Hello, Ane Crabtree

Credit: Chia Chong

Ane Crabtree has designed the costumes for a number of television hits including The Sopranos, Westworld and most recently the Hulu hit show The Handmaid’s Tale. Fennec and Friends got the chance to speak with Crabtree about her impressive career, where she shared insights into how she came up with the iconic Handmaid’s costumes and what direction she sees the show heading next. 


What was your first experience with fashion?

“My first awareness of fashion began with my mother who dressed impeccably, though she didn’t have a large budget for clothes. She has a beautiful sense of style, which has, hopefully, filtered down to me.”

“As a kid I decided that I wanted to wear Dutch clogs, I can’t remember why, so I made some out of milk cartons, covered them with brown paper from grocery bags and painted them. I was this half Asian kid walking around the projects with cardboard shoes! I guess I was into recycled fashion before it was fashionable!”

“In New York City in the 80s I made my own stuff out of necessity. A favourite memory of mine was making my own punk bustle skirt out of three Woolworth flannel men’s shirts. I loved that skirt so much and wish I still had it!”

What inspired you to enter the world of costume design?

“After being in fashion for a time, and being completely enamoured of it, I began to feel a bit bored. I started to become inspired by real folks on the street: butchers in the meat market, homeless people, a certain kind of taxi driver or the fifth avenue doyennes dressed to the nines. I decided to apply for work as a stylist in music videos and then as a costume designer in film and television, all to be able to uplift and revere these regular people, the people in the street.”

How much inspiration did you take from the book when designing the costumes for The Handmaid’s Tale?

“I am an absolutely huge fan of the book. I followed the colour palette that was fully described there, only changing the Econo women and men to asphalt grey in order to blend with their environment more.”

“The book inspired me, from the inside out, and on a daily basis. It wasn’t just one moment, those beautiful words and thoughts were woven into all of the costumes and moments of Gilead.”

Did you own personal style influence the way you designed these costumes?

“I think it is very difficult to not let the personal find its way into the work. It just happens that The Handmaid’s Tale is aesthetically very personal, visually simple and modern. My own style of clean, modern and sculptural, with an industrial bent, seemed to flow symbiotically with the costumes.”

“The story was too personal for me not to include my personal style.”

It has been publicised that you drew some inspiration from Gloriavale in New Zealand? Is this true and if so, how did it come about?

“It is true that I researched Gloriavale. But I also looked at many religions and cults to inform a modern-day fictitious Gilead. I was looking for inspiration in any groups where there was a standard of uniform or a kind of tribal way of dressing.”

What materials are used to create the outfits for The Handmaids Tale?

“Can you imagine, I was going to use only wool gabardine as that idea seems to fit with an aesthetic of industrial wear. That would have killed my actors in the 100-degree weather we ended up filming in!”

“As there is a wide variety of weather in Canada, where the series is made, I had to be judicious when choosing fabrics. We had to go from 100 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 30 all in one season! We did end up using wool for the capes along with a soft fluid rayon blend for the dresses, beautiful industrial canvas for the boot covers, a linen-cotton bend for the Marthas and wool gabardine which is a very real military fabric for the aunts.”

“We also utilise recycled sweaters and sweatshirts for the Handmaids, with the idea that all red clothing was rounded up in the time just before Gilead. These items were given to the Handmaid’s as a kind of one individual item that they could use for warmth.”

The funeral scene from last season was the only time we see the Handmaids dressed in a different colour. What made you decide to do this and what made you choose to cover the Handmaids face?

“Just after season one, I was putting together an exhibition for the Paley Centre in Los Angeles and for this I wanted to do something a bit more artfully abstract and symbolic. I used the idea of a Handmaid being all red, even her face is concealed by the red, and her identity being taken away by adding a red stretch fabric over the mannequin’s face. Bruce Miller, the Series Creator, came to the show, took one look at the red face and said that he was going to write something so that we could use the idea. He was inspired and that was a huge moment for me and my career. My art informed the story, and it ended up being used for the perfect moment. The black and red against the Canadian snow was simply breathtaking.”

Headpieces are used frequently throughout the show, what was the inspiration behind this decision?

“In any religious society, a woman’s hair becomes a symbol of power and of sexuality. It only made sense that in a future society where all women have their power taken away, including their individual identity, hair coverings would be used. It also made the moment of finally seeing hair all the more powerful and poignant.”

“On a personal note, I have always hated my hair as it is so big. I have either covered my hair in a fashionable way such as wearing scarves or knit caps, or I have shaved the whole thing off. I guess you could say that art imitates life in this case.”

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

“It would be hard to imagine a more personal and fitting project than The Handmaid’s Tale. It has influenced fashion, politics, and humour, and for that, I am most grateful. The job I just finished this year, “The Last Thing He Wanted” was also an incredibly exciting project. I think it will be a beautiful film.”

Could you explain some of the things you love most about being a costume designer?

“I love the feeling of being an essential part of the making of a character. I love giving something to the actor and the director that fuels their creativity and their understanding of a character. I love going beyond the very definition of being a costume designer and injecting an inspiration so deep into the audience.”

“The joy I get from this work cannot be defined by a job title.”