The Handmaid’s Tale: 25 Nerdy Design Details

The Art And Making of The Handmaid’s Tale book is out now. Here are just a few of the Gilead design secrets inside…

This The Handmaid’s Talearticle contains some spoilers for Seasons 1 and 2.

In February this year it was announced that, in a bid to shrink the runtime of the Oscars ceremony on ABC, the awards for cinematography, editing, makeup and hair would be presented during ad breaks rather than on the main show. The implication was clear: that these areas are considered “secondary” aspects of filmmaking, neither as valuable or as interest-worthy as acting and directing.

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Hollywood, quite rightly, protested. Without cinematography and editing, they said, there is no directing. Without makeup and hair, there is no acting. The fuss kicked up led to a reversal, and the awards were televised, but the controversy left a sour and familiar taste.

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The creative storytelling done by artists and production designers is routinely eclipsed by the easier-to-grasp work of actors and directors. Their work tells the story wordlessly, through color and detail and shape. The worlds they create aren’t merely backdrops for the main event; they’re the event itself.

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That’s nowhere clearer than in Andrea Robinson’s The Art and Making Of The Handmaid’s Tale, a trove of insights into the meticulous work done to create the terrifying world of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s acclaimed adaptation, season three of which arrives soon. To mark the book’s publication, here are just a few of the show’s design secrets…

1. Each of the Handmaids’ ear tags is stamped with a number, to suggest their similarity to cattle in the eyes of Gilead. Offred’s number is 1985 as a nod to the publication year of Margaret Atwood’s original novel.

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2. For the season one scene in which June is running from the Guardians with Hannah in her arms, the props team created a lifelike, low-weight doll for Moss to carry to avoid fatigue and injury.

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3. The paintings on the Waterford house walls are all copies of ones that are now in the collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the thinking being that like the Nazis in WWII, the Commanders of Gilead would have looted the museum for their own private collections after the coup.

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4. The stones the Handmaids held in the season two premiere were made of lightweight Styrofoam so they could shoot multiple scenes without tiring.

5. It’s rarely shown, but the ceiling of Commander Waterford’s office is painted with a map of Gilead, to reflect his power and expansionist politics.

6. Initially, the sitting room off Serena’s bedroom was supposed to hold a piano, but that was changed to a painting studio so they could subtly convey how the character was feeling silently through her art.

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7. Much of production designer Julie Berghoff’s previous work was on horror films such as James Wan’s The Conjuring, which helped her in making the Waterford house feel like a horror location, with a spiral staircase and the corridors designed to inspire a sense of paranoia about being followed and watched.

8. The specific red used for the Handmaid uniforms is Pantone 202 CP, and was dubbed “lifeblood” by the designer. It was inspired by a photograph of scarlet autumn leaves against a dramatic overcast sky.

9. To ensure that the Handmaids would draw focus in every scene, the show’s early sets are almost completely devoid of décor that contains even a hint of red.  

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10. Berghoff wanted to insert clues about Gilead’s political reach via which produce was available in the grocery shop Loaves & Fishes in each episode. “If an orange just showed up, that meant Gilead had taken Flora, or if an artichoke showed up, maybe that meant they had taken over the state of California.”

11. In the first season, there are products in Loaves & Fishes bearing written labels with Gilead pictorial labels (as reading was outlawed for women in Gilead) stuck over the top, to convey a sense of newness to the regime. By season two, that doesn’t happen. Gilead’s reach has expanded.

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12. Costume designer Ane Crabtree has separate racks of Gilead clothes, flashback-era clothes and in-between period clothes “when religion is creeping into what we wear: hemlines going longer, women wearing more layers, women not wearing tight things.”

13. Aunt Lydia’s three intertwined hair braids at the top of her neck were intended to represent Germany’s Third Reich.

14. Amanda Brugel, the actor who plays Rita, wrote her college thesis on the role of the Marthas in Gilead’s dystopia.

15. The Fenway Park scene in season two was actually filmed at Bernie Arbour Stadium in Hamilton, near Toronto, with digital alterations to make it resemble the famous Boston stadium, with permission from Tom Werner, chairman of the Boston Red Sox.

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16. When Elisabeth Moss cuts off her ear tag in “June,” the effect was done practically, not using CGI. A fake ear was placed on top of Moss’ taped-down real ear with a blood tubing that would spill when she snipped it with the scissors.

17. Elisabeth Moss, a producer on the show, shares a lot of June’s taste in clothes and music. Santigold’s GO!, the song June jogs to around the disused Boston Globe building was taken from Elisabeth Moss’ own running playlist.

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18. The zero shapes on the back of the Unwomen’s uniforms in the Colonies were to signify that they represented no value whatsoever to the state of Gilead, inspired by a similar shape Crabtree saw on the back of outfits in a photograph of Amish girls on holiday.

19. The teal-coloured fabric used for the Wives’ dresses was discontinued during season one, so Crabtree decided to use it as another opportunity to reflect the shifting power in Gilead. The variations of “Wife Blue” would be a way to show “who had the power at any given moment, with the most teal fabric going to those in favour and others getting material that’s greener or more faded.” After Commander Putnam’s scandal with Janine is revealed in season one, his wife Naomi’s dresses are made from a fabric with a less saturated color.

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20. As the Wives of Gilead began to resent their position and Serena plotted for change, Crabtree reflected that in the women’s dresses, which had “a more military imprint, necklines were higher and more structured around their necks and heads, whereas the men’s patterns began to break apart and dissipate. When Commander Waterford was starting to lose control, Crabtree employed “open, big plaids, window-pane plaids that were exploding across his body.”

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21. The Guardians’ uniform is navy blue. Only the Commanders are supposed to wear black. But look closely at the uniforms worn by Guardians who are also Eyes, and they’re wearing black in a subtle show of power.

22. The eye motif, which is repeated in season two, originally came from a real cut glass piece above a door in the housing estate they used to stand in for the Econo Village. It was then echoed in the Waterfords’ back garden paving and the cemetery scene.

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23. The editorial policy, as established by director Reed Murano is that Gilead equals Kubrick (measured, beautiful but terrifying) and flashbacks equal Terrence Malick (faster cuts, disjointed but more colourful and frenetic.)

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24. The Handmaid’s clothes were free of buttons and zippers to give the impression that they were trapped inside them, like a prison. Even the hooks that hold their cloaks together were chosen instead of a button to give the suggestion of violence.

25. Crabtree put “her own playful metafictional feminist mark” on the Aunt’s costume by “creating the collars in a way that suggested an inverted vagina, citing the 1970s art of Judy Chicago as an inspiration”. Crabtree called it “a private little fuck you hidden in the clothing.”

The Art And Making Of The Handmaid’s Tale by Andrea Robinson is now available for order.