The room is full of suits and ties waiting at attention. The Aunts surround the left wall. The floor in the back is covered in boots ready to march. But all you see is red. There, in the center, 250 Handmaids’ gowns hang limp, lifeless in a row; rustling only when the breeze of someone rushing over to the Marthas whisks by. There’s only one exit, and between you and it lies Melania Trump.
With how much The Handmaid’s Tale—Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel—blurs with the political landscape of 2019, this scene doesn’t sound like it’d be out of place in the show’s third season, which premieres today, June 5. The wives of Gilead in many ways resemble what Melania and Ivanka Trump have come to represent: women who uphold a ruthless patriarchal society, yet are oppressed by it at the same time. (In other words, the 52 percent.)
But in reality, I’m standing in the middle of the show’s gigantic storage closet at its set in Toronto. It’s mid-April, and the costume department just got through one of its heaviest design sprints: hundreds of Handmaids’ dresses, 54 Wives’ gowns, and a handful of sharply tailored teal blue looks for Serena Joy Waterford, the Commander’s formidable wife. And still, the designers have work to do. Today, they’re sewing outfits for the Jezebels. Then it’s back to focusing on Serena’s closet. (As for Melania, we’ll get to her soon.)
“Serena is my favorite to design for,” Natalie Bronfman, the show’s lead costume designer, says as she points to a wall in her office covered in sketches of blue gowns. “I take a lot of elements from the late fifties and early sixties as inspiration. The real clean, shaped stuff. Then I mix them in teal.”
It’s not just the box-pleats or angular necklines that makes designing for Serena a costumer’s dream. It’s her complexities—like tormenting a postpartum June for running away and giving birth in an abandoned country home; then turning around to set June and baby Nicole free from her womanizing husband and Gilead’s archaic rules.
“Costume says so much,” Bronfman says. “It tells where you’re from, what your economic status is, what your mental status is. That’s all there in how and what you wear. People tend to write it off as ‘just clothes’—but it’s not, actually.”
Season two had plenty moments that made you think maybe Serena isn’t the monster we thought she was, only to turn right around and confirm that, yeah, she really is the worst. (Well, maybe next to Aunt Lydia.) Season 3 delivers even more of that “Will she? Won’t she?” pit-in-your-stomach anxiety—and, without giving away any spoilers, her mental state is often reflected in her clothes.
But wait, let’s back up: You’re probably curious about what the hell Melania was doing in the costume department? I was too. In fact, I was shocked when I saw images of the Trump family hanging up in a few different places around the room. (Unfortunately I can’t share pictures of these mood boards, due to spoilers.)
“Oh, that?” Bronfman laughs when I point out the photo of Melania hanging on the exit door. It’s that now almost too apt meme of the First Lady walking down a hall of the White House’s dystopian red Christmas trees. On top of each one sits a crisp white, photoshopped bonnet.
“That was right at Christmas and somebody sent it to us, so we put it up because we were in the midst of building all of these Handmaids’ dresses,” she says, gesturing to the 250 capes in front of us.