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Why the Smithsonian Chose to Enshrine ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Servant Costume

The iconic red-caped, white-bonneted outfits worn by Elisabeth Moss and the other childbearing servants in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” created by costume designer Ane Crabtree, have become that show’s signature visual. 

Hulu immediately knew it had a good thing, hiring groups of women around the country to parade in the garments to promote the show. Replicas are available for purchase at online retailers (including Hulu rival Amazon); demonstrators have worn the outfits to protest various forms of social injustice.

And now a “Handmaid’s” costume is inside a shrine of American culture: the Smithsonian Institution. 

Ryan Lintelman, entertainment curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History culture wing, which opened in October, has the job of determining which objects are included in the museum’s collection. Of the hundreds of items offered annually, fewer than half make the cut — but the costume worn by Moss was a no-brainer.

In fact, Lintelman pursued it for the collection. “The show and its themes, design and performances have garnered such attention [and] had an outsize impact,” he says. “The fact that this costume has been replicated in protests is really important to us too.”  

The museum’s culture wing offers a walk through major accomplishments in American music, film and television. In curating the collection, Lintelman seeks to acquire artifacts that can tell multiple stories at once — not just shows that happen to be popular but ones that say something about culture and politics. “We don’t tell the history of entertainment here as much as we tell the story of how entertainment has shaped history,” he says. 

The “Handmaid’s” costume isn’t the only red object of significance in the exhibit. Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” are also on display. Lintelman sees significance in the comparison: “Here are these two red things that represent women; so what’s different from 1939 to 2017?” 

Accepted items receive special attention. The minute something is signed over to the Smithsonian, curators handle it with gloves and an eye toward conservation, even if it was in use moments before. Though the “Handmaid’s Tale” costume is relatively new, it’s now displayed on a special mannequin designed to put less stress on the hanging fabric. The front remains closed so as not to create a crease in the costume, and when it goes into storage, it will be filled with a custom body pillow built to Moss’ dimensions to maintain it in perpetuity.

Crabtree, of course, was the force behind the iconic look. To get things just right, she spent weekends at home working on various options, trying on pieces of the costume herself and figuring out how to build the headpieces.

“It’s really about movement, light and shadow,” says the Emmy-nominated costume designer. “The bonnets on their heads inhibit them in such a way that they began a whole new kind of movement, not just in walking but also in their head movements, how they communicate, how they can hear.” 

While all of the handmaid costumes appear to be the same, Crabtree shared a secret: Most of the cloaks are made with gabardine wool, but Moss’ is cashmere to accommodate her allergies. Thus the costume on display is not quite like the rest.

The producers are understandably proud of the display. “Telling good stories drives everything we do,” says MGM president of TV production & development Steve Stark. “For a show to have captured that timeliness in a passionate cultural movement is the frosting on the cake.” 

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