When Ane Crabree had a difficult time coming up with the costumes for the Unwomen toiling in the radioactive Colonies in Season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she once again relied on a musical mashup for inspiration: “This Bitter Earth,” a combination of the melancholy Dinah Washington ballad and Max Richter’s sublime “Nature of Daylight.” In fact, “This Bitter Earth” served as her personal anthem for a season devoted to loneliness, isolation, and motherhood.
“I had a hard time starting,” said Crabtree. “How do we top that beautiful visual that we created in Season 1? The first thing I could think of was Russian propaganda posters in a kind of ‘work makes life free.’ I applied the paintings that Van Gogh did of the farmers late in his career. There is a promise of utopia in that. Another influence was the desaturation of Andrew Wyeth, which fit perfectly with the Colonies. The initial rural, pastoral beauty that they’re selling in the Colonies has been tainted because these women are dying in six months to two years because of the exposure.
“And what’s crazy about this concept is that I felt like a laboratory rat in Season 1 and Season 2,” she added. “In Season 1, Lizzy Moss [June Osborne/Offred] introduced me to the Philip Glass/Blondie mashup ‘Heart of Glass’ by Daft Beatles. Listening to it over and over again led to me designing the head gear for the Handmaids.
“For Season 2, it took me weeks to realize that, again, the only easy way in design-wise was through music. I discovered ‘This Bitter Earth.’ People are alone yet trying to connect. I played it for [everybody] and I said, ‘This is it.’ This led me to sketching all day long for the Colony. At first glance, you think this world is harmless. And then, as you get closer to the costumes and closer to the fibers, you see that they are actually blending into the world and the colors of the radiation that they are succumbing to. It’s the slow march toward death.”
This abstract approach led to the washed out blue of the Colony workers along with the more ashen color of the clothes worn by the lower ranking Aunts and Guardians. But that’s not all: “The Colonies are so toxic that the Aunts, the Guardians, and the horses have breathing masks,” Crabtree said. “Only the Unwomen don’t. And there’s a hardness and monstrosity of the human spirit that comes out in that mask over the Aunts.”
In connecting with the clothes emotionally and psychologically, Crabtree focused on the prevailing theme of motherhood. When June/Offred becomes pregnant, her wardrobe was adjusted and the focus turned to her stomach. Same with Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), the Commander’s wife desperate to become a mother. “She had a wall built up around her and the whole of Season 2 is about moving toward her womb, which is a very strange place to put the focus,” said Crabtree.
“But I thought: Here’s a society where the wives of the Commanders can’t give birth, so I put the emphasis on their stomach, their womb. And that was the impetus for Serena Joy, and then, Yvonne became pregnant at the end of Season 2 in real life and I had to move things up to another area.”
There’s also a strange cleansing that occurs in Crabtree’s Emmy-nominated “Seeds” episode, in which there’s a forced mass wedding of Guardians and teenage girls, who, of course, are all dressed in white. “They look very much like an egg, so I played with the idea of fertility and a white egg,” she said. “The child brides, as they end up being, turn around and they look like a white ovum or egg, and when they turn around again, they look like one of those Russian Stacking dolls.
“These children are being used as a symbol of female fertility. It’s nothing new to Gilead but shocking to see when it comes to children. I’m still playing with the color pink. That is the color of the children and you see it in Hannah [June’s daughter played by Jordana Blake], who’s turning into a little Handmaid. ‘This Bitter Earth’ has been such a mainstay of what this world has become.”