In the final episode of the first season of The Handmaid’s Tale, Elisabeth Moss, as the protagonist Offred, delivers a line that perfectly encapsulates the underlying themes of the series, as well as the potentially paradoxical psychological effects of its costumes:
“They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.”
That scene sprang to mind on Monday, walking into the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta, where an exhibition opens this week dedicated to the powerful, message-laden costumes created for The Handmaid’s Tale by the fabulously gifted designer Ane Crabtree (seen below with SCAD President and Founder Paula Wallace). “Dressing for Dystopia,” as the exhibition is called, faithfully recreates the color-defined class aesthetics of the series and details its adaptation from the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel. Darkly lit displays represent the uniforms of the Handmaids, the Marthas, the Unwomen, and the sinister Aunts (one mannequin comes complete with her wicked cruel taser-baton).
Throughout the galleries, the show’s intestinal-clenching soundtrack plays ominously overhead – as if you were not already on edge after watching the first few episodes of the second season.
Crabtree, who has created costumes for many series in her career, including The Sopranos and Westworld, is now getting well-deserved recognition with the exhibition, co-curated by SCAD FASH executive director Alexandra Sachs, director of fashion exhibitions Rafael Gomes, and Mangue Banzima, a SCAD alumnus who collaborated with Crabtree on a Handmaid’s Tale event at the Public Hotel in New York last year.
Crabtree’s particular talent in interpreting the fashion of Atwood’s dystopian novel is all the more obvious here, given that the exhibition happens to coincide with a neighboring show at SCAD FASH dedicated to the unabashedly optimistic designs of Pierre Cardin. Cardin’s utopian visions of playful geometric romper-wear for the future (conceived in the 60s and onward) serve as a neat foil to Atwood’s dismally drab capes and gowns from the Gilead. I suppose it goes without saying which version of fantasy turned out to more closely resembles the current reality.
VIDEO: Watch The Trailer To The Handmaid's Tale
That was part of show creator Bruce Miller’s vision for the MGM Television-produced adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which in its second season on Hulu goes beyond the original source material of Atwood’s novel. Crabtree said that her approach, and that of everyone who contributed to the stunning visuals, was to ask themselves, “How can we make this so frightening and so current, and not just highlight costumes as a period piece?”
On Monday evening, I moderated a panel with Crabtree and six members of the cast:
Madeline Brewer (Janine), Amanda Brugel (Rita), Nina Kiri (Alma), Robert Curtis Brown (Commander Pryce), Ever Carradine (Naomi Putnam), and Sydney Sweeney (Eden). What became clear during our discussion was that these costumes are so effective because Crabtree recognized that symbols of repression can also become symbols of resistance when they are viewed through a different lens. In some cases, uniforms designed to repress individual traits have a sneaky way of doing the opposite in her hands. In fact, there are many hidden details in the wardrobe that the audience watching at home might never notice, although they come to life quite vividly in the SCAD FASH exhibition.
One example from the new season can be seen in the figure of a zero sewn into the back of the plain workers’ uniforms of the Unwomen – those poorest of individuals who have been relegated to the Colonies to till the radiated soil. Crabtree, whose mother is Japanese, recalled a moment when she was very young and growing up in Kentucky, meeting a family friend, Eiko, who had suffered radiation scarring as a child in Hiroshima during the war.
“She showed me her scars,” Crabtree said. “It made me start to look at the photos and images of war, and I started thinking, when people are assaulted and they have their rights taken away, they are unpeopled. They are zero. And so the back of the look became a zero. That was so emotionally harrowing for me as a designer, to think of something that would assault women.”
The sad brown stockings worn by the Handmaids also make an appearance here, with another connection to Crabtree’s youth:
“We all had to wear tights as little kids, and women wore stockings as the proper thing,” she said. “But the proper thing for women of color didn’t exist. So I would always be sitting in church and staring at black women who were wearing tights that were lighter than their skin, and I remember, when I was old enough to get stockings myself, that the color was called ‘suntan,’ and it was so brown that it was almost like a horror film. I was looking down, thinking, how can I change this? But what I think we do as artists later in life is that we take all of that strangeness and the macabre, and we make it funny. So my thinking on The Handmaid’s Tale was that nothing should be beautiful, everything should be slightly full of tension.”
Perhaps the most subversive detail she incorporated into the uniforms was inspired by the pioneering feminist art of Judy Chicago. As a student at the University of Evansville, in Indiana, Crabtree remembered being introduced to her work, including the famous “Dinner Party” where everything was designed to resemble female genitalia.
“It took me to a place where I didn’t actually realize women could do that,” Crabtree said. “And so, if you’re a woman who is designing as a Commander, who is overlord-ing and oppressing women, what do you do? You give them their power in a really secret way.”
To the costumes of the Aunts, in a mousy brown inspired by English uniforms of WWI, were designed to look mannish and militaristic, Crabtree added a design flourish to their collars that is a feminist statement of her own.
“The gift I gave to the Aunts, because I was so mad at them for the job they had to do, is the shape of the female vulva around their neck – so they could have the last word against the patriarchy,” Crabtree said. “And that’s the dirty little secret.”