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Transcending the Screen

By Anna Wyckoff | February 1, 2018

The Handmaid’s Costume is Inducted
into the Smithsonian Museum

Costumes are usually contained by their frames. Hundreds of hours are poured into their conception and creation, yet they exist in the fleeting moment to describe a person at the specific time of action in a television show or film. A handful of garments are memorable beyond their screen time, capturing the imagination of the audience, inspiring conversations and igniting fashion trends. Few garments leap from the screen to take on a life on their own.

When Costume Designer Ane Crabtree put pencil to paper to create her initial sketch for the television series The Handmaid’s Tale, she had no idea she would capture not only the character but also the zeitgeist, in a garment. Since its inception, the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood has been a rallying point for women’s rights. But Crabtree’s translation of Atwood’s words into a crimson gown and white bonnet “wings” has become emblematic of the
#MeToo Movement and has been adopted by women worldwide to protest the subjugation of women. The handmaid’s costume, austere and haunting, is a collision of power and protest.

To recognize her cultural contribution, on October 18, 2018, the Smithsonian Museum of American History inducted Crabtree’s handmaid costume into their collection. The current exhibition will run through February 2019. In 2020 the garment will be placed in the permanent collection in what would be sacred territory for any Costume Designer—across from another icon, which captured the hearts of a different generation, Adrian’s ruby slippers for Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Crabtree attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony surrounded by her parents, family, and producers.

When asked about what this means to her, Crabtree responded: “This job is the most personal one I have had the pleasure of designing. I think when you feel something so deeply, and those emotions go into the work, you can only be truthful in the design. My design for The Handmaid’s Tale has touched people in an emotional, psychological, political way. It has moved beyond the scope of its original intention and is now firmly rooted in the consciousness of women fighting for their rights everywhere. When I sent three costumes to the Smithsonian, the assistant director of corporate and foundation relations, Michael Johnson, sent me this beautiful message, ‘they now belong to the American people.’ The wonderful thing about inspiration is that it cannot be contained within the frame of a camera, or even behind the glass wall of an exhibition case at a museum. Inspiration is such a strong entity, that it moves beyond the artist and becomes a freeform thought in another person’s mind. Inspiration will transcend any walls that inherently contain it and that is an incredibly fulfilling feeling, and quite humbling as well.”

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