'The Handmaid's Tale' Designer Explains How Politics and Class Play into Gilead's D.C. Costumes (Exclusive)
By Paige Gawley
Hulu / Natalie Bronfman
When The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu's award-winning dystopian drama about a totalitarian society that has taken over parts of the U.S. and forced women into servitude, took the story to Washington, D.C., in season three, it was unlike anything seen before on the series. In an effort to reclaim their status and get baby Nichole back from Canada, Commander Waterford and his wife, Serena Joy (played by Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski), visit Gilead's political power center, only to find that things are far more conservative (and opulent) than they are familiar with.
Opening up the world to this new area has left a lasting impact on the series, largely thanks to shocking new additions to the characters' wardrobes, which encompassed everything from the cruel to the glamorous. ET recently caught up with Natalie Bronfman, the series' Emmy-nominated costume supervisor who took over as designer for Ane Crabtree in season three. She revealed how the new costumes came to be, and the implications they place on the political climate and social constructs within Gilead.
Perhaps the most striking change seen in D.C. is the addition to the handmaids' uniform. When June (Elisabeth Moss) encounters another household's handmaid, she's horrified to discover her lips are sewn together by rings, which were hidden beneath a muzzle-like covering that was placed over her mouth. While custom in D.C., that level of cruelty is not something she or the other handmaids from the north have ever experienced. The facial additions, Bronfman revealed, are to show the elevated level of piousness in this region of Gilead.
"I had to come up with something that constricted a muscle or took away from our view," Bronfman explained. "The only way to do that is to cover up the last remaining bits of flesh that were available to us to see on all the various women... So now you only are left with the nose and the eyes. And the eyes are actually kind of obscured anyhow because of the wings."
In addition to covering the majority of the handmaids' faces, the new item also silences the women even more, something that Bronfman made clear through the mouth coverings' closures. "The hooks in the back of those handmaid veils are actually fur hooks, which have a double latch to them and they make a really horrific sound [when they] snap and shut," she said. "I’m thrilled that sound really came out because you need to drive home that these are shackles that we’ve thrown on you."
Bronfman added, "Now they’re left with almost nothing exposed. They’ve become literally just vessels. That’s all they are: utilitarian vessels."
While the Aunts, Marthas and Econo-people also had slight changes to their wardrobe -- which Bronfman said were inspired by various religions -- it was new costumes for the Commanders and their wives that have the most political implications. "Different levels" of Gilead were clearly displayed through the Commanders' updated uniforms.
"Nick [is] a newly minted Commander, he has no star because he’s still a junior," Bronfman said of Max Minghella's character. "Then you see Commanders that had one star. And then, in Washington, you saw some Commanders that had two stars. So there are different levels and clearly in Washington [with] it being the hub of the universe for Gilead, the real upper echelon would be in Washington."
"I mean, they basically hoarded all this stuff coming from the rest of the world and then this is the only place they can actually show it," she added. "They went all out... It's very much like when victors, the conquerors, steal all the stuff from society and hoard for themselves. Every world war we see there’s artwork missing."
Likewise, the Commanders' wives, whom Bronfman calls "the pride of the society," had their comparatively luxurious lives on display during a formal gala. The event gave characters the rare opportunity to express individuality through clothing. For Serena, it was a bit of a "fish out of water" experience.
"The premise for her dress was that the Waterfords went to Washington not knowing that there was a gala. And her dress was sort of something that was made pretty much that day or the day before," Bronfman said. "And because Serena didn’t really know what goes on at these galas, like, flirting and drinking and smoking, and sort of how embellished they all were, she’s still, I think, in her mind trying to keep the piousness of being covered up and not ostentatious."
The designer continued by revealing that "she had a very demure fascinator -- not one of those big ones that the other ones had. And, also, the premise of that is you never wanna out-stage the hostess at her own gala."
As for what fans can expect from the rest of the third season, Bronfman promised that it "leaves off at a fantastic place," before pointing to returning to Serena's journey on the show. "Definitely keep an eye on Serena and how she changes from where she started at the beginning of the season," Bronfman teased. "It turns into a whole other ball of wax."