Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan talks to costume designer Natalie Bronfman of The Handmaid’s Tale about Season 3 post-Gilead looks for Emily (Alexis Bledel) and how the men on the show utilize fashion to exert control.
In the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale, audiences are treated to a lot of before and after fashion. First, we finally see Emily (Alexis Bledel) escape to Canada and out of the handmaid garments, which poses the question, what would be the first thing you’d wear after the choice had been removed for so long? Secondly, we also learn what Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) used to wear more comfy clothing before she donned her army green attire to bark orders at the handmaids.
The fashion on The Handmaid’s Tale is more than just the iconic handmaid uniforms. There are very specific choices made by costume designer Natalie Bronfman that tell us so much about a character, setting, and even story.
Bronfman and I chatted about many of the underlying fashion issues the Hulu series deals with, including what people who’ve gone through trauma tend to wear post-trauma and what the varying necklines say about women of Gilead.
Awards Daily: This is a near future, although it feels closer and closer to real every day. I know people probably ask you about the handmaids’ costumes a lot, but what kind of consideration do you put into the people in Canada and those who are not handmaids? How do you frame what Luke and Moira wear?
Natalie Bronfman: I’ve been on the show since the very first season—so I really saw the arc of [the characters’] psychology and where they were going and what they’ve been through. In Emily’s case and Moira’s, the torture that they have to submit to, having to leave that behind and then all of the sudden become autonomous (in other words no longer are you being told what to wear or how to act or behave) and being so damaged by it, you have to slowly, psychologically crawl your way into being able to decide what to wear. That’s why the colors are very, very muted, especially with Emily.
Moira did have more of a colorful palette, actually she was the brightest one out of the bunch, but it has to be subtle, because you don’t want the costume to overshadow the actual character and the acting. You can see she was wearing brighter things like yellows and jewel tone greens and burnt oranges. Everything had a bit more bit to it in her palette, whereas Emily started out very muted because she was basically trying to disappear because of her psychology, really, until she started to gain strength again. And then she would fall back, and this is very common—when people have gone through trauma, they go back to dressing the way they did before the trauma. So her palette then reflects the academia, so I brought in blues, grays, whites, and things she’d wear when she was a professor.
And Luke, his closet was actually quite contained. He felt so impotent when he couldn’t help, and when that happened you focused so much on trying to solve the situation, you’re not concerned about what you’re wearing. Often you may have three or four shirts that you wash and wear, because that’s the least on your mind, what sweater you’re going to put on today. So I was playing with that in his closet.
AD: Did you do research on trauma and what people wear post-trauma?
NB: I read a lot. I watch the news from all over the world. I was born in Europe, so when I look at news, I look at it from everywhere. Also, this is a terrible thing to say, but I have close acquaintances who’ve been through traumatic experiences as well, and I have a penchant for studying subjects that have nothing to do with costuming, like psychology. When you look at someone, you have a blip of a second to figure out where this person is in the story and what their mindset is, and I try to do that with colors and textures usually.
AD: How do you think the commanders feel about what they wear on the show? Do you think they have a sense of pride? Do you imagine they had a say in what they wear?
NF: Basically, the commanders, their world is one of power and austerity and controlling others of course, even though their wives actually rule the roost. You look at them and it has to convey a sense of power. The young men [in Washington], their uniforms are a combination of the First World War French, the Prussians, and the Fascists. Fascism, the color was always black. It’s a very powerful color. And it’s not even really a color, but it is, because it’s an amalgamation of all colors. That’s what makes black. In Washington, you start to see two stars as opposed to one star [on uniforms]. I did that because Washington is the pinnacle of what everyone aspired to, especially Fred—he so wanted to have a placement there. Commander Winslow was just one step above Commander Lawrence, so that’s why there were two [stars], and that’s also instantly recognizable.
AD: Commander Lawrence, Bradley Whitford’s character, wears a lot of scarves and dresses differently from the other commanders. What does that say about him?
NF: He has a total irreverence for the whole system. There’s one scene where the commanders come to his house, and he basically just throws on the jacket, but he has the suit trousers, that actually have a plaid pattern in them from another suit that he normally wears around the house, because he honesty doesn’t respect them. I almost want to look at him as a mad genius in the sense that he can come up with this amazing plan for Gilead, which isn’t amazing, like a lot of dictators really. They come up with these crazy plans that are so efficient, but once they are actually in motion, they have regrets. And that’s exactly where he is.
AD: I’m obsessed with the way the necklines work. Marthas seem all covered up, while handmaids have the scoop neck. Why is it necessary to show that little bit of skin? Is it to remind them that they are still sexual in some sense, whereas the Marthas aren’t?
NF: All of the different women, I always look at them as an army, because that’s what it kind of turns into with the numbers. Every faction has their youthfulness. The office folk, the home folk, and then the people who do the grunt work. The Marthas are often the women who had children already, but they had the children taken from them. Rita has a child, a boy. So they somehow end up in the home. And the necklines of the handmaids are very much a sign of youth, innocence, and fertility. In one episode, they’re doing a propaganda video for Washington, and June is handed a little capelet to cover up her neckline. That was done because that’s just before they all decide to go to Washington, and that was to show that Washington was uber pious. He wants to show he’s ruling the household with great piety, so he covers her up. Eventually in Washington, they are all covered up—nose, eyes, and hands.
AD: You get to dress Aunt Lydia in a flashback. She has that comfy cream-colored sweater dress she wears. What kind of considerations did you have for her?
NF: Here’s an interesting character arc, because we were all so excited to hear Aunt Lydia’s story. We really only scratched the end before she became an Aunt. What I tried to do was I tried to show her as a teacher, where she’s still pious, but is open. The cream, soft sweater is loose, warm and funny. She has that teacher feel. But if you notice, as her little arc of that costuming line goes, toward the end of that, when she decides she’s going to have that boy taken away from his mother, she’s not wearing colors that are very similar to the Aunts’ uniforms.
AD: I did notice that!
NB: It’s like an army green top, a nod to what she’s going to be wearing soon. The Aunts are usually the women who are not fertile anymore, and they were the only ones in Washington who didn’t have their mouths covered, because there was no sexual innuendo with them anymore and they were the ones barking the orders, so they could have their faces exposed.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 1-3 are streaming on Hulu.