At the height of Emmy Nominations excitement, I had the incredible privilege of meeting costume designer, Natalie Bronfman. Natalie Bronfman serves as costume designer for one of my favorite television shows, The Handmaid’s Tale. The Handmaid’s Tale is an amazing show. The story is riveting, powerful and keeps the world coming back for more every season. But what I really love about this show, is the costume design. There are not many shows out there that utilize the powers of costume design to such extent like The Handmaid’s Tale. Color, silhouette, detail, tonality, character development and symbolism are all sewn within the lining of each and every costume present on this show. On Tuesday, July 28th 2020, Natalie was nominated for her third Emmy award in Outstanding Fantasy/Sci-Fi Costumes category for her work on The Handmaid’s Tale.
Spencer: Hi Natalie, it’s so nice to virtually meet you! I know it’s such an eye-roll question nowadays but how have you been?
Natalie: Hi! It’s nice to meet you as well. I’ve been quite well and been lucky enough to avoid the COVID virus, as well as all of those around me. I have absolutely nothing to complain about, except maybe that I really want to get back to work because I’m running out of renovation projects!
Spencer: I hear you there! I am glad you and your family are doing okay. Well, better than okay as just yesterday we learned of some incredible news, you were nominated for your third Emmy in the Outstanding Fantasy/Sci-Fi Costumes category! Congratulations! What does this nomination mean to you?!
Natalie: Yes, this is incredibly, my third nomination! When I found out, I was completely gob-smacked! It’s such an incredible honor to be nominated by your peers, for your work. Having said that however, it does take a village to put together a show. I have the most incredible hard-working talented artisans under my umbrella, without whom, this incredible season would not have looked as fantastic as it did… The show was incredible to work on, with the most amazing production and writing team who spun the scariest near-realistic stories ever. I am still at a loss for words. It’s humbling. It was such a pleasure to work with Warren Littlefield, Bruce Miller, & Elisabeth Moss.
Spencer: It’s such an incredible achievement, we are so happy for you! My first question I always love to ask my guests is how you came into your life as a costume designer, and how did you end up taking on a role on The Handmaid’s Tale?
Natalie: I originally wanted to be an opera singer, but I realized it wasn’t really my forte, so I tried to find a way to stay in the theatre world and not sing. I already had a background in fine art and clothing construction from a very young age, so naturally a progression into costume design was second nature.
I took over as a designer in the third season, having been a supervisor for the first two seasons. So that seems like a natural fit since I had been there from the beginning and I understood all the parameters of what it was to be in the world of Gilead on The Handmaid’s Tale. I am forever thankful to Warren Littlefield, Bruce Miller, and Elizabeth Moss for letting me have a stab at the design for season three! It was an incredible experience and I learned a lot about myself.
Spencer: For the first two seasons of the show you served as the costume supervisor. Now for season 3 you have taken on the role of designer. For those looking at a career in costume design, what do these different titles mean in terms of responsibilities?
Natalie: Actually, in the first two seasons, I served as supervisor AND assistant designer. We didn’t have a formal assistant designer because the show was small enough — in terms of number of costumes — that I could handle it and do both jobs.
I think the biggest difference between supervising and assistant designing is that the supervisor is sort of the CFO of the department. They handle all the money, all the HR, all the ordering of supplies, product, scheduling, and just making sure that the work gets done to be ready for the proper time. Assistant designing is helping the designer in any which way that they need. That could mean going to set to make sure the background is being dressed correctly, or filling in for the designer on set when she’s not available, assisting with fittings, attending meetings, keeping on top of the designer to not forget anything in terms of schedule. It’s sort of a second set of hands, but they typically don’t really have a whole lot to say about the design itself. The Costume Designer, in essence, is in charge of the whole look of what the clothing shall be for the development of the various characters. That involves research, doing fittings, drawings, conceptual meetings with writers, producers, directors; and so, in essence, it is the entire creative conceptual aspect of the department. They are responsible for conveying the story through clothing and all that that entails.
Spencer: Wow, so I think it’s safe to say that when it comes to The Handmaid’s Tale, you have done it all! I’m interested to know what your initial reaction was when you received The Handmaid’s Tale script?
Natalie: Well, the funny thing is, every time I handed out a script in the office, all the work stopped because everyone was just so eager to read them. I was the same, but I couldn’t do it during the day. I had to go home at night and read the manuscript. It became so hard for everyone not to read them as soon as we got them, so then I had to hand them out at the end of the day instead. It’s kind of a funny anecdote and a testament to the amazing writing!
Spencer: I mean how can you not read the script! I would feel the same way (Laughs). Sounds like you made the right choice. So you’ve been on the show since the very beginning – how has your connection to the costumes and story evolved over the years?
Natalie: My connection to the costumes is quite strong, for lack of a better word. The wonderful thing about the third season is that we ended up landing in a new city where there were slightly different rules of dress. I did a lot of research on pious communities of all religions and their rules for dressing and why. Then, I delved into the psychology of the individual characters to figure out how that could be translated in articles of clothing. Particularly, with Eleanor, the Winslow’s, and Serena’s trajectory and costume arc throughout the series. There’s also quite a lot of symbolism in the modern-day clothing of the various refugees that we had in the series as well, that would be Moira, Emily, and Luke.
Spencer: You spoke a little about research which is what I wanted to ask you about next. Research plays such an important role in costume design, so what type of research does this show entail? The thing that makes this show so horrific sometimes is that I can imagine a lot of inspiration probably comes from just turning on the news at some point.
Natalie: Actually, I did not have to even turn the TV on to pull any symbolism from it because all the symbolism has been around before. Women have been covered up since ancient Greek times, in various cycles of dress and undress in terms of covering their bodies and their hair and their faces. My inspiration often comes from oil paintings, literature, historical stories I’ve read, archeology, sculpture, and just a human existence on this planet in its various cycles.
Everything on camera we have seen before somehow somewhere in some timeframe on the planet. Various communities have been trying to dominate women for a very long time. It always goes in cycles of submission and then a backlash, where they will not do it anymore.
Spencer: That’s such an interesting point, and really puts the costumes into perspective. Something that really fascinates me about costume design, is its ability to tell stories and drive character development. You can see this through multiple characters- Aunt Lydia and her back-story, Commander Lawrence and his fancy scarves, Emily and her transition from Gilead life- I can go on forever. Do you have a favorite instance of storytelling or character development through costume in the show?
Natalie: Good gosh, there are so many! With Aunt Lydia, we see her very last outfit in civilian clothing in the back story, in very similar military-esque colours in her clothing. It was an olive drab green, sort of an army uniform of sorts, which was a clear indication that she was going to become someone in a type of army in Gilead, later on. Commander Lawrence for example, was a very learned man, full of arts and culture and literature, and sort of a mad genius who helped create this world. In theory, the world would’ve worked, but then when he saw its actual effect on the communities, especially his wife Eleanor, he realized what a shameful thing he had done. So, in his character he is forever grappling with that shame of having caused this monstrous society and then trying to also be the romantic that he was. He is sort of a Byronic character. Fatalistic.
I think my favorite instance is Serena Joy. Her character arc goes from being very down and depressed, to becoming stronger to get her child back, to being duplicitous with Fred, to thinking she is victorious, to being locked up for her crimes. There is an amazing play on clothing and tailoring and colour and tonality. Even in her modern-day clothing. It was a lot of fun to explore that.
Spencer: Ugh, yes Serena is such a great example. The Handmaid’s Tale is a masterclass example when it comes to the use of color. There is so much symbolism and the costume design plays a vital role there… Can you tell me about the use of color in this show and why it’s important to you?
Natalie: Every colour has a meaning, a symbolism worldwide. When we look at something, it is the very first thing we register in our senses. Colours evoke emotion instantaneously. From fiery reds to dark navys. Everything has a meaning and assemble. From across the room you can see where everyone comes from or belongs to in a particular society. The interesting thing about this show was having to think a little outside the box with very strict parameters, which was an incredibly interesting way to work.
As a silly example, you can recognize the FedEx guy from across the street just from his colours and symbols on his person.
Spencer: Speaking of strict parameters, because of Gilead’s very strict way of life, do you ever feel restricted when it comes to navigating the costume journey?
Natalie: No actually, not at all. It’s just a way of rethinking the obvious and rejigging it for the characters to convey the storyline. I had to get very inventive which is interesting because I absolutely love taking objects of regular use and giving them a whole new meaning or usefulness.
Spencer: I wanted to talk to you about the masks the Handmaids are wearing in season 3. June makes a shocking discovery, realizing the Handmaids of the D.C area have their mouths shut using three metal rings in a vow to silence. These rings are further covered with a red mask that goes just under our nose. I imagine the process of researching and developing a project such as the Handmaid’s mask must be pretty powerful work?
Natalie: It was very powerful work. It was a lot of tightrope walking so as not to offend anyone in particular. I did a lot of research of all the major religions in our world including all the historical imagery and reasoning that went along with it. We had also a lot to think about in terms of not completely covering up the actors so that they could still emote for camera.
I played a lot with objects that normally didn’t go together. For example, the handmaid’s veils were made of a relatively light fabric, but were closed off in the back with big substantial fur-coat hooks. These hooks also not only looked over the top, in terms of the locking mechanism, but it also actually had acoustics to it that really slammed home the idea that the girls were locked down and could not speak anymore.
Spencer: Even just talking about the masks with you is rather chilling. Then to make things more complicated – the cast still needs to act with the mask on. Can you tell me about the technical aspects to the mask that made this possible?
Natalie: Well, I stopped the masks for the Handmaids just below the nose because one can be quite expressive with your nose as well as your eyes. For example, when you flare your nostrils that can indicate that you’re either apprehensive or angry, so that gave them one more thing to be able to emote with. The aunts, for example, had the underpinnings of a nun’s wimple. This sort of indicated that even though they were religious, they were frauds so they never got the entire wimple. They did not have their mouth closed off because they were the ones barking orders to keep the girls in line so it would have been contraindicated to do so. The other factions were more of a utilitarian base. The Marthas would cover up unraveling their headscarves a bit, and the Econo women would just simply pull up that utilitarian cowl neck collar that would cover their faces. The Commander Wives on the other hand, had merely a suggestion of veiling as to comply with the rules of the society, but they were above the rules so they’re veiling was very light and airy and nearly invisible.
Spencer: Natalie it has been such a pleasure speaking with you. I truly appreciate you and your work. Such exemplary dedication to detail and I really feel like I learned so much just from speaking with you during this short time. I am so excited to see what you do next!
Natalie: Thanks, it was lovely speaking with you. The devil is always in the details! Everything that you’ll find in the show in season three, from buttons, types of laces, types of hooks, color, shape, and textures, have all been thoroughly thought through and actually do have a symbolic meaning. I have a few new projects in the works and I’ll be happy to share them with everyone soon. Thank you so much.
Spencer: Well you will always have a place here to share your art with us. Looking forward to the next time!