“It’s a very powerful symbol. You cannot ignore a sea of women in red,” declares costume designer Natalie Bronfman about the visually striking and now infamous red gowns worn by the titular handmaids on Hulu’s Emmy-winning “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
“I remember shooting in Washington, I sat at a park bench at lunch time and the girls were going to drop off their capes and then go for lunch,” she recounts. “I could hear the conversations and everything I heard was ‘wow, this is so powerful, I can’t believe we’re part of this, I can’t believe it’s part of history now.’ And they’re right. This is a movement now that has brought to the forefront all of this misogyny and women’s rights.” Watch our exclusive video interview with Bronfman above.
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“The Handmaid’s Tale” is based on the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood starring Emmy winner Elisabeth Moss as June, one of thousands of handmaids enslaved to give birth for the barren ruling class in the dystopian Gilead regime. Bronfman served as the show’s costume supervisor alongside designer Ane Crabtree for the show’s first two seasons, and both were nominated twice at the Emmys in 2017 and 2018. Last season, Bronfman took over as lead designer on the show, introducing new designs that combined nuanced departures and adaptations of the designs established in seasons 1 and 2. The narrative also shifted to new locations, particularly midway through the season in episode six (“Household”), which required a huge volume of costuming across the Gilead spectrum. “The story moved into a new city, Washington, so there was a new world to create,” she explains.
“We had about 350 handmaids and we only had in stock about 60 from the first two seasons. We built hats and capes and dresses and it took us 11 hours to build one dress, so you can imagine. Then there are over-dresses and over-skirts and little sleevelets that go over the hands and all of the veils that were new. Plus there were also new aunts, the army, there were more guardians, more commander wives, and everyone had their own special veiling as well,” Bronfman reveals. “I took a little bit from every religion so that no one was singularly offended! I offended everyone just a little bit,” she jokes.
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That episode in particular featured a confronting new look worn by the handmaids in the Gilead capital, which was a much more zealous and extreme version of the Gilead that audiences had become accustomed to. In this more heightened version of the theocracy, handmaids not only wear bonnets, long dresses and capes, but are forced to wear tight red masks over their mouths that cover large metal rings that pierce through their lips, further ensuring their silence, both literally and figuratively.
“They literally didn’t have much real estate in terms of flesh that was visible any more, except their faces. The only thing left that they had was literally their voice, which then in Washington was being taken away as well, hence the closing of the lips,” Bronfman explains. “The rings would seal the lips shut and then the rest of it was visually then gone. Lips are quite sensual and actually when you’re angry and you flare your nostrils, you can still be quite expressive. So I had to leave a little bit for the actors in order to let them express themselves as well.”
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