‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Costume Designer on Offred’s Look as a Political Statement: ‘It’s Throttling in a Beautiful Way’

Jenelle Riley, Ane Crabtree, Warren Littlefield, Bruce Miller, Beatrice Springborn, Sherry Thomas. Jenelle Riley, from left, Ane Crabtree, Warren Littlefield, Bruce Miller, Beatrice Springborn and Sherry Thomas attend the first day of the 10th Annual Produced By Conference at Paramount Studios, in Los Angeles10th Annual Produced By Conference - Day 1, Los Angeles, USA - 09 Jun 2018
Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP/REX

The striking red garments and white bonnets in “The Handmaid’s Tale” have become the show’s signature, representing women who have had their human rights stripped away from them. As it turns out, though, the iconic bonnets almost didn’t make it onto the show.

At a “Handmaid’s Tale” panel at the Producers Guild of America’s 2018 Produced By Conference on Saturday, sponsored by Variety, costume designer Ane Crabtree revealed that the costume initially included headscarves because the crew was wary of covering up star Elisabeth Moss‘ face.

After trying out the scarves, though, Crabtree said, “it just felt like any old TV show and I just quietly, without getting approval, made five bonnets, took them to Lizzie [Moss] for our first fitting and I said, ‘I’m going to film you with my iPhone turning your face to the camera’. And because she’s Lizzie and she’s magic incarnate, it was the right thing. It was spooky.”

She also spoke about finding the right color red for the Handmaids’ costumes, something that proved difficult because it had “to go with every shade of person, of woman.” Eventually, though, she found the right color in a photo of maple leaves, before realizing, “it is the color of blood, which is a natural color, and that became a beautiful metaphor.”

Showrunner Bruce Miller said that the costumes, and particularly the bonnets, have added an additional element for the cast, where they have learned to manipulate how much of their faces to show the camera for emotional effect. In the beginning though, he admitted the bonnets did cause some challenges, remembering, “Alexis Bledel and Elisabeth were in the first few scenes learning how to walk as Handmaids and they couldn’t hear each other because they were so annoying, and they kept hitting the camera. But they really learned how to use the wardrobe for dramatic purposes and I think it’s one of the things that are best in the show.”

As for how the costumes have taken on a bigger role in pop culture, frequently showing up at protests and women’s marches, Crabtree said “there’s no big enough word for that.”

“When Bruce said, ‘I want these wings and these cloaks and all of it for the Handmaids to be sort of like your T-shirt and jeans,’ for it to be that normal, I was up for the challenge but it was really the thing that kept me up at night. How can that be normal, sincerely?” she said. “So it’s been a very interesting journey as an artist to go through that… and to have other women take it and make it something greater is huge, politically and emotionally and all those great things. And it never gets old, every time they show up it’s kind of throttling in a beautiful way.”

Executive producer Warren Littlefield, Hulu’s vice president of content development Beatrice Springborn and casting director Sherry Thomas also took part in the Produced By event, held at Paramount Pictures,  where the group discussed casting a diverse group of actors for the show.

Moss was already set to star when casting began, Thomas said, and from there, it “was completely colorblind after Elisabeth. If you go back and look at the old breakdown, every single role was any ethnicity, which was very exciting for us. We didn’t decide that Moira [played by Samira Wiley] was going to be African American, we didn’t decide O-T [Fagbenle, who plays Luke] would be who he is, none of that. It was just putting the pieces of the puzzle together and then it all came out the way that it did, like the world that we live in.”

Although in the original book, people of color were banished from Gilead and not allowed to partake in the new society, Littlefield said it was important to the show to revise that.

“The minority casting the show was a strategic casting, it was something that we talked about a lot,” he said. “We engaged with [author] Margaret [Atwood] and said, ‘In an effort for this to feel like this exists in the world today, it just seems crazy to us if we followed what you did in the book 35 years ago.'”

Miller also joked that when it came to casting, he has a “no asshole policy” for actors working on his show.

The Handmaid’s Tale” is currently streaming its second season on Hulu.