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Dystopian apparel: The making of 'The Handmaid's' blood-red robes

There are plenty of elements in Hulu’s adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” that have people talking, but few are as immediately eye-catching as the gowns worn by the handmaids themselves.

Costume designer Ane Crabtree (“Westworld,” “Masters of Sex”) shared her secrets (and photo stash) with The Times, detailing the creative process behind one of the most distinctive costumes on television.

Sketches capture the evolution of the handmaid dresses.
Sketches capture the evolution of the handmaid dresses. (Ane Crabtree)

Designing for the end of the world

Crabtree found inspiration from a variety of sources, from repressive cultural regimes to the natural world to her own two feet.

The gowns had to be versatile and, though not evidenced in early episodes, had different versions depending on the season. In the first few episodes, the gowns are made of an extremely thin rayon that was available in the deep red color, meaning the fabric did not need the additional step of being dyed before construction.

A full-length look at the dress.
A full-length look at the dress. (George Kraychyk / Hulu)

A handmaid’s wardrobe includes

  • White caplet
  • White wings (not pictured)
  • Blood red gown
  • Blood red wool cape (not pictured)
  • White undergarments (not pictured)
  • Brown boots
  • Brown boot guards

What’s not there

Missing from the handmaid gowns are modern conveniences, like buttons, zippers, pockets and, darkly, shoelaces.

While pockets and shoelaces were removed as a way to keep a rebel populace in check, Crabtree had other reasons for excluding other details.

I visually erased details of clothing that we're all used to.

— Ane Crabtree

A closet full of cloaks and wings.
A closet full of cloaks and wings. (George Kraychyk / Hulu)

Costume haves and have-nots

Missing

  • Buttons
  • Zippers
  • Pockets
  • Shoelaces

Added

  • Obi/corset
  • Ear tag
  • Modesty flap

DIY maternity wear

Because it’s a handmaid’s ultimate goal to become pregnant, it was a logical extension that their wardrobe be maternity-ready, a trick Crabtree managed by utilizing an obi belt or corset, depending on actress body type.

Below, Madeline Brewer’s character illustrates those small styling adjustments for pregnancy.

Madeline Brewer's character Janine illustrates the ability of the gowns to double as maternity wear.
Madeline Brewer's character Janine illustrates the ability of the gowns to double as maternity wear. (George Kraychyk / Hulu)

The best design is made to solve problems.

— Ane Crabtree

Early sketches for eartags.
Early sketches for eartags. (Ane Crabtree)
The dresses include a Japanese-style obi to define the women's waists.
The dresses include a Japanese-style obi to define the women's waists. (Ane Crabtree)

Beneath their wings

The iconic wings are actually a two-part affair. Underneath there’s a caplet worn at all times, covering the hair, and over, a set of wings designed to shield them from view in public.

Elisabeth Moss wears the final version of the handmaid's caplet on the left vs. an early prototype on the right.
Elisabeth Moss wears the final version of the handmaid's caplet on the left vs. an early prototype on the right. (George Kraychyk / Hulu ; Ane Crabtree)

With a linen exterior, the wings provided enough diffuse light in outdoor shots to serve as modified light boxes on the actresses’ faces.

This promotional shot featuring Alexis Bledel depicts the layering of the caplet and wings.
This promotional shot featuring Alexis Bledel depicts the layering of the caplet and wings. (Take Five / Hulu)

The muse

Crabtree had a secret weapon in Elisabeth Moss when it came to designing for “Handmaid’s Tale.”

The way Moss moved determined whether a fabric was appropriate; the way she used the wings determined whether or not they were tenable.

Lizzie [Moss] is a great scientist. She went through every trial to figure out what would work and she did something amazing with those wings.

— Ane Crabtree

A camera-shy Elisabeth Moss tries on a prototype nightgown at her first fitting.
A camera-shy Elisabeth Moss tries on a prototype nightgown at her first fitting. (Ane Crabtree)

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