Q&A With Costume Designer Ane Crabtree

ane crabtree

INTERVIEWED BY Lindi Brownell Meiring IMAGES Nathan Cyprys

Renowned costume designer Ane Crabtree, who will be speaking at the Design Indaba Conference between 27 February and 1 March 2019, chats to VISI about how her journey began, daily life and the iconic designs she created for award-winning series, The Handmaid’s Tale.

When did you know that you wanted to work in costume design?

I was a fashion stylist in New York during the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. At some point, I became very interested in film. There was so much happening in the city, so many styles and genres at my fingertips. I lost myself in the old theatres there and film really spoke to me.

Wild at Heart, The Handmaid’s Tale, Jacob’s Ladder, Edward Scissorhands, La Femme Nikita, Cinema Paradiso, Dreams, Alice, Europa Europa… all of these, plus French and Italian New Wave films being played at the Film Forum in downtown New York, was a whole new world that opened up a different way of “seeing” for me.

Fashion was exciting in its own way, but film brought to life other worlds, people from all walks of life. I remember going to see a film called Edward ll by Derek Jarman and Orlando by Sally Potter –  I became interested in costume design because of them. Mahogany, The Eyes of Laura Mars, The Piano, Blue Velvet, Dancer in the Dark were also films that brought my attention to costume design and the women in the clothing.

You’ve worked in the industry for more than 28 years, creating looks for renowned shows like The Sopranos and Westworld. Your designs for The Handmaid’s Tale have become renowned – what inspired the red cloak and white bonnet?

So many influences inspired the red cloak and white wings. You’ll see that I listed the original film in my process to becoming a costume designer. The book was a huge inspiration as well, both thirty years ago and two years ago, when I began working on the series.

The dystopian place I grew up – Henderson, Kentucky – lent some real horror to the inspiration. Ha ha! The truth is that so many fears and inspirations are woven into the design of the handmaids. It started with a sketch that I did while walking through the Duomo in Milan in 2001. I was following a priest who was walking rapidly through the cathedral, his priest garb/robe swinging forward with every step. That kind of pious, confident movement (clothing moving on its own) made its way into the handmaids’ dress and the aunts’ uniforms… you can see it when they are walking, especially when in unison.

The colour of the dress and cloak came from the colour of blood. This is because the handmaids are the only fertile women in Gilead and so it is their blood, their life force or life blood, that inspired the colour. I looked at so many religious groups, cults and social groups historically that either lived in commune-type societies and/or people that dress alike in general. All of it lent inspiration to the red cloak and white wings.

Were there many iterations of this iconic design? How long did the process for this design take, from start to finish?

Oh yes, there were so many versions of this design. I wanted to find the perfect dress that Elisabeth Moss could wear every day on set, that she would be comfortable enough to shoot long days in. I also wanted to create something that would hinder her and the other handmaids so that they would feel its invisible “prison shackles” emotionally.

I do not remember exactly how long the process took, but I can tell you that we are given no time, not enough creative time, in television work, so it keeps one on one’s toes! Small changes are made after the lead actors try the costume on, sometimes tiny adjustments and visual changes. Every day I was adding a new element, as it had to make sense as a new normal, the new mode of dress in a new society called Gilead.

What does a typical day involve for you?

Each day is different depending on the job. However, when I am working I try to live my life in a very strict way, time-wise and discipline-wise. Everything becomes about the work, including wanting to be a strong vessel for creativity.

I guess it goes something like this:

  • 2am – 3am: Coffee and research
  • 3am – 4am: Bootcamp with my Muay Thai trainer
  • 4am – 6am: More research / answer interview questions
  • 6am – 7am: Muay Thai kickboxing with a different trainer two days a week, or read scripts, sketch, reach out to directors, actors and producers who might be in other countries
  • 7am (or 5am): Get to work / set, meditate first, get my dog situated with breakfast and a walk
  • 10:30am: Leave set for studio / costume shop
  • 11:00am – 2pm: Actor fittings
  • 2pm – 5pm: Meetings with directors and producers and plan for the next day of shooting
  • 5pm – 9pm: More planning, possible fabric shopping, more sketching
  • 9pm – 10pm: Long epsom salt bath and early to bed

Is there a specific design that you’ve created that stands out for you?

It’s very difficult to choose one. Between the large and the small jobs, I become attached to all of the work. Perhaps one costume, in the last episode of Season 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale because I based it on a ghost that was haunting our costume shop!

What are you most looking forward to at this year’s Design Indaba Festival?

I am looking forward to communicating with the audience and to feel the rush of energy that happens at those kinds of events. Design Indaba is known for its great thinkers, artists, etc and I am incredibly humbled to even be considered a part of it. I guess mostly what I am looking forward to is the exchange of ideas… and to be in Cape Town, South Africa for the first time! Very exciting indeed!

For more information and to see the full list of speakers lined up for this year’s event, visit designindaba.com.