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Building the world of Gilead — and the world beyond

April 14, 2018 11:00 AM
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Details of colour, sound and more matter intensely to those creating the look of Handmaid’s Tale: ‘Everything we do is on purpose’

The bird song heard onscreen comes from birds that don’t exist in present-day Cambridge but that would presumably come back if the environmental stresses that drove them away were eliminated.

And because the grand old Hamilton house that stands in for the Waterford home has creaky floors, set designer Julie Berghoff designed the floors in the reproduction rooms to creak.

Then there are the costumes. Ane Crabtree and her staff make up to 95 per cent of the clothing worn on the show.

“With a novel so specific … it’s very difficult to translate that into clothing on the rack. There’s no Gilead store to go to,” says Crabtree, who won a Costume Designers Guild Award and was nominated for an Emmy for Handmaid’s Tale.

In a large, high-ceilinged room in the studio stand rack upon rack upon rack of clothing: red for the handmaids, teal for the wives, brown for the aunts and so on, as well as street clothes for flashback scenes, and skin-baring, sparkly dresses from the forbidden nightclub Jezebel’s — all of it meticulously catalogued. The space is shared with staff members who specialize in cutting, sewing, millinery, dyeing and breaking down costumes (the outfits worn by labourers in the colonies, for instance, get dirty and ragged).

In Season 1, one conundrum for Crabtree was what colour red to make the handmaids’ dresses and other garb. “It was quite challenging in the beginning to try to come up with something that would work for every skin tone, everybody’s shape, every scenario as to their past story before we meet them in Gilead,” Crabtree said.

Nature provided an answer. “After trying out a million samples of fabric I just went to the colour of blood.”

She turned to another one of her go-to inspirations — music — when she struggled to come up with costumes for the “colonies” in Season 2.

It was a Saturday: sketches were due by Monday so the costumes could be sewn and nothing was drawn. “I couldn’t remember the name for the colonies. … I kept calling it ‘this bitter earth,’ ” Crabtree said. She Googled that phrase and the first thing that came up was a YouTube mash-up of the 1960 song of that title by Dinah Washington and Max Richter.

“It became a kind of war cry for Season 2 and the colonies, and I sketched all day 20 hours non-stop with the song on loop.”


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