women in their orbit, whether they be their wives, handmaids or domestic servants.

In Bruce Miller's televised adaptation of "The Handmaid's Tale" -- Margaret Atwood's seminal 1985 novel about a male-dominated theocracy after a second American Civil War -- the clothes communicate everything about who has power in this dystopia and who does not.

That's thanks to costume designer Ane Crabtree, who's also the creative powerhouse behind the costumes in the television series "Masters of Sex," "Westworld" and "Pan Am."

Tribal colors in a totalitarian society

"In our story, the world has changed overnight, quite literally in the novel and in the series -- a world that is now inhabited by people that are dressed in tribal colors," Crabtree tells CNN Travel. "Our story is one of clothing that is the new normal."

Crabtree and her team design the clothing for the characters played by actors Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, Samira Wiley, Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd and Alexis Bledel.

She's already won a 2018 Costume Designers Guild award and a 2017 Emmy Award nomination for her designs on the show, as well as Costume Designers Guild nominations for her work on other shows.

In the middle of the show's second season on Hulu, Crabtree's costumes will star in "Dressing for Dystopia," at SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta starting May 1.

Dressed in solidarity

Evoking restrictions on women's power, the handmaid costumes have also popped up in real life, with women donning them to protest cuts to women's healthcare funding outside the US Capitol in Washington and at women's marches around the country.

"That is a huge honor," she says. "To know that women are able to express themselves wholly and separately and be inspired is absolutely bigger than me, and bigger than any expectation I would have thought could come of this kind of career and work."

Although that's gratifying that these costumes have struck a nerve, her process doesn't vary from show to show.

"Every time I go about creating something, the process is to begin going crazy with research and looking at classic examples of lines and color, as well as hypothetical uniforms people have used throughout time even if they are not specific uniforms per se," she says.

"I go at each show, each project, as a visual puzzle ... and try to solve emotional, intellectual, psychological problems via the clothing."

To satisfy herself, she asks, "How do I find the joy or delight or the light and the humor in the clothing so that it's not just a beautiful, pure dress on a wife? How do I make it long-lasting so that it's an art piece that I am proud of for the ages?"

A nod to the history of fashion

A flap of fabric seen on the handmaid's outfit she first spotted in a trip to Milan when she saw a priest's vestments. Corsets designed to hide the handmaids' waists were inspired by a Okinawan or Japanese obi (the sash on a kimono), says Crabtree, who is part-Okinawan.

She was also inspired by the German Bauhaus movement and the 1900s industrialism of workwear, "which is my favorite thing," she says. "All of those elements are in the clothing."

She wants the clothing to help, not limit, the actor's work, so she asks herself, "What is the easiest way for the person playing the character to immediately feel that person, so they don't have to fight the clothing to get there?"

By all accounts, it's worked.

Cloaked in their characters

"It's only the second time where I have been on (a show) where they make everything to specifically fit me and with my character in mind," says Ever Carradine, who plays Naomi Putnam, the wife of Commander Warren. "It felt incredible."

"Ane Crabtree always puts Naomi in these prominent collars, and it's almost like a peacock with her feathers up," says Carradine.

"There are so many moments where Ane would add something new or explain something to us and it would extend your entire universe of where you thought the character would go," says Nina Kiri, who plays the handmaid Ofrobert.

Amanda Brugel, who plays a domestic servant named Rita on the show -- a "Martha" in the story's parlance -- wanted her character's oppression to be evident.

"I am not walking in a world where I am repressed every day, so I wanted her to have a different physicality, and the costume took it to a level that I could not have anticipated," says Brugel.

"To put on these clunky shoes under this big gown, it is almost like it swallows you whole. Like you disappear even before you walk into a room, it really helped me feel smaller and even more insignificant."

A visioning board on 'steroids'

Robert Curtis Brown, who plays Commander Pryce, says Crabtree created the world of Gilead through her visioning boards.

During his first fitting, "I walked into her office and there was a wall that was easily 10 feet by 15 feet, covered with pictures, fabric swatches, images, objects from nature."

"She broke down the handmaids and the color that they wear -- the white and black of the commanders, the khaki color of the domestics that work in the house," he says. She created a foundation that "makes your character even stronger and more vivid."

"Dressing for Dystopia" opens May 1 and runs through August 12 at SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, 1600 Peachtree St. NW, Atlanta, GA 30309; +1 (404) 253-3132

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