Crabtree talks to Moneyish about sartorial feminist activism in the #MeToo era and the song that inspired what Elizabeth Moss and Alexis Bledel wear in season 2 of the Hulu series
Ane Crabtree will dress us for dystopia.
The 53-year-old costume designer first made a name for herself through outfitting the likes of James Gandolfini and Christina Ricci on stylish television programs like “The Sopranos” and “Pan Am,” where the stewardess uniforms she crafted were lauded for their detail. But most recently, she’s been on a semi-apocalyptic run with HBO’s “Westworld,” Fox vampire series “The Passage” and most notably, “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
With the latter Hulu series, Crabtree has transcended the small screen. Thanks to left-leaning feminists worldwide adopting the blood-red cloaks and virgin white hoods of Margaret Atwood’s fertility slaves for protest attire, her work has become part of our visual vocabulary. “I’m still bursting with pride,” she tells Moneyish. “I love that people are using their imagination to use uniforms in a make-believe story and turning it around as empowerment for women.”
(Hulu is co-owned by five media conglomerates including 21st Century Fox, which shares common ownership with News Corp., parent of Moneyish.)
To come up with the costumes, Crabtree put herself in the headspace of a patriarch in Gilead, Atwood’s fictional theocratic republic. That’s an unusual position for her. Born to a white father and a mother of Okinawan descent, Crabtree says she grew up poor in Kentucky before studying art and fashion design. “It was hard because I’m a woman of color…raised in the projects and had to fight race wars as a child with my mother,” she says. “I’m personally affected [by the political climate] as a #MeToo person and a #TimesUp person.”
Now 53, she worked as a fashion stylist in New York before connecting with film maestro Milcho Manchevski over their past as punk kids. He hired her for “Dust,” a 2001 film starring Joseph Fiennes, who also stars in “Handmaid”, that kick started her second career. Crabtree then worked in indie film and for Asian productions in New York that she thinks hired her because she was half-Asian. “The whole tribal thing there, I looked the part,” she says. “I’m an accidental designer. There’s nothing in my background that makes sense for me becoming a costume designer.”
One might think that working on a second season of a hit series—which drops April 25— would be easier, given that much aesthetic heavy lifting was already done. But the designer says that it was actually more challenging because action now takes place in a new setting called the Colonies, a post-nuclear wasteland that Atwood wrote about, but not of in her novel. “I had a bit of a creative crisis because of creating a world that was not shown” by Atwood, she says of needing to attire a new world from scratch.
Her solution came from music. Crabtree had taken to referring to the Colonies as “this bitter earth” and on the weekend before her sketches were due, she Googled the phrase and found a mashup of the eponymous 1960 Clyde Otis hit with composer Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” on YouTube. “I played that on repeat for a good 18 to 20 hours of sketching. The mashup drove something to the core of me visually,” she says. “I felt like a woman written by Atwood in the Colonies, where women are sent to die.”
Since then, Crabtree has convinced most of the cast and crew to watch the mashup and now, actresses Alexis Bledel and Madeline Brewer regularly tune in for inspiration before filming scenes. But in practical terms, how has this affected the costuming? For one, the iconic headgear of Handmaids in the Colonies will look more transparent than virgin white. “It’s almost not even fabric, but looks like sheer skin over the head,” she says, adding that lead actress Elizabeth Moss likens them to “membranes.” “It’s a non-color withered away. Like everything has been disintegrated because of radiation.”
“Handmaid” has also reinforced her belief in the psychological power of clothing. “The psychological pull that the costume has on actors’ minds is beautiful. It’s prison uniform that I’m forcing [the Handmaids] to wear,” she says. “I play little games in clothing to imprison them, but also give them freedom. It’s a light-hearted attempt at a feminist joke against the patriarchy.”
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