The Handmaid's Tale costume designer describes inspiration behind iconic red gowns

Ane Crabtree, the costume designer for The Handmaid's Tale, said creating the gowns was so much more than simply choosing a piece of clothing.

Ane Crabtree is giving a VIFF Creator Talk presentation on Oct. 2 about the show's costumes

Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and Ofglen (Alexis Bledel) walk together in Episode 101, "Offred." The handmaids' flowing red dresses have become symbolic of womanhood. (George Kraychyk/Hulu)

It's a show that has sent shivers down viewers' spines around the world, and the red, flowing gowns of the women in The Handmaid's Tale have become symbols of a dystopian future.

Ane Crabtree, the costume designer forthe TV show based on Margaret Atwood's novel, said creating the gowns was so much more than simply choosing a piece of clothing.

Costumes have a huge emotional and psychological impact on the audience, she told CBC host of The Early Edition Rick Cluff.

"We are more than fabric—we are an emotion, we are psychology, we are politics in this case," Crabtree said. "What we try to do, sincerely, is to be architects of emotion."

The emotion elicited by the handmaids and their costumes has turned into a political fulcrum. Across the U.S., Australia, Ireland and Poland, demonstrators have shown up wearing the red gowns to protest issues related to women's reproductive rights.

Crabtree said she is overwhelmed by the response to the costumes.

"I'm brimful with pride and also humility because it's bigger than me," she said.

A group of handmaids stand together in the first episode of "The Handmaid's Tale." (George Kraychyk/Hulu)

Opposing inspirations

The inspiration for the handmaids' costume design came from two opposing places, Crabtree said.

"We wanted something that was a colour that looked good on every woman, metaphorically and literally—every skin tone," she said. "I wanted to have this omnipresent vehicle for womanhood."

After going through many shades of red, Crabtree said, the costume team found the right red on a flowy, soft rayon fabric.

"I wanted this flowing river of blood when they were walking through this grey dystopia, Gilead," she said.

Crabtree's second inspiration for the gowns came from a sketch she made more than 15 years ago of a priest walking past in a cathedral in Milan.  

"His robe was flowing in front of him, this flap of fabric," she said. "That exists on the handmaids even though it comes from the patriarchy. It's all a part of the handmaids' dress and costume."

Crabtree said it's important for an audience to know what goes into creating the costumes and to understand the meaningful design details.

"I want them to understand that we give something beyond a dress on an actor," she said.

Ane Crabtree is giving a Creator Talk on Monday, Oct. 2 at 6:30 p.m at Vancity Theatre as part of Vancouver International Film Festival.

With files from The Early Edition