How ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Costume Designer Went From Schitt’s Creek Couture to Gilead Garb

“There is a certain kind of unreality to both,” Emmy-winning costume designer Debra Hanson says of going from a light comedy to a dark drama

Debra Hanson claimed Emmy victory last year for designing fashions for “Schitt’s Creek’s” Moira Rose (Catherine O’Hara) and family, so it would seem a natural progression that her next project would be … Hulu’s ”The Handmaid’s Tale”?

“I did have a project between the two [Netflix’s ballet drama ‘Tiny Pretty Things‘] so it wasn’t quite going from one extreme to the other,” explained Hanson. “But as I was driving into work today, I did have the thought that even though one is in the sci-fi/fantasy realm, there is a certain kind of unreality to both [series]. Where would you kind of put them, just from a design standpoint, in that some of the clothing is qualified, right? The interesting thing about Season 4 of ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ and one of the reasons that they asked me to do it was because they felt I could transition it out of codification and change that, refine that and then explode it, you know?”

(Spoiler alert!) In the recently-aired installments of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” viewers finally got a whiff of relief (relative term, of course, where this series is concerned) as a seriously wounded June (Elisabeth Moss), Janine (Madeline Brewer) and others finally made it out of Gilead, and attempt to reunite with others who made it out, including June’s best friend Moira (Samira Wiley) and her husband Luke (O.T. Fagbenle). And that also means that the harsh bonnets and status robing created a new challenge for Hanson, who joined the show after three seasons had already aired.

“I’ve intensified the color scheme,” offers Hanson. “But then I’ve pulled back at times, so that when they entered Canada, they’re not going to just go out in a disco miniskirt or something, it still takes time for people to adjust. For instance, if you didn’t have much money, you would probably go to a thrift store or people would donate clothes through a refugee command. I believed they would gravitate toward something that made them comfortable, no matter how horrific it all was.”

And the ensemble only grew in Season 4, with new freedom fighters and adversaries in the narrative (Hanson estimates the costumes are in the hundreds for her costuming year), as well as parties, farm visits, group therapy scenes, and a particularly grueling courtroom appearance in which a reassimilated June finally gets to tell her harrowing story in her own words.

“We did research into international courts, which have very specific colors, and then certain things have to place into that, for instance, Serena [played by Yvonne Strahovski] and her change from the black to the grays and, at certain points, for Joseph [played by Joseph Fiennes] as well. And then there was a bit of a discussion on how June should be centered, and it landed on silhouette. Totally direct, no flourishes. And that’s very difficult to do, but I think we made the right choice.”

And this being “The Handmaid’s Tale,” many scenes by nature cannot be as refined clothing-wise, and lots of measures need to be taken, such as a notable sequence in which June and Janine find themselves hiding out inside a milk tanker in their former Gilead attire. “We didn’t know how many takes we could afford to do or how much time it would take to do them, and how they would float or sink?” Hanson adds with a laugh. “We had to have guys come in and give us their milk recipe because I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is dyed fabric!’ You got pink milk!” noting that her team made 10 copies of each outfit so that they’d have solid coverage in case her contributions got (pardon the pun) spoiled.

But as many series can attest over the past year and a half, working at a brisk clip during a global pandemic (even on Canadian ground) takes a real toll on designers, especially when working long days with fully masked actors. Says Hanson: “They came in through an outside door into my fitting room, and never having met them before, you watch them even more closely because their body and their acceptance of the costume in their body, you typically see it rather easily. You have to really watch them physically and not rely on facial expression, so it’s really good in a way. But it’s exhausting.”

“I have to say that the entire production and MGM really gave us a feeling of being cared for, not just for the actors, but everybody who was working,” offers Hanson warmly. “They had an incredible COVID team, and if you were in financial trouble or needed assistance, it was offered. They were incredibly kind to not just do this to protect their money.”

“The Handmaid’s Tale” is now streaming on Hulu


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