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The handmade tale
Costume designer for acclaimed Hulu series reveals how her work enhances character and story, and celebrates Canadians finally getting their due
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Saturday, August 10, 2019 – Page R4

Reading the scripts for the third season of The Handmaid's Tale, Natalie Bronfman, its head costume designer, learned that the action moves to Washington - the capital of Gilead, even more pious than Boston. When she read "all the women wear veils," she went to work.

Bronfman, a distant cousin of the Montreal dynasty, was born in Germany and raised in Toronto.

She studied at Parsons in New York and at the Accademia di Costume e di Moda in Rome. She wrote her dissertation on Masonic symbols in Mozart's The Magic Flute and began her career making costumes for the Canadian Opera Company. She can tailor and pleat, make shoes and masks.

She speaks seven languages.

And she has embraced the Handmaid's Tale ethos: Nothing happens in its world that hasn't happened somewhere in ours.

So she started researching prototypes of veils that would differentiate the castes of Gilead women, without appropriating from any one culture.

From Lebanon, where women wrap their heads and then twist and tuck in the ends, she was inspired to create headwraps for the Marthas that can be pulled up over the mouth. For the grey-clad worker women, Bronfman sketched an extended cowl that would cover the lower face. For the commanders' wives, the jewels of Gilead, she designed scraps of transparent teal fabric, so the wives could play at piety while remaining fashionable.

And for the Handmaids, who already wear restrictive bonnets, she designed a kind of gag, a light fabric that sits tight across the mouth, fastened in the back with industrial fur-coat hooks that fold over and snap shut, pressing into the backs of their skulls.

"When we put them on the extras, everyone stopped talking," recalls Bronfman, a quick-minded, worldly brunette with a chic, clean style, during an interview last week, just before the D.C. episode aired. "The bonnets take away the women's peripheral vision, so they can't see. Now a veil is covering their mouths. Instantly, the women said, all they could do was look down in silence." When Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) presents June (Elisabeth Moss) with hers, laid out in a box like a wedding veil, Bronfman hopes a chill runs up viewers' spines.

What makes our age of television so golden? One factor is that series have the money to hire department heads such as Bronfman, with her breadth of knowledge about history, metaphor and symbolism, then let her work her magic - along with her sizable team, which includes two cutters, four sewers, two milliners and two breakdown people (who age fabric). One even hand-knits the baby sweaters.

You might not think about how costume enhances character or furthers story, but Bronfman sure does. She adds layers of complexity that we may perceive only subconsciously, but are crucial to our sense of being immersed in the world. (She cites the costumers for Game of Thrones, Boardwalk Empire and The Marvelous Mrs.

Maisel as others at the top of their game.)

Moreover, Bronfman is doing her thing on an internationally acclaimed U.S. series alongside several Canadian department heads, including hair, makeup and production design. After 20 years in the business, working on series such as Cardinal, Alias Grace and Hemlock Grove, she says she believes Canadian professionals are finally getting the recognition - and job titles - they deserve.

"We've always known what we were doing," she says with a small smile. "But let's face it, most of the series shot here are American, and they hire their own lead people. But slowly, people are realizing the calibre of our artists." She mentions a few current and coming shows with Canadian department heads, including Condor, Locke and Key and Work It, then adds, "We're not your little cousins from the north. We are able to give you anything you like."

So when the Handmaid's scripts called for Gilead to have an army, Bronfman created the uniform, a mix of First World War, Prussian and fascist styles - "a black armoured box," chilling in its starkness. When the Handmaids' capes couldn't stand up to Canadian winters, Bronfman layered them with fleece-lined Gore-Tex. When a gala scene called for 50 teal ballgowns, she thought through how low the necklines could go, how much arm flesh could peek between sleeve and glove, and how much sparkle - outlawed everywhere else - the hypocritical ruling class would allow itself.

When Yvonne Strahovski, who plays Serena Waterford, got pregnant in real life, Bronfman disguised her bump with wide belts and dramatic collars. And when Strahovski had to wade into Lake Ontario in early December, Bronfman figured out how to tuck a wetsuit and down jacket under her dress, too.

Viewers may not register that Emily (Alexis Bledel), a former Handmaid who escaped to Canada with June's baby, will slowly reintroduce colour into her wardrobe; or that Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) doesn't change his clothes often because he feels unmanned that he can't rescue June. We will see that Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), mortified by the loss of his baby, has been diminished in the eyes of others - and Bronfman will show us that by dressing him in single-breasted suits instead of double-breasted ones.

Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) is an eccentric who doesn't care what others think of him, and we know that partly because Bronfman dresses him in ascots and vests that are a little frayed. (Whitford particularly loves one vest that looks like snakeskin, for when he's "being slimy.") And our sense that Lawrence's wife, Eleanor (Julie Dretzin), is lost and broken-hearted will be enhanced because Bronfman puts her in dresses that are a little too large, some with seams that slice her right across the chest.

Most series' wardrobes are bought or borrowed, but the vast majority of The Handmaid's Tale's are built in-house. It's a rare opportunity for a costumer, one Bronfman relishes and trained for her whole career. She starts work at 5 a.m. to plan and sketch for two hours until the cast arrives. On busy days, she'll jump in and do some tailoring or head to the set to oversee fittings. "This is my dream job," she says. "I can't tell you what happens in the final episode, but I have photos of the rows upon rows of costumes we built, all lined up in the hallway, bagged in plastic to be loaded on the truck. It goes on forever, with a sea of red capes behind it. That was tremendously satisfying."

So was finding the exact construction for the Handmaids' bonnets. Having your star's face encased in fabric is a challenge for the directors of photography, so Bronfman turned the bonnets into light boxes. She built almost 40 prototypes before landing on the winning, three-layer formula: rice paper, organza and an organic cotton from Britain called optic white. Each one takes 12 hours to construct. "The problem is, they don't survive rain scenes," Bronfman says. "They wilt and can't be straightened."

But that's okay. She and her team can always make more.

Associated Graphic

The Handmaid's Tale costume designer Natalie Bronfman, top, carried out extensive research to design the veils that would differentiate the castes of the series's Gilead women. For the commanders' wives, such as Yvonne Strahovski's Serena, left, she used transparent teal fabric, while for the Handmaids, above, she created something similar to a gag.

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