Adapted from Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred (Elizabeth Moss) a Handmaid living in the Republic of Gilead.
Set a few short years after takeover by a totalitarian regime, Gilead sees women defined solely by assigned roles. Depending on their fertility, women are designated the position of Wife, Aunt, Martha or Handmaid; all for the purpose of ‘restoring the world’ and, in the case of the handmaid's, bearing children.
While most are familiar with these details. Few would have noticed the secrets behind the set and costumes on the dystopian series.
1. Shades of red
Costume designer Ane Crabtree (Masters of Sex, Ironside, The Sopranos) tested millions of reds to find the perfect hue. “We knew that this red had to cinematically look discordant when it needed to be, and [look] beautiful cinematically when it needed to, pending the story,” Crabtree says. Ultimately, Crabtree settled on a shade of red that resembles blood, as a metaphor for female menstruation and the Handmaid’s fertility.
“Those who work in the design industry understand the perils of working with red,” she adds, referencing the colour's dominance on screen.
Crabtree also describes her choice of shoes for the handmaids, paying homage to detail in Atwood's novel. “I gave the Handmaids lace-up boots that were modeled after a pair I have, but then I took away their laces so that they can’t even consider killing themselves,” she explains. “We sewed the grommets down, and then on top of that we did a boot cover, so they can’t even be reminded that they used to have laces. It’s just a sleek cover. That was a way of oppressing them mentally.”
2. Waterford Art
Despite the sparse and austere surroundings of Offred’s rooms (see below), Commander Waterford’s (Joseph Fiennes) wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), has an impressive collection of art in her home.
According to production designer Julie Berghoff, “Everything was very purposeful. We pretended like they went into the Boston Museum of Modern Art and stole all their favorite paintings,” she explains. “Serena Joy is a watercolorist, and she loves nature, so she picked Monets.”
3. The perfect blue-green
Crabtree admits, designing costumes for a world that oppresses women was as challenging and fulfilling as it was bittersweet. “It was kind of twisted to think about how I would hinder women—their body shape, and also their movement and their freedom with the clothing,” she details. “ I had to do it to make it realistic, but also to help the actors."
One of the ways Crabtree achieved this was through contrast. The wives' clothing is eminently more fitted and individualised, a choice that suggests access to luxuries like a tailor and therefore, higher social status.
While the wives in Atwood’s novel are described as wearing blue, to represent the Virgin Mary, the Hulu series, see's them in blueish-green or teal.
“I was shown a picture of red maple leaves against a perfect moody teal sky. From that photo was birthed the genesis of the Handmaids’ clothing as well as that of the Commanders’ Wives," Crabtree told Vanity Fair.
"The colors were two opposites that would look beautiful together and stand alone, opposing each other in the frame. It was a great visual metaphor for where we wanted to go in the story, and I love it that the inspiration was from nature."
4. The Commander's ceiling
Berghoff admits she “had a lot of fun with the ceilings on this project.” In the Commander’s office, for example, there is a map of the United States overhead, symbolising the ongoing battle for territory. “I felt like it was almost a dartboard for him, where he could sit in his chair and throw a dart up there and say, ‘Oh, we conquered Florida,'" Berghoff explains.
In fact, the production team wanted Commander Waterford’s office to represent everything forbidden to women.
“Books, art, sexual art, alcohol. He pulls out Scrabble, and I'm sure if he smoked he would be smoking cigars with the commanders in there,” Berghoff says. Maps and a compasses are again present, poignant considering Offred’s world consists of a few rooms and the odd trip to the grocery store.
5. Offred's room
Berghoff dressed Offred’s room with the barest of necessities but with a nod to the cruelty of Gilead and torturous power plays of the Commander.
“We put a desk there, but she can't write. So it's almost like a remnant, a remembrance of ‘Oh, I was a writer, an editor. I can't even sit and write anymore,’” Berghoff explains. The use of off-white tones also helps make the red of the Handmaid’s costumes ‘pop’ and the bathroom, bare of makeup, shower and modern amenities, gives viewers a glimpse into the old school mentality that drove the creation of Gilead.
Elizabeth Moss, who plays Offred, says she noticed something else missing in the room. “The most distinctive thing about Offred's bedroom is that there are no locks on the doors and there's nothing in there that you could hurt yourself with, so that's a political message as far as women's rights," she says.
6. Grocery store secrets
Unlike the characters’ old-fashioned clothes, the grocery store where the handmaids shop is strangely contemporary. The contrast is intentional according to Berghoff and was used to startle viewers and create a feeling of familiarity and unease. Crucially, labels are absent as the handmaid’s are forbidden to read. Instead, Berghoff’s team painstakingly designed hundreds of symbols.
“When they go shopping, it’s not in some old-timey-looking place,” says Samira Wiley, who plays Handmaid Moira. “It’s in a shopping center that looks like now. And I think those details make it a little scarier.”
The Handmaid's Tale is available to watch via SBS On Demand.
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