Interview: Natalie Bronfman of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ on the convergence of costume design and character arc
Costume designer Natalie Bronfman knows that clothes can give an audience crucial bits of information and that’s rarely been as evident as her work on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which has earned her two Emmy nominations so far.
The evolution of The Marthas, the Aunts and the Handmaid’s themselves continues to morph in style and color changes and Bronfman, now head designer for the series, was given the task to adapt the existing clothing to the ever-changing psychological game play and how the introduction of veils and masks this season were another interestingly prescient of how the show often blurs the lines of dystopian fantasy with dystopian reality.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, the costumes are such an integral part of the storytelling. Natalie, you have been on the show since the first season — first as a costume supervisor for seasons 1 and 2, and now as the costume designer for season 3. Can you discuss the evolution of the Handmaids’ robes and the significance of using that stark red?
Having taken over in season three, I couldn’t completely change the costumes or it would not have made any sense in the story. The goal is to continue the story as seamlessly as possible. There are some additions however, as the story required. One of which is the capelet that I created for June when she was speaking in the video that Waterford was creating as a propaganda tool to bring into Canada and to show in Washington what a wonderful pious family he has and what terrible things that befell his family. In order to appear more pious, June had to cover up all exposed skin except the hands and face.
Another thing that I had to create was Washington because it was a whole new city that we have never seen before. The theocracy there was far stricter than in Boston. All the women were veiled and subsequently I had to create different veils for the different factions of ladies.
It was a daunting task because of what’s going on in the global realm of religious discord. I had to walk on a thin line between being offensive and being creative. I chose archetypal elements from all the main religions, so that everyone was offended equally.
The Aunts and the Handmaid references came from the under-dressing of a nun’s wimple. The Aunts did not have their mouths covered as they are the women’s ‘army,’ for lack of a better term, and need to shout and bark orders. The Handmaid’s veil covered what last bit of autonomy the girls had. Coupled with the rings in their lips and being completely silenced, they were now unable to create any sort of subterfuge with whispers.
The Marthas reference came from the Middle East where women often wore their hair tied in great big shawls that when they had to go outside they could simply untie one tail and wrap it around their face. The Econo women, we’re given a utilitarian cowl-neck that wrapped with little bands around the ears but doubled also as a warm collar, and at last the Commander Wives had barely any covering on their faces at all. As they were the jewel prizes of the realm, they had a nod to a veiling to make the patriarchy happy. The reference was the kippah and the veil was a pseudo-deference to religion and being controlled.
The Handmaid’s red colour hasn’t changed since the first season as we have everything dyed in a textile mill to maintain continuity.
The red of course is significant because it is the colour of fertility in Gilead. The menstruating women are in service to the commanders to produce children. The colour red does however change once June has killed commander Winslow at Jezebels. The morning after the killing, we see her covered in flecks and smears of blood. June washes up and has to put her Handmaid dress back on but the significance of the colour red changes completely. It is now no longer a dress of subjugation, it becomes a dress worn as a disguise. The colour here then changes to the colour of anger and strength. Fiery courage and steel wheel.
Aside from red, can you describe the color palate of the show and how that specifically proposed a challenge for your designs?
The colour palette did not really pose a significant challenge to designing for me. I had to think a little outside the box and create things within the parameters given. Each colour represents a faction in the society which has a specific job. I think the most difficult task in clothing all the different factions — the Econo people, the Martha’s, the children, the commander wives — was trying to find footwear in their appropriate colors! It is not easy trying to find 300 pairs of anything in one color.
In season 3, audiences have the opportunity to see more of the handmaids’ pre-Gilead lives. Plus, we are able to see more of what is happening in Canada. What influenced your costume designs for what we see “outside” of Gilead?
Outside of Gilead, with Emily, Moira, and Luc, their costuming was based mostly on where they were psychologically in their path to healing. Moira was possibly the most healed, but not thoroughly. Her closet of clothing had brighter colour than the rest, more pops and more interest. Luke was so lost in his grief that he did not concern himself too much about his clothing. I reflected this in the fact that he did not have a whole new set of clothing every time we saw him. When you’re that obsessed with gathering information and correcting wrongs, you’re not concerned too much about what you’re wearing. Emily, newly arrived in a society where she has retrieved her autonomy, reverts to things she once knew, her life in the Academia. Emily dresses initially very closed off, no flesh exposed, not even a neckline, and in colours that are quite sombre in earth tones even, in an attempt to blend in, not drawing attention to herself. Eventually she starts back into the things she used to wear from a time when she was happier. She then goes into blues and navies and things she once knew.
I did quite a lot of research on the psychology about when one has been subjected to a great amount of trauma. This helped me understand where they should go in terms of their character arc with their costumes.
In episode 6, we experience Washington, where handmaids are forced to wear masks. Can you describe how you executed the masks that are an extension to the now iconic robes? The costumes in that episode are also considerable. Can you tell us how many Handmaids you created for the monument scene?
All the veils of the handmaid’s consisted of 17+ pieces. On the back there are four hooks attached, which are quite substantial. I was trying to come up with a solution on how to ram home the feeling of being shackled. When June puts on her veil, and Lydia snapped shut the four hooks at the back. Here we witness an acoustical and visual shackling of June.
We created roughly 300+ handmaid uniforms, 100 Army, countless Aunts, commander wives, commanders, Martha’s, and Econo-people.
How do you feel about creating masks for costumes as we’re in the middle of a pandemic where mask wearing is heavily politicized? Ever since the first season, it’s felt like the US was moving towards a Gilead-like future with regards to women and women’s reproductive rights, etc.
I have been told by very many people now that every time they have to put on a mask, they think of episode 6 of the show, titled “Household”.
I don’t think it is only the US feeling like it’s moving towards a Gilead-like future. They are very many countries, first world countries even, where women’s rights are still being toyed with. There are many countries that still forbid abortion, and other reproductive rights. We are still not being paid equally, and we are still not getting the same jobs that men are. It’s quite crazy when you think that in some modern countries, women have only had the right to vote since the 1970s.
Finally, let’s discuss the men of the show and what they wear. What influenced the commanders’ garb? Did you research other armies for your designs? More specifically, Bradley Whitford’s character is a commander, but he does not quite conform to his peers, in both dress and beliefs. Can you discuss how these character traits are reflected by what he wears?
In Washington, I introduced a second star on the arm of a high-ranking commander. I did this because we see Fred and all his peers in Boston, have one star but it is really Washington where they all want to be. I had to create something that was higher than that for them to aspire to and Fred desperately wants to go to Washington and have a placement there. The reference for the uniforms of Washington came from a combination of a few things. WWI France, Prussia for the shape, and the Fascists for the colour.
Commander Lawrence is completely irreverent to the whole Gilead system. There is one scene where there is a surprise meeting at his house, and he throws on the commander jacket but does not change his trousers, nor does he put on a tie. It is a sort of “who cares?” moment. I look at him as a ‘mad genius’ in the sense that the helped create this world and I’m sure at the time when he did, he truly believed in it; but when we see Eleanor remind him of how things have gotten so out of hand, he has a shameful fear in him that he was one of the architects that helped create this. He is, in a way, a romantic Byronic figure in the story. A learned man who loves books and stories and has a very soft underbelly beneath the hard shell. The best way to show this would be to show with vests and soft cravats, the way Byron used to.
Season 3 of The Handmaid’s Tale is available to stream right now on Hulu.