Day 6

Meet the designer behind The Handmaid's Tale's iconic costumes

Canadian designer Natalie Bronfman created many of The Handmaid's Tale's most iconic costumes.

‘It's very powerful. It's an honour’: Natalie Bronfman on her robe design becoming a symbol of resistance

Natalie Bronfman is the costume designer for 'The Handmaid's Tale', including the iconic red robe that has grown to become a symbolic statement. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC, Hulu)

From topical Halloween costumes to  powerful symbols of protest, the iconic red robe from The Handmaid's Tale has taken on a life of its own.

The ensemble, as depicted in the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel, is the brainchild of Canadian costume designer Natalie Bronfman.

Countless women's rights demonstrations in the U.S. and around the world have featured the iconic red robes and white veils — or wings — worn by the oppressed Handmaids of the fictional dystopian republic of Gilead.

The designer was not expecting the look to take on such a strong cultural meaning, but says she's honoured to be part of the movement in this way. 

Margaret Atwood's much-anticipated sequel to The Handmaid's Tale was unintentionally released Wednesday a week ahead of its release date of Sept. 10. Meanwhile, Hulu's celebrated TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale just wrapped its third season with a fourth expected to land in 2020.

Bronfman tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury that she feels proud her creation has become a symbol of resistance.

Here is part of their conversation.

After three seasons, we've seen an arc of change in so many of the characters. As a costume designer how do you represent the sometimes subtle change that happens to these characters over the course of three seasons?

Often it's in colour. But in this book that Margaret Atwood set forward initially, the colours are pre-described. So I had to become very creative with staying within the colour but using either shape or texture — specifically for the people in Gilead.

Outside of Gilead I would look at the psychology of their characters: where they are, how they're feeling, what they're going through. You can convey that just by the use of colour.

So these would be the characters in Canada?

Yes. For example, Emily.

Give me an example of how you changed Emily's costume in a way that was perceptible to the people who are watching?

Well Emily had been wearing this red dress and so she was very singled out all the time in the society. When she landed in Canada, I put her in very strong earth tones, things that were very high necked — completely covered except for her hands and her face.  

It was sort of to indicate that she's trying to disappear so that she can heal. Eventually her character arc changes and she comes forward a little bit more with colours that start to reflect her former life, her collegial looks, her navy blues and shirts that stick out at the top of the sweaters.

So that's the character in Canada. But then in Gilead you have the enormous hypocrisy of the ruling class or the political class that's created this dystopian world. How do you represent that in their costumes?

The clothing is, as well, high-necked and the hems are low. They're devoid of any decoration.

Then appears this gala, where all the women are full of fascinators and flowers and shiny fabrics and buttons and lace and velvet and tulle and waltzing dresses.

I thought of it like when a ruling power takes over, they hoard everything for themselves. They strip the society of it, only to show it in their upper echelons at their parties.

Activists dressed as characters from "The Handmaid's Tale" leave the Texas Capitol as they protest SB8, a bill that would require health care facilities, including hospitals and abortion clinics, to bury or cremate any fetal remains whether from abortion, miscarriage or stillbirth, and they would be banned from donating aborted fetal tissue to medical researchers, Tuesday, May 23, 2017, in Austin. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

But in the case of the Handmaid's Tale you have so many other castes of society that are being represented — that must also give so many opportunities to you as a designer.

Even even just when you look within the Handmaids themselves, they all look the same from a distance. But when you actually go up close and you look at these characters one by one they all have a very individual look.

No sweater is like the other, no scarf is wrapped the same way, no gloves are worn the same way.

This is what we've created that has given these people strength and making them feel like they have power.- Natalie Bronfman

You are designing costumes for women who are being violently oppressed. You've got veils, there's gags, there's terrible things. Muzzles. Did you try any of these things on yourself?

I myself didn't try them on but we made so many prototypes and I tried them on my various crew members for fit.

It was eerie. The veiling for The Handmaids themselves, on the back of them there are big fur hooks and they snap shut. As soon as that thing went on, you had no option but to look down on the floor — you just became silent. It's eerie to see that. It's powerful.

What is it like for you when you see protests in Washington or Brazil, or anywhere else in the world, and the protesters are wearing the garbs that have been created for this program. What does that say to you?

It's very powerful. It's an honour actually to be part of this, to be able to say: 'this is what we've created that has given these people strength and making them feel like they have power and feel strong.'

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with costume designer Natalie Bronfman, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.