EXCLUSIVE: Inside creating The Handmaid's Tale wardrobe with costume designer Ane Crabtree

The Handmaid's Tale is an Emmy, Golden Globe and BAFTA-winning TV show starring Elisabeth Moss as June Osborne, a woman forced to live as a concubine in a dystopian future dictatorship. Here the show's CDG award-winning costume designer Ane Crabtree shares her process of making The Handmaid's Tale's iconic costumes with her team, the challenges she faces and what costume designers can do to succeed in the industry.

27th July 2018
/ By James Collins

The Handmaid's Tale HULU

Ane, can you first tell us a little bit about yourself and how you first got involved in the world of film?

I got involved in the world of film because I was in New York, studying fashion, and working as a stylist and I wasn’t feeling completely fulfilled. It was a moment in time when film was everything – fashion, music and film were ending and one visual scenario and world was opening up.

It was between ’85 and ’90, so it was an interesting time – the ending of one decade and the beginning of another. I was broke and answered a Village Voice ad – which is what we did before everyone had computers – on my birthday, and thought “if this doesn’t work I’m just going to hang up all of it and go work in a factory”.

The ad was for a stylist for Milcho Manchevski for a Black Sheep music video – the song was Similak Child. We loved each other and he hired me consequently for more stuff, including a film he did later on called Dust with Joseph Fiennes. At the same time, I had started answering ads for costume designers for Japanese film and television. While I didn’t speak Japanese, it was my first language as a baby and I looked the part.

So, my advice for anyone reading this is to just figure it out, say yes to everything and the world will hopefully evolve your way.

***** Read our interview with The Handmaid's Tale editor Wendy Hallam Martin *****

What first got you interested in fashion?

It’s the same answer. I went to school for arts, for painting. I changed colleges, because I took advantage of a programme in England, which was a sister school – a very tiny private school of only 100 students. It was in this old, beautiful manor and I could study Shakespeare there as well.

Instead of going to classes sometimes, I was slipping away on the train to London and getting into street fashion and punk fashion – which is what I could afford at the time. I went to school to study art and Shakespeare and art history, but left there after two years to study fashion in New York.

If someone were to ask “Did you study theatre? Did you go to Harvard and Yale like all the other East Coasters?” I didn’t. I didn’t work for someone as an assistant designer; I didn’t actually know the path, I just found it quite haphazardly. This seems to be my route in life – it’s how I came to fashion and how I came to film.

But all of those studies have aided me so much, in terms of my research being a costume designer. There’s no right way to get to where you’re supposed to be but you just have to have a whole lot of trust that your instincts are correct - or not correct, as the case my be.

How did you first become involved with The Handmaid’s Tale?

I moved to New York in 1985 and spent a whole lot of time on the streets or going to matinees. I remember reading The Handmaid’s Tale as a book, but only after having seen the film in 1990, as an original film produced by Daniel Wilson.

I got a call from my agent, who said “Oh my God, this is one of my favourite books. You must go in for this meeting; the show’s creator is a huge fan of Masters of Sex”.

So, I went in and had a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with Bruce Miller – The Handmaid’s Tale’s creator – and Warren Littlefield. I think the combination of talking to them both and seeing the excitement that they had and the approach that they wanted to take to The Handmaid’s Tale – we were three peas in a pod talking to each other.

It is one of my favourite books and films. I remember very distinctly watching it in 1990. I saw it alone and sat there afterwards completely floored, and thought to myself “could this ever happen to young women in the United States?” I was kind of immobile for a while and couldn’t leave the theatre – it was that big. It stayed with me for a few weeks. To come at it 30 years later, with two gentlemen who have beautiful, giant-sized, open brains and ideas about how to do things, I jumped at the chance.

I had a feeling that I could do it in a different way, while still respecting Margaret Atwood and Daniel Wilson. And, according to them, I’ve succeeded – thank God. I have such huge regard for both of them; I was very worried about doing them and the book itself justice. It’s so immensely important as a piece for right now and hopefully for the future, for another young woman who watches it and feels compelled to keep telling the story. That’s my hope.

The series has been hugely successful – what do you think makes it so special?

I could repeat what reporters or fans have been saying, but for me what really gets me is that we consistently speak to what is absolutely happening – as a mirrored reflection of society. It’s all complete kismet.

We, of course, watch current events and have opinions on that, but we make this show so quickly that it has to be the prime focus. A lot of the timing happens to be absolute magic. I’ve never been on a show that spoke to such reality, which isn’t a documentary. I’m floored everyday to the similarities.

I don’t really understand how we are so perfectly timed – it’s just a matter of life unfolding and our schedule. I don’t know if we can continue like that, but let’s see.

The Handmaid's Tale season two HULU
The Handmaid's Tale – costume designed by Ane Crabtree

What’s the process of you receiving the script to when the show goes out?

Bruce Miller came to me close to the end of season one and told me that he really wanted to do a season two, but they didn’t know if it was going to happen. I asked him what was going to be in season two and he basically told me verbally. I was so excited by what he said that I wanted to come back.

About a month before the filming begins, the writers go back into the writing room and they write 13 episodes – a lot! I will start to sketch right away, as soon as I know some details about the whole arc of the season.

We treat The Handmaid’s Tale as a film – the episodes go together like a film. The work is as big as a film, on a TV schedule. We have lots and lots of extras and make lots of clothes all the time – because there’s no Handmaid’s Tale factory to go to and get the clothes. I start sketching as fast as I can, as soon as I get a seed of inspiration.

I was actually just given a booklet about season two, which is from an exhibition in Atlanta, Georgia. I was flipping through it and a song came on – Pandora. I play different music for different projects to get me going. This was my theme song for season two; it was the thing that disrupted my creative blocks. Generally, I’ll find a theme song for me, creatively, design-wise, for the whole of the season – a soundtrack of the movie we’re going to make.

I’ve created for season one and season two, so I have a base seed of how things should look in Gilead. But, according to the story and according to the theme and the episode and theme within that, and who’s wearing it, I will sketch all of it and try to create the vibe. So, whatever information as to where we are is given to me – are we in Luke and Moira’s little America in Toronto? Are we in a flashback for June with her mother Holly? – I put on music and start sketching specifically.

It’s all very different how I approach it, but the bones are always the same. I try to create a structure, so I can be loose creatively. If I know it deals with June, she’s often in red unless she’s running or in other worlds. And if she’s in another world that we’ve never seen, then I create that world first – like The Colonies in season two. I like to see what their individuality could be within a tribal costume to highlight who their character is.

It’s so hard to talk about the abstract, in terms of “how to”. I guess I’m not so artistic and interesting; I’m actually quite boring and blasé – I must have a pattern about how I approach things, but I just don’t think about it. There is repetition.

***** Read our interview with Picnic at Hanging Rock costume designer Edie Kurzer *****

From episode to episode of The Handmaid's Tale, how long do you have?

Nothing. Often, I have to sketch literally on the back of an empty script page because of the way things are organised.

We shoot in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. There is what I call the studio, where we make all the clothes – that’s one separate team. Then there’s the set, which is a whole other team. And then our truck – a kind of nomadic way of working as an office.

Usually, because we’re treating it as a film, I am often doing three episodes at once – sometimes six! I want the uniformity and the through line to be there design-wise. I don’t want them to feel like separate entities.

It’s quite difficult, because the scenes are big. They’re either tiny and intimate or giant. And we don’t do CGI – we actually make all these clothes.

There are so many tailors sewing; someone going out to find fabric – and not just one bolt or a yard – but bolts and bolts and bolts. It’s basically a factory. Then there’s a whole team that is ageing and dying and painting the clothes. There are people knitting things for the babies and the wives. There are people making hats, because we make all the hats.

Every corner of our studio is alive with people building, painting, making, sewing, draping. In the midst of that, I’m having fittings where I’m trying to envelope the actors, usually with music, and I’m making tiny films of how they move in the clothes for the visiting directors or Bruce. Because the directors come into the world of Gilead and some haven’t worked in it before. It’s very abstract and it’s full immersion so, I’m trying to set the mood for those new people to help them turn into someone from Gilead.

Then, I’m racing it to wherever the location is, which is not often close to where we are because we love big, beautiful locations.

I always have to work Saturdays, which I’ve done for most of my career. Often, I am working Sundays just to catch up and to find things online – like buttons or antique versions of something to use as a template. In Gilead everything is handmade, so you can’t have things that look machine-made.

So, it’s full immersion for me, as a designer, as an artist. I have to embrace the world that I have created in the costumes because you don’t want to have a break from that.

I laugh and say it’s method designing, but it really is. I’m kind of thrown when I come into another world – if there’s a Christmas break or something. I’m like “woah, people dress like this?”. It’s even happening now during a film that’s ’82/’84 and I’m in Los Angeles in 2018 – it’s just how I work, I guess.

Could you give us a little bit of an idea about how many people work in your team?

It depends on the day. When you enter into the studio space, there is myself, a costume supervisor, a costume assistant – who’s really an amazing right hand.

On any given day, we’re working on all those bits, but because we’ve had some good luck with press and with museums or shows that want to highlight the work, the costume assistant will help me put museum exhibitions together, which is a whole other crazy thing.

There’s a shopper, who’s looking for fabrics and trims and buttons. And there’s even a whole separate thing of just warming clothes in Canada, because it goes from over 100 degrees in July to -30 in February. So, I’m literally designing three times on the show for the weather.

Then there’s a costume PA, who is just really getting all my sketches to the right people and taking things to people on set.

There are two or three or four people sewing at any given time. There’s a head tailor just for Elizabeth Moss. There’s another head tailor for the rest of the world and another for leading folks. There’s an ager and dyer, who paints things beautifully aged. Then, there’s another person just for dying.

There’s a person who knits and a milliner. There’s a head supervisor, who does all the fittings for all the background artists – who are all really important as part of the world of Gilead. They have two or three people assisting them at any given time.

That’s everybody at the studio and then there are other tailors being hired throughout Toronto. I think I usually have 18-20 people on any given day, who are the main crew.

Then, when we get to set, there is a person in charge of the truck, a person just in charge of Lucy’s costume and then another person who does all other speaking roles. In the background world, I could have anywhere from 10-20 additional costumers. For instance, episode one, season two, we had so many handmaids in the freezing, biting cold that were at the gallows and they were only going to be in their threadbare dresses.

So, it can go up to 30-35 some days; most days it’s 18-20. On a big show, that’s how it happens.

You also worked on Westworld and The Sopranos; these are all very different worlds - is that something you look for in your work?

I think so, maybe even without really knowing it. What I always look for is a beautiful script that makes me feel something.

I’ve been really lucky because certainly, in my lifetime, I’ve had to do the odd show that didn’t speak to me but in the last five to eight years, I’ve been asked to do projects that mean something to me, or to the world.

I think, without even realising it, I do like to create a world that hasn’t existed before. I like that challenge. The way I got here is the same as how I create. I get bored if someone just says “go to the store and get it”. I feel very unchallenged.

I like to create the world of costume in the same manner a director does, or a composer or an architect – it gives credence and respect to the profession.

What else are you currently working on at the moment – you mentioned a film?

It’s so great and so hard and so big. It’s Dee Rees film – the follow up to Mudbound. She’s quite the genius and I say that literally. She’s very exacting and focused and has a beautiful mind. For me, if someone is smart, I don’t care about the workload, because I know that they will come up with something amazing.

This is a Joan Didion adaption of a novel called The Last Thing He Wanted, which is also the name of the film. It has Ann Hathaway and stars, Ben Affleck, Willem Defoe, Rosie Perez, Toby Jones. It’s just jam packed with people, telling this relevant story of the US government’s involvement in El Salvador in ’82 and ’84, and one female journalist’s journey to remedy something that happens in her private life.

I’m having the time of my life. It’s a beautiful script, which Dee Rees co-wrote with Marco Villalobos, who’s a beautiful writer.

It’s a huge challenge; we’re in Puerto Rico, where they just had Maria eight months ago. But the people are so beautiful and really want to make an incredible film. It’s very difficult to find anything, so that’s been a challenge – but we are making it happen. We’re telling the story of ’82 and ’84 in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Antigua and Washington DC in Puerto Rico and Miami.

If you watch Mudbound, who doesn’t want to work with Dee Rees – of course I said yes. We need more women directors and we need more people of colour directing.

What advice would you give to people wanting to be involved in the film industry and costume design?

My road has been completely not typical. I would say to people, even from where I’m from – a tiny town in Kentucky, where there was nobody in film - logistically the stakes of working in film were probably nil.

But none of that matters. If you have a point of view and something to say – and it’s strong and it’s relevant, whether it’s a film, or art or music – then do it.

There was nothing on paper that said “this was going to be my life”. Everything said “no, go get a proper job”. I mean, I didn’t finish school because I couldn’t afford it. I had to start working in New York. Even though things don’t turn out the way that you think they’re going to, keep moving forward and keep trying to believe in your point of view. someday, someone will pay you for that point of view, if it is well rounded and your smart and it’s a strong point of view.

You can’t be lazy, visually, or copying other people – have your own point of view and your own vision and someday that’s what people will be looking for.

And don’t let people tell you no readily. That’s the hugest thing I want to tell young people, because I was told that my entire life and if I had listened to that I’d be sitting in a foetal position working in a factory. I’m so grateful that I was stubborn enough to be told no, but keep moving forward anyway.

They should not listen to no, but they should listen to “not right now, but keep going”.

Sign up to Mandy.com for free to see costume design jobs.