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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: Costume Designer Delivers Themes in Reds and Blues

With all the comparisons people are making between “The Handmaid’s Tale” and our current political climate, it’s fitting that the color scheme for Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian thriller about a future society run by religious extremists figures heavily on contrasting blues and reds.

In the book, blue is the color worn by the infertile wives of the men who rule the country of Gilead; the handmaids — women forced into sexual slavery, who must bear children for powerful couples — wear red.

Costume designer Ane Crabtree collaborated with director and exec producer Reed Morano and production designer Julie Berghoff to pull off the visual conceit. “I was a bit daunted because reds are a difficult color cinematically,” Crabtree says. “It’s the kind of thing that can look beautiful or raunchy or plastic in that weird sort of way.”

Nonetheless, she embraced the challenge, creating the shade of the dresses worn by Elisabeth Moss’ Offred and the other handmaids. The hue was “the color of red as blood or a life force — a color that in nature works with every skin tone,” Crabtree says.

The designer found the perfect shade of scarlet among remnants in her Toronto production office — a color she matched “symbiotically” with the rich peacock colors she used to dress the barren wives.

The hardest part of these designs wasn’t sifting through multitudes of swatches; it was creating a handmaid’s dress that might actually be considered fashionable. Crabtree says she needed something to indicate this puritanical world could be all too near to reality, and not “so foreign that it felt like a costume drama.”

After countless sketches and fittings with Moss, Crabtree settled on a design that fits the current retro-fashion fad and looks like “a late-’90s/early-2000s dress.”

Even the outfits worn by Joseph Fiennes’ stiff and secretive Commander, the high-ranking official to whom Offred is assigned, are attractive. Crabtree says she and the actor decided that, just as “Hitler had his need to be a great artist, the Commander is coming from a place of branding and marketing … and needs to come across as someone who’s in control.”

“Joseph is not a giant guy — he’s lean, with muscles — but the suits that I made for him kind of enveloped him in a way that’s architecturally strong,” she says. “Plus we threw in a little Cary Grant because [series creator] Bruce Miller said the best of men’s clothing happened in the 1950s.”

But viewers shouldn’t get distracted by how good everyone looks: “Handmaid’s Tale” tells of a paranoid world where even the most seemingly innocent conversation could get someone killed, and everything and anyone could have a hidden agenda.

“I was always telling my tailors and the actors that everything has to make sense,” Crabtree says. “If you add a pocket, it could hide contraband. If you add a detail that’s too decorative, that could look out of place. Even if you add a seam that’s curved, that means something in the real estate of the body.”

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