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Puritanism and protest: how handmaid fashion started a movement

They wanted to know how to make the red dresses.

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“They were just asking, ‘How does one do this?'” Crabtree recalls. “I can’t remember exactly but I think they were also subtly saying, would you design something?”

Although she couldn’t, Crabtree says she “gave them some ideas on how to do it”.

A week later, the women were sitting in the gallery of Texas’ state capitol building: robes, bonnets and all.

After seeing a picture on Twitter, Crabtree, 53, got a sense that she had designed something more than a costume for a television show.

“That was the first real moment where I thought, ‘Woah’. That’s never happened to me in 28 years of working.”

Feminist groups across the world have now used the design in protest. In Australia, women from lobby group Fair Agenda dressed as handmaids to encourage Queensland politicians to sign a pro-choice pledge ahead of the state election last November.

Women wear Handmaid's Tale costumes in Brisbane on November 19, 2017.

Women wear Handmaid’s Tale costumes in Brisbane on November 19, 2017.

Photo: Facebook/Fair Agenda

Crabtree, whose work was recognised at this year’s Costume Designers Guild Awards, says the costumes were designed to appear – disconcertingly – “normal”.

“In the first two hours of meeting [the show’s creator] Bruce Miller and [executive producer] Warren Littlefield they said they didn’t want people to watch this and think it looks like it’s from another time, [so] it doesn’t affect them,” she says.

There were also practical concerns to consider, such as those raised by the show’s star, Elisabeth Moss, who plays Offred, a handmaid.

“Lizzie [Moss] wanted something very lightweight because it was going to be over 100 degrees Farenheit [38 degrees] in Toronto and she was going to be in it everyday with lots of exterior [shooting].”

Elisabeth Moss and Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski in The Handmaid's Tale.

Elisabeth Moss and Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Photo: Hulu

Crabtree calls the colour of the resulting red rayon dress “lifeblood”.

“These women are the only ones who are able to bring life to Gilead, through being fertile,” she explains.

Although simple, there are intricacies in the outfit, which Crabtree designed by placing herself in the mindset of the men who rule Gilead.

“I took away all the buttons and zippers, visibly, on the show, because of this thing in the book where [Offred] talks about buttons and wanting to undo them,” she says. “I thought, that’s one thing we can take away.”

Protesters dressed as handmaids march in protest of Donald Trump near his Mar-a-Lago home on Florida's east coast on Saturday, January 20, 2018.

Protesters dressed as handmaids march in protest of Donald Trump near his Mar-a-Lago home on Florida’s east coast on Saturday, January 20, 2018.

Photo: AP

A year after the first real world handmaids debuted in Texas, Crabtree, raised in Kentucky as the daughter of a Japanese immigrant mother, continues to be amazed by the women who use her designs to “reclaim something that was meant to curtail women’s rights”.

“Every time I see women use it as a power stance, as a uniform, my heart is so happy,” she says.

As for the story’s relevance 30 years after it was first told, Crabtree says her emotions are mixed.

“[I] wish it was not so much of a mirror. It’s a strange thing. It’s beautiful and horrifying.”

The Handmaid’s Tale season one is available now on DVD.

Mary Ward

Mary Ward is a Lifestyle reporter for The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Brisbane Times and WAtoday.

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