Costume design of “The Handmaid’s Tale” – interview with Natalie Bronfman

September 11th, 2019

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my delight to welcome Natalie Bronfman. In this interview she talks about what costume design is, creating a subconscious expression through color and shape, the meaning of color and how it carries across culture and time boundaries, and her approach to creating costumes for characters in stories she works on. Around these topics and more, Natalie dives deep into her work on the meticulously designed third season of “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and what brought you to where you are today.

Natalie: Originally I wanted to be an opera singer, but even though I was good, I wasn’t the best. I already knew how to draw and sew, and I tried to figure out how I could stay in that environment. I ended up studying costume, first through fashion & costume at school, I did a few runway shows and then going to costume in theatre & film.

Natalie Bronfman with a Gold-leaf
Redingote at MFW 2018

I started making theater costumes when I was about 12 years old. In high school, I made prom dresses for other girls [laughs] as well as for any plays that we had. I started to study costume at Parsons in New York City. It was predominantly a fashion program which I didn’t really love as much as costume which I wanted to specialised in, and so I found another school in Rome, Italy. I already spoke three languages, so I learned a fourth one. Much of opera is written in Italian, and it was good to understand what they were singing. The language is so lyrical as well.

Kirill: How did you end up in the world of screen story telling?

Natalie: In theater studies you learn costume and sets, from blueprints to completion. When I graduated, I worked doing interiors for a while. I had big clients, many of them multi-million dollar projects, and with that comes a daunting payment schedule. You pay your crew, but you yourself are not being paid very much, or sometimes you have to wait 90 days. It wasn’t a sustainable way of living.

I applied at IATSE here in Toronto, and the next day I got called. I started from the bottom, and worked my way up. I’ve done all the positions in the costume department.

Kirill: Is there still anything surprising or unexpected that you come across when you join a new production?

Natalie: Every production is new. I love getting a new script. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a phenomenal project. It’s one of the true design shows that I’ve ever worked on – everything built from scratch. It is rare, mostly because of the budgets that we have to work with and often the time factor. If you’re given very little money or very little time, you have no chance to build anything.

When I tell people what I do for a living, they have a different conception of what it actually is. A lot of it is psychology, more so than design, particularly because you’re dealing with actors. Not only are you dealing with the actors’ personal but also the psychology of the character in the story and you have to meld the two to become symbiotic.

I think that was what surprised me – how many other things I have to know, how much I have to delegate and how much I have to converse with people besides actually designing. I would say that it’s almost 80% of it; that’s what surprised me most when I started in this business.

Costume design of “The Handmaid’s Tale” season 3. Baptism ceremony, outside.

Kirill: Staying away from “The Handmaid’s Tale” for a minute, do you find that people do not understand the complexities of costume design, especially in current-day productions? We wake up, we throw some clothes on and it feels a rather organic part of our lives. Probably not a lot of people invest time into thinking how they’re going to express themselves today.

Natalie: Many people have an opinion. That is good, but you have to figure out whose opinion you must follow. You can’t follow 10 people, so you have to narrow that down.

When you’re doing the costuming of a character, you have to be able to understand at a glance, where they are mentally, economically and socially. You have to capture all of that essence and clothe the person, so that in a nano-second you understand who they are.

Colors have a meaning. Shape has a meaning. Fabric itself has a meaning. You should be able to tell if this person is sad or depressed, is he a bad guy or a good guy. There are cliches as well that you sometimes have to follow, depending on the story. I usually try to think outside of the box though, because you want to surprise the viewer and keep them interested.

Kirill: Do you find that meaning of color, shape or texture translates well across cultural boundaries?

Natalie: It depends. In Asian culture, the color white is used for mourning. You must be knowledgeable of those cultural things, depending on what sort of the clientele or project you have. Purple is a big color in every culture, and it means something slightly different in different cultures and different parts of the world. One should study these things and be aware of them when planning a project.

We have big ceremonies in our lives – benedictions, marriages, deaths. Colors that are worn in these big events also influence our everyday lives. For example, it used to be that women would wear black when their husband passed away for the rest of their lives, but only in certain cultures. So again, it depends on the story and time era as well.

Costume design of “The Handmaid’s Tale” season 3. Baptism ceremony, inside.

Kirill: Do you want people to dissect it, or do you want to create some sort of a subconscious impression?

Natalie: A subconscious impression. Often things are missed, because it moves so quickly. I do appreciate when people ask me why I chose to do this or that, because then I am able to explain the thought that went into it. I do appreciate when people see it.

I try to not make it obvious. When you do things that are very obvious, you lose the feeling for costuming. The costume should never take over the show. It should never take over the scene or the actors acting. It should be integral to that; it should almost fade away.

Kirill: What’s your interaction with other department heads, like the production designer or the cinematographer?

Natalie: We have many discussions. For example, you never want to put someone in the same cloth that the couch is made of and plan the scenes together. When I do fittings, I often speak with the cinematographer and discuss with them what sort of filters and color grading they’ll be using. I have a fitting booth set up with the backdrops and proper lights, and often I invite them to come down to set it for me. That way the fitting photos that I take are the same as what will appear on camera. That way there’s no discussion about color later.

It’s an in-depth conversation you have to have with all the pertinent people. It’s the same show. It’s the same watch we are working on to help the arms go around. It’s teamwork.

Kirill: Do you find it restricting that the colors you see with your eye are not captured exactly the same by the camera?

Natalie: I have to be careful with HD cameras, because they sometimes pick up too much color. The depth is so much greater than what it used to be. I’m a big fan of fabrics that have two tones in them from the weave. Often that is what is missed, and that’s a shame. It takes away a little bit of the richness, the depth and the movement of what your eye can see.

Kirill: You mentioned that sometimes it moves too quickly, which brings me back to “The Handmaid’s Tale”. There are a lot of close-ups that linger on the actors, and in this last season particularly on June’s boots. Do you know in advance what they are going to be zooming on?

Natalie: When it comes to what is being photographed, I often do not know ahead of time. That is a decision made by the director and the cinematographer who is filming that episode. We did have a lot of footwear this year, and June did have different footwear this year, which was unusual. There are times of course, when we do know & then we prepare accordingly.

Costume design of “The Handmaid’s Tale” season 3. Handmaids’ scarves – note unique design for each costume.

Kirill: How do you find the balance between the predetermined color palette (red for the handmaids, for example) and giving the actors opportunities to express their individuality?

Natalie: If we’re talking about the handmaids, it only appears to be the same. Every single one of them, for example, has a sweater that is not like any other. Another example of how their personality comes out is how they wrap their scarves around their necks when they’re outside. All the different factions of women have subtleties like that.

The biggest variable would be the commander wives and the ladies in teal. They have the biggest shape change out of all the factions. The rest of the differences are quite subtle. I try to do most of that with texture, because the color is already set. For example, the commanders are wearing black, but their ties are a little different and their suits have a bit of a different fabric from one to the other. That’s how you can play.

Sometimes it’s caught. Sometimes you can see it and sometimes you can’t. It’s all about how much attention the viewer pays to it.

Costume design of “The Handmaid’s Tale” season 3. Commander costumes.

Kirill: Do you want people to focus on the women’s clothes? The commanders and the guards are always around, but it’s mostly black or very dark grey.

Natalie: It is a military state, and that usually brings always a uniform. The only time when that changes, the only time when they’re not in a uniform is when they are doing something that’s a little forbidden. That’s when you almost want to say that they’re wearing forbidden clothing when they visit Jezebels. Because even when they’re having social functions, they are wearing this pre-set uniform.

The women, in essence, are trophies; that is why they can be the most decorative of all.

Kirill: Do you see a parallel to the fashion world, where most of the fashion shows are centered on women?

Natalie: Absolutely. Going back to Gilead being a military state, I wanted to show that they’re working on the state matters, whereas the women really don’t have anything to do other than focus on their decor, hair and clothing. That’s illustrated with the gala which was a completely visually sumptuous thing that we’ve never seen before.

Costume design of “The Handmaid’s Tale” season 3. The gala.

Kirill: Some of the scenes in this last season – like the Lincoln Memorial service or this gala – had huge scopes. We’re talking about hundreds of people on set, and my understanding is that all the costumes are made by your department. How much effort goes into making those costumes?

Natalie: I have the best team, and I keep saying that because it truly is so. I’ve worked many years in this business and I’ve never had a collection of people so fantastically talented and quick.

When we went to Washington, there was something going on about shutting down one of our spaces/sets, and they pulled that scene up two weeks earlier. We were dying all the cape fabric, and the wool takes about two weeks to dye, and another four weeks to process. Because that scene was pulled up, we had to move fast, very fast.

It took us about four weeks to build all of the handmaids for Washington. That included the dresses, specialty undergarments because it was cold, the capes, the scarves, the costumes for the wives and the aunts. And as soon as that went to camera, we started working on the gala and other storylines like Aunt Lydia’s back story. Two weeks later, we had the Gala and we built 52 background dresses plus cast dresses, each one different from the others. It was all happening at the same time. It was a pretty hectic period [laughs].

Gala concepts. Courtesy of Natalie Bronfman.

Kirill: What went into making costumes for the kids?

Natalie: The little girls and boys were all the same. Some were from the commanders families which wore salmon pink, and the other faction was the econo-children which were grey – which we hadn’t seen much up until that point.

Every day for a week, we would dress 200 children for that whole sequence of them escaping and onto the plane. The costumes all had to be dyed and built. It was a factory, essentially, in the workshop. We had about 4 weeks to do it, including aging it all.

Kirill: Do you find yourself giving a bit more attention to the main characters of June and Serena as they’re going through their character arc?

Natalie: Absolutely. Serena had a huge arc. At the beginning of the season she had lost her child, burned her house down and lost all her clothing. That opened a door to add depth to her story, indicating her mental state through her clothing. We’re taking her from being depressed, dark and grayed out to being her strongest, brightest self at the end – because of this newfound power and the goal that she had.

Concept of June’s dress at Jezebels

June stayed mostly in the red, obviously. But she also had a black Jezebel’s outfit. I looked at it more as a warrior outfit. She had mesh on the sleeves, which to me was sort of like chain mail, and the crisscross in the back was like a bow-and-arrow straps. The shoes had huge heels [laughs], and that was the actress’s preference, and they suited that whole look very well.

After she had finished that scene and you see her the following morning as she puts the red dress back on, it changes meaning. It’s now no longer her handmaid dress. It’s her disguise because she’s shifted into this warrior now. It’s become camouflage as opposed to a uniform forced upon her.

Costume design of “The Handmaid’s Tale” season 3. June’s costume when she goes to the Jezebels.

Kirill: When they go to Washington, the handmaids there wear the Veil that covers extends from the neck up to cover their mouths. How deep did the script go into the particular look of it, and how much freedom did you get in designing it?

Natalie: I had a lot of freedom to come up with concepts for it. The script just said that they were veiled. It didn’t say how or why.

The one thing that I had to be careful about was to not culturally appropriate one particular shape. There are only so many shapes you can veil a woman in, even when you look at all the religions throughout time. I did a lot of research throughout history as well, and I drew something from every religion.

First of all, it had to go below the nose, because even then it left only that much real estate on their faces in terms of acting. And you can actually get a lot of expression out of your nose as well as your eyes. The rings were just an added “oomph” of degradation. The concept was that we had to “muzzle” them, to remove even their speech. It came from the underside of a nun’s wimple. There’s a particular painting from 1847. It’s beautifully painted and it has the wimple that sits just like that.

Of course the upper part of the face was left exposed, and I also used a similar shape for the Aunts. They were not veiled because they are the female military. They bark orders, so they need their mouths unencumbered . They had their hair covered, which is considered sensual in many cultures. So there was give-and-take for that.

The wives had to sort of keep up appearances. They had to wear some sort of veil, not because they really feel like they needed to be veiled, but in order to appear to play along with the society in that piousness. They’re obscuring their faces ever so slightly, but their lips were exposed – which is another sensual part of women’s face, and only they would do it. The others – the Marthas and the Econo women – which are sort of worker bees, had a more rudimentary, rougher version of face covering.

Costume design of “The Handmaid’s Tale” season 3. Handmaid’s veils in Gilead Capital.

Veil prototypes. Courtesy of Natalie Bronfman.

Kirill: There’s a lot of manufactured outrage these days where everybody seems to have their opinion, and you said that you wanted to stay clear of cultural appropriation. But the story of Gilead is drawing heavily on one particular religion, with references to Jezebel and Bilhah, among the rest. Did you find yourself treading, perhaps, carefully not to borrow “too much” symbolism from that one particular religion?

Natalie: I had to be very careful. I had a choice to either offend one, offend everyone or offend no one. It’s a very fine line, and that’s why I picked a little bit of something from all religions.

Throughout history women are often covered up, whether it’s Christianity, Judaism or the Muslim world. At some point in history going way back to ancient Greco-Roman times, women are covered up in some fashion. I tried to pull imagery from all of them. It was a lot of research. Given the climate of what’s going on right now all around the world, it is all very relative. I had to be very careful not to offend anyone in any particular manner.

The essence is, it is not an offense to religion, but an offense to women. The whole premise of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is about offending women, really. It’s the suppression and subjugation of women. It’s a gender thing.

Kirill: Do you find these political statements important in the work that you do?

Natalie: It became important once the government in the USA, that is in power now, was elected. It became extremely relevant, and it was uncanny how the timing of it coincided with the real-world events. We did the first season, and that’s when Trump was elected and then that became all very real. In Canada, we obviously don’t have the same government, but we see the news and we are close neighbors. Many times I’ve been asked about how I was influenced by it, but I’m a little bit detached from that because I don’t live in the United States. This is much bigger. It is a global statement about women.

Kirill: But this shift is happening all across Europe and other regions, with return to hardline, nationalist-driven conservative agenda.

Natalie: Very much so. You’re looking at the abortion rights and women’s sexual rights, and all of that is still an issue that we’re fighting now globally, not just in the United States. Just last year they were debating abortion rights in Europe. There are countries in Europe where abortion is still illegal. A lot of people are up in arms about immigration, so all of that is very relevant.

Costume design of “The Handmaid’s Tale” season 3. Costumes for the wives.

Kirill: A new color was introduced to Gilead in this season – dark purple for the widows. How challenging was it to find that new color?

Natalie: When I spoke to Bruce Miller (show’s creator and runner), he said that we were going to have new ladies this year. He told me about the widows, and asked what we should do with them.

I started to think and read about it, going back to what colors mean, across countries and cultures. In Thailand it means one thing and in Indonesia means another. You go back to the old Royal times from the old Charlemagne era or even back to Greco-Roman times and see what the color purple means.

The way I took it in this show, was that the women were awarded this color as survivors. They’re wearing a purple heart because they’ve survived all of this, but they also had lost their own agency. I also combined it with black because that’s a classic color from mourning in the Western world.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite costume or a favorite faction in Gilead?

Natalie: From a design point of view it was definitely the wives. They’re the only ones you can really change and morph. The tailoring is often where I tell the story. There are symbols in the clothing, the shapes and the necklines, and even though most people don’t see it, I know it’s there. It’s a discussion I have with the actors as well, and it actually adds depth to their characters, I have been told.

As far as one particular outfit goes, I enjoyed pretty much everything. This year I built a Gilead army. It starts again from lots of historical research, and I love implementing the research, changing it a bit and morphing it into what we need for the show.

Costume design of “The Handmaid’s Tale” season 3. Costumes for Emily after she escapes to Canada.

Kirill: How did you approach designing costumes for the “everyday” world of Canada which was such a stark contrast to Gilead? Perhaps we can talk about the transitions that Emily and Serena go through. They both go to this normal world, but they are quite far from being normal on the inside.

Natalie: Before Gilead, Emily was a professor at the University. So that defines the type of clothing that she used to wear, which tends to be conservative but with a bit of freedom. She would appear in skirts and perhaps with a blouse with a couple of buttons undone.

I started her out with muted colors, taupe and earth tones. The way I was thinking of it was that she had been forced to wear this red dress where she was easily spotted in society. Then I took her to this palette of earth tones where she just blends into everything else, so that she can have time to heal without being singled out. As we bring her further along in the story, I started to bring back colors that were from her academia days – navy, steel gray, brown, taupe, and shapes that were a little bit reminiscent of her professorial position.

We still had turtlenecks, everything is closed and buttoned up so that she can feel safe. As she meets her wife again, the colors start to lighten up a bit. They become a little bit brighter and a little more hopeful. The two of them play off each other in complementary colors in some of the scenes. In one of the scenes her wife is wearing burgundy almost as if in solidarity, as they are speaking to the Swiss ambassador. I was playing off the two of them in their roles, because they hadn’t seen each other in so long and there was so much healing to do.

With Serena, the complete opposite of teal would be this soft antique pink, reminiscent of the Victorian times. In the airport when she sees her child for the first time, she had this pink fuzzy mohair coat and cream sweater. It’s cream, cashmere, warm and cuddly. I brought that color back when she was detained. She was still in mommy mode in that scene.

And in the next scene we see her going into the colors that Emily had, which was a taupe. Now they take the baby away from her, and she’s not really sure what her part is in this society yet. So that’s her arc in the modern clothing.

Costume design of “The Handmaid’s Tale” season 3. Costumes for Serena just before she goes to Canada and while she’s in Canada.

Kirill: I went to the costume exhibit from the show at the Savannah College of Art and Design last year, and I found it fascinating how differently clothes look like without people wearing them. Is it different for you, as you look at a piece of clothing and imagine the actor wearing it, and then seeing it in real life? How do you bridge this gap?

Natalie: Because I have now known these people for three years, the span between the start of an idea and bringing it to the person is short.

If it’s a new show, there’s a lot of research on the look and much discussion with all the people – the writers and the directors. And then we put it on the person and they move in it, and sometimes we have to go to a completely different direction because it doesn’t suit them in how they behave or move in it. Never mind the color, shape or whatever.

When you first meet a person, it’s different and you have to adjust it accordingly. You need to get to know the person. When you only have one fitting, you better hit the mark right [laughs]. Or you have to have options so that you can morph it into what you need.

What I do often when I first have a new actor, I go onto the Internet and I see how they are in interviews, how they are moving on the red carpet or how they are just in everyday life. If I can find footage on them, that helps me understand a little bit on what would go best on them. Sometimes I get it right on, and sometimes we have to morph it a little bit.

Kirill: What do you mean by what looks best on them? Is it the shapes, the textures, the fabric?

Natalie: When you’re given measurements, the distribution of where everything sits is so different on everyone depending on their body type. Sometimes a character should be in trousers and you put them in trousers, and it’s not attractive on them or just doesn’t suit them. You have to then come up with a different plan.

You have people who are not good in certain types clothing. For example, not all ladies are very comfortable in dresses, and that can influence the character and their acting.

Left – concept drawing of the Wives veiling. Right – concept drawing of the Aunts veiling. Courtesy of Natalie Bronfman.

Kirill: You mentioned how relevant the show is in the current political climate in the United States. Do you worry how the show will be seen in 30 or 50 years from now?

Natalie: I do. It’s funny, because when you work on a project you don’t often think about how things age. And then you go back and look at them, and you see that the modern clothing of that day didn’t age well.

They did “The Handmaid’s Tale” movie in 1990, and if you look at it now, you can see that it was very fashionable of that era. What we did with the styling of this show is different. I pulled iconic shapes from different decades, specifically for the third season that I worked on as the costume designer. I tried to pull from the ’40s, the ’50s and the ’60s, hoping to not give it a specific time stamp.

I was trying to pull out the iconic shapes of different decades. Hopefully it will age well.

From left to right – concept drawing of the Handmaid’s veiling, concept drawing of the Aunts veiling, Serena’s Water dress, concept drawing of the Handmaid’s veiling. Courtesy of Natalie Bronfman.

Kirill: Do you treat all your productions as period, in the sense that everything needs to be correct for that timeline?

Natalie: I do a lot of research on it. All of history and all the things that have come before are always the foundations for things that we create new.

For example, a lot of people look at the work Picasso or Van Gogh did and say that anyone can do that. But if you do a little research and read about them, you realize that they are classically trained painters of classic structure. Then, they dismantle that structure and deconstructed it. It’s not some crazy modern art that makes no sense to anyone. It actually, makes a lot of sense, because you have to go through the history of the psychology and the deconstruction of it.

My premise in my life and everything I do is that you have to know the architecture before you can build the house. I apply that to every job that I have.

Kirill: If you look back at the productions you’ve worked on, does it feel almost random what strikes a chord with the audience and what slips under the radar, going unnoticed?

Natalie: Things that are a fad for the moment tend to slip away very quickly. We all have to work, so we sometimes end up doing shows that are not, perhaps, big social statements. It’s a gift when you get a production that is a statement, a production that says something about society; That somehow will always linger somewhere.

As humans we always tend to repeat things. Look at all the wars, look at all the societies in general. Events are repeated when people don’t pay attention.

From left to right – Gilead Army officer, Gilead soldier, Serena’s B&B dress, Serena’s power suit from the Benediction party at the Putnam’s, Serena’s TV video dress, Serena’s Last Commander Wife dress of the season 3. Courtesy of Natalie Bronfman.

Kirill: Does it feel that you’re living in the so-called “Golden Age of TV”?

Natalie: Yes, it does feel that way. I’m very lucky to be here right now.

I’ve worked all over the world and I’ve had a good bit of luck in terms of the projects I’ve worked on.

Kirill: What keeps you going? What keeps you staying in the field?

Natalie: I love making an idea or a vision, into a tangible form. Storytelling. I love creating a story, and it’s even more fun when you have a collaboration of many people that are of the same mind. It doesn’t happen often because there are so many different personalities and characters. I think I’ve come now to a place in my life where I’m surrounded by amazing like-minded people to work with.

I don’t know if there’s some law of attraction that brings me to projects that attract the same bounty. I see the incredible talent and the creative juice surrounding me, and I don’t know if they’re attracted to me or I’m attracted to them. I find myself in these shows, and it’s wonderful. It takes time to find that.

Costume design of “The Handmaid’s Tale” season 3. One of the pivotal moments in the season when June realizes that she must fight to help all the girls in Gilead.

And here I’d like to thank Natalie Bronfman for taking the time to talk with me about the costume design of this last season of “The Handmaid’s Tale, and for sharing the supporting materials. You can also find her on Instagram. The last season of the show is available on Hulu. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.