How 'The Handmaid's Tale' costume became a symbol of women empowerment

Activists in Argentina wore the attire to protest the legalisation of abortion

October 18, 2018

The red habit and white bonnet synonymous with The Handmaid's Tale have become a powerful symbol of the #MeToo movement. Yet, its potency has come as a shock to 54-year-old costume designer Ane Crabtree.

Crabtree is the creator of the now iconic outfit for the runaway-hit television series based on the dystopian 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood. "It's a very big thing. It's grown bigger than the purpose I designed it for," the designer said during Comic Con.


The book's success has been amplified by the wild popularity of the Hulu series, which first aired in April 2017 - just as liberal America started contending with the presidency of Donald Trump.

Atwood's nightmare of an America transformed into a totalitarian society, where women are reduced to sexual slavery, quickly became a parable to many about the political shift to the right and the national reckoning about sexual abuse.

Since then, female protesters have donned the costumes worn on TV by the persecuted women on Gilead all over the world.


In Washington, women who opposed the confirmation of new Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh - in part because of sexual assault allegations against him - donned the habit. Others wore it at abortion rallies in Buenos Aires and Dublin, or at anti-Trump rallies in Warsaw.

Crabtree, the daughter of a US father from Kentucky and a Japanese mother from Okinawa, admits she was oblivious to the phenomenon at first. "For two and a half years, I was doing The Handmaid's Tale. I did not really see the impact," she says.

Filming was intense and breaks were rare. It was only afterwards that Crabtree, who worked in fashion in the 1990s before moving into television, realised that her design had taken on a life of its own. "For me, it's brilliant news - it's something that's quite emotional and emotionally satisfying."


She continued, "As an artist, you are trying to express the times, aren't you? Trying to understand how to communicate and emotionally commune with people."

Her costume - which instantly evokes dread - clearly struck a chord, even if the design cost her countless sleepless nights and lengthy periods of self-doubt. "I had great love for the story and respect for the story," she said. "I didn't want to get it wrong."


Crabtree's bet paid off, but she didn't escape unscathed. The two seasons she spent working on The Handmaid's Tale dredged up a past she had been keen to forget. "This show triggers too much of my own personal life and I didn't realise this until this month," she said.

US President Donald Trump's 2016 election victory left her "so angry" that she threw her rage into her work and says the experience brought to the surface sexual abuse she suffered as a child. "I didn't remember anything till I was 28 and it is still buried in many ways," she said.

"It was not at the forefront when I began this journey with The Handmaid's Tale but it has absolutely highlighted everything," the designer added.

The mental toll became so onerous that she left the series after two seasons, despite the show's enormous success and the boost it had given her career. "It's so healing in the long run, it's both very painful and beautiful at the same time... how it keeps coinciding with real life."


While she has since worked on other projects - notably a feminist film with Mudbound director Dee Rees and another with actor Anjelica Huston - Crabtree is happy to see her costumes take on a life of their own.

Reality star Kim Kardashian made a 'Handmaid's Tale' statement -- albeit an incongruous one with a plunging neckline, bulging cleavage and thigh-high slit.

Lingerie website Yandy caused uproar with a Brave Red Maiden Costume for Halloween - a skimpy, skin-tight minidress with long red cape and white bonnet, which it was forced to withdraw in late September under a storm of controversy.


Crabtree laughs it off. "Everyone is going to dress themselves the way it fits them," she says. "I am a purist - any artist would want to see it the way they envisioned - but maybe that's ego and maybe we should just let people be."

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