Probably the eeriest museum exhibition you’ll see in Atlanta this summer, “Dressing for Dystopia” at SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film is a creatively installed display of costumes from the Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Founded on atmosphere and effect, the exhibition successfully taps into the nightmarish quality of both the book and the TV series detailing a future shock world first conjured up in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel.
Atwood’s speculative fiction imagines an America of the future ravaged by environmental poisons and the rampant infertility that results. In an effort to shore up the population, a new Christian theonomy puts men in control of women’s bodies and forces fertile Handmaids to mate with high-status men.
No small part of establishing the dire, surreal mood of the show are designer Ane Crabtree’s (“The Sopranos,” “Westworld”) costumes, which emphasize themes of conformity and hierarchy in the fictional Republic of Gilead at the center of the drama. Crabtree’s costumes, with their minimalist lines and thoughtful details, are a head-swimming stew of references, drawing from WWII uniforms, Playboy bunny costumes, traditional Japanese dress and Christian Dior’s New Look to create a vaguely retro, elegantly stylized future that suggests apocalypse by way of Giorgio Armani and Rei Kawakubo.
The theatrical, immersive exhibition begins with “The Handmaid’s Tale” composer Adam Taylor’s memorably ominous, unsettling music pulsing through a darkened corridor. An array of mannequins in costumes from the show are arranged on raised wooden platforms on either side to loom disconcertingly above the viewer. There are the paramilitary uniforms of Guardians in black cargo pants and tactical vests; the drab, sexless, militaristic garb of the Aunts who train and discipline the Handmaids; and even the sportswear worn by the titular Handmaid, Offred (Elisabeth Moss), before she is captured.
The combination of music, dim lighting and the gestures of the mannequins with their accusatory fingers and cattle prods sets a foreboding tone in “Dressing for Dystopia” that continues throughout the exhibition. The show, co-curated by executive director of SCAD FASH Alexandra Sachs, director of fashion exhibitions Rafael Gomes and SCAD alum Mangue Banzima, makes ample use of Freud’s definition of the uncanny; in this case, the uncanny sensation of being surrounded by blank-faced mannequins that, in the darkness, have the disconcerting aura of actual beings.
The next room is devoted to the distinctive scarlet costumes and Puritan-style bonnets of the Handmaids arranged in a circle, to suggest a kind of reproductive army wearing heavy, practical brown boots beneath their ultra-feminine dresses. Crabtree’s meticulous craftsmanship can be seen in the minimalist lines of the dresses free of buttons or other ornamentation, with simple, hidden metal closures.
In a nice, complementary detail in this room filled with the red of blood, passion, sex, death and menses — the book and show’s motto, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” a faux-Latin phrase for “don’t let the bastards get you down” — is scrawled via projector in glowing white “chalk” onto the exhibition’s charred black wall. It’s the kind of David Fincher special effect that amplifies the gothic, mordant tone of the exhibition.
A final room is devoted to depicting costumes worn by characters of varying castes into the second season of the Hulu series, from the kitchen worker Marthas, to the lower-caste Econowives and various subcultures of Atwood’s world, accompanied by scenes from the series projected onto a gallery wall.
“Dressing for Dystopia” makes a strong case for the role of costume design in creating the creepy vision of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” And should some form of this future nightmare come to pass, hopefully the new world order will have the smarts to hire the talented Crabtree as official costumer for a more stylish apocalypse.
“Dressing for Dystopia”
Through Aug. 12. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $10; senior citizens/military, $8; family (three or more), $20; college students with ID, and SCAD alumni, $5; free for children under 14 and SCAD students/faculty/staff. SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film, 1600 Peachtree St. NW, Suite 116, Atlanta. 404-253-3132, scadfash.org.
Bottom line: An atmospheric, imaginatively mounted exhibition of costumes from the popular Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
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