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Photo: Hulu

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How ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Fits Into Our Ideas of Dystopian Dress

Uniforms are the choice of fictional dystopian governments everywhere.

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What will our dystopian apocalypse look like? For my own part, I’ve started wondering about this less and less as a thought exercise and more as a reflexive action; a muscle that twitches into movement with every update from Washington, or Mar-a-Lago, or most likely Twitter. There’s a dark, indulgent dread in laying out my outfit for the day and wondering “Is this the last time I’ll ever wear this dress? Will these shoes hold up to arboreal escapades? Should I bring a bunch of extra hair ties, both just because and to build slapdash shelters and weapons?”

You might think that in archetypical visions of a world over the cusp of collapse, modern fashion would be completely cast aside for essentialist garb — lifestyle athleisure turned survival gear, prepper-inspired knapsacks, and light layers for the woebegone wild. Yet the theme that most often comes up in dystopian media is that of uniforms: society righting itself by stripping away all choice, including the garments and therefore presentation that its most marginalized members are allowed to call their own.

This nexus of fashion and tribalism is especially at work in Hulu’s upcoming The Handmaid’s Tale series (debuting April 26th), adapted from Margaret Atwood’s unwavering, prescient 1985 novel. Atwood’s work is rife with eerie speculation; both Handmaid’s and her MaddAddam trilogy (soon to be an HBO show) predict, among other things, heavily militarized border walls, sensationalist and surveilling media, widespread environmental decay, and fanatical societal demarcations.

Elizabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Photo: Hulu

It’s this last point that’s especially resonant now. In Atwood’s Handmaid’s, this manifests as the social caste of handmaids, serving for the ruling white supremacist capitalist cis-heteropatriarchy (to paraphrase bell hooks) of the Republic of Gilead, FKA the United States of America. (The “white” part is adapted out in the show, presumably to allow for a much more diverse cast.) “Service” is, of course, a euphemism. These women are vaunted for their fertility in a world without children, and the new male rulers show their consideration by systematically and ceremoniously raping their handmaids in the hopes of impregnating them.

The Handmaid’s Tale centers its gaze on the handmaid Offred. Her name is a sly way of introducing two ideas: handmaids’ ownership (“Of Fred,” her assigned commander) and red, the color assigned to the handmaids’ uniforms. The novel’s most iconic visual is of the handmaid women in their red dresses and white-winged bonnets, but most of the other castes have their own unique and equally stringent uniforms: business and military suiting for the commanding men; blue for their infertile, complicit wives; green for the Marthas, the female house servants; brown for the “aunts” who train the handmaids; and white for the girls, as long as they remain in girlhood.

The handmaids’ nun-like uniform is now shorthand for reproductive rights and, particularly, women’s all-over autonomy. Women dressed in handmaid uniforms sat in on the Texas State Senate in protest of incoming anti-abortion legislation. Much as that pink pussy hat became visually emblematic of this year’s Women’s March, the handmaid uniform has been revived and co-opted by popular culture as a larger symbol. This presents a unique challenge: How do you create new garments that adapt an existing, and intensely political, iconography while also perform as working costumes in service of actors in a still-fictional world?

Samira Wiley as Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Photo: Hulu

The show’s costume designer, Ane Crabtree, took on the challenge by breaking all of the costumes down to their socio-political significance. “There’s so much disease and famine and infertility. I don’t think people have money; you don’t see cash. If I’m this crazy commander and I’m creating clothes for the end of the world and I don’t really wanna have to think about women or the men that work under me, I’m gonna create a capsule collection that solves all the problems.”

The result: eye-catching and easily-coded garments — the Hulu show’s physical ads show a blurry portrait of Elisabeth Moss’s Offred in her handmaid garb, with the word “OBJECT” (as noun, as verb) seemingly scratched onto the picture’s surface — that instantly signal status, but are also practical to the utmost sense. “We utilized the costume in such a way that, she’s just putting on a coat to go outside because it’s cold. She’s just putting this white thing on her head because no one’s allowed to see her face.” The Handmaid’s Tale is, to the eye, beautiful; the vivid reds of the handmaid uniforms in particular get a visual boost from the show’s moody blue overtones. But the beauty is unintentional, perceivable only to those (the viewer) who are allowed to step away from the actual ramifications and limitations of these garments.

“It’s important to me to not make pretty clothes on pretty people,” Crabtree shares. “[These clothes are] abstract, as a notion; ‘Oh yeah, in five years from now, when the world is gonna change, I’m going to be wearing this, and it’s gonna be real normal.’ Every day, Monday through Sunday. But if this is the thing, it has to feel like a sweatshirt to women.” That said, these garments aren’t leisurewear: “This could be your mother, your sister, your aunt, your best friend, taken and vanished and turned into handmaids against their will. They were given prison uniforms, and they just happened to be red dresses and red capes and white coverings on their heads.”

Joseph Fiennes as Commander Waterford in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Photo: Hulu

Crabtree isn’t without her own politics. Though the red of the handmaid uniforms was painstakingly chosen to work with different skin tones, the handmaids’ brown socks are intentionally ugly, a way for the handmaids to literally slip into a very private rebellion. The story necessitates a clash between public and private appearances, weaponized aesthetics telling duplicitous stories. So it’s fitting that Crabtree’s main influences aren’t speculative dystopian universes like that of Handmaid’s, but real-life aesthetics like insular cults, religious modesty, and deeper political iconography: “I go to a very pure design place of, what was happening during the Bauhaus movement? I think of China and its propaganda posters, and Hitler and his beautiful Leni Riefenstahl photographs. So dystopian and utopian, so fucked up, but beautifully designed.” This emphasis on warped beauty doesn’t just come because of the material’s jump to a visual medium. Offred, in her private musings, obsesses over beauty details — the aesthetic freedoms she once took for granted that were ripped away by the men who were ashamed that they couldn’t avert their eyes.

Handmaid’s aesthetics are particularly strong, but if you think of the dystopian instinct for social division, then dueling bold aesthetics are often an inevitability. The Divergent series used color as a shorthand for different factions. (And fan artists, in the tradition of Disney Princesses and Hogwarts houses, then use those colors to create different faction-inspired outfits). The Hunger Games series (but mostly its film marketing) placed an emphasis on its Capitol’s flamboyant fashions, in stark contrast with the tributes’ oftentimes humbler origins and utilitarian arena uniforms. Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, set in an alternate universe where Germany and Japan triumph in World War II, perhaps bears the closest costuming markers to Handmaid’sthe same focus on mid-1900s uniforms and class-oriented costuming. But here, the biggest differences between tribes come down to nationality, as ruling Japanese aristocrats adopt both traditionally Western and Eastern designs, and Nazi officers don all-American looks and silhouettes.

And then there’s Westworld, which Crabtree also worked on. The show’s genre splicing meant a huge split between elaborate Western-inspired costuming and generally nondescript “future modern” clothes. The latter could be a tacit jab at our modern technocracy’s fetishization of minimalist designs, but it also serves as a fastidiously clean and neat foil against the dirt, grime, and frivolity of the park world. In order to enter the Westworld park, guests must literally shed their other, “cleaner” selves.

O-T Fagbenle as Luke in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Photo: Hulu

As the show progresses, many of the park’s android hosts fixate on other costumes beyond the ones they’re assigned to wear. Dolores, who makes her debut as a Western barbie in a blue dress, dons pants (but confoundedly leaves her hair down) when she decides to be the hero of her own narrative. Maeve, whose loud and frilled fuchsia gown advertises her status as a brothel madam, is shocked to discover her past as a mother figure, clad in matching white and dusty rose with her daughter.

It’s not just the leading women whose outfits allude to their attitudes toward their world. Guest William arrives in Westworld in a light brown cowboy outfit, a visual foil to his would-be brother-in-law Logan (in all black). As he falls further beyond the park’s tenuous moral guidelines, his costuming shifts to reflect that. In these cases, costuming mirrors each character’s relationship to the dystopian (as pertains to its conception) park world. For Dolores and Maeve, their arc is of freedom, of reaching the world outside the park. For William, his arc lands him deeper into Westworld, and he rots inside its dystopian dream.

It’s worth noting that Westworld’s most referenced non-Western costume is the white clean suit and red rubber accoutrements of park clean-up workers — a familiar red and white, medical-adjacent purity in a nutshell.

Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Photo: Hulu

Red is perhaps the most dystopian color, in that it’s oftentimes a political color, especially for women, and of course, it is a reminder of blood, literally shed or as metaphor. The Junior Anti-Sex League in George Orwell’s 1984 wears, as MTV’s Liz Raiss points out, a red slash of a sash. V for Vendetta film heroine Evey wears a red-orange smock when she’s tortured and then later has her hair shaved off. But color itself can serve as an aesthetic, with its absence being an indicator of dystopian dichotomies. This is the case in both the Wachowski sisters’ The Matrix film series and Lois Lowry’s book The Giver, where a totally colorful world is seemingly beyond the reach of their otherwise very different protagonists. It’s not just Western dystopian works that adhere to rigid color schemes. The iconic anime films Akira and Ghost in the Shell both examine mutable existence and transcending the human body. But Akira, with its human heroes, favors bold, visceral red: an all-red biker outfit and bike for Kaneda, and a red cape for Tetsuo. Meanwhile, Ghost in the Shell’s Motoko Kusanagi’s purple hair and lavender bodysuit signify a cyborgian vision; cool metal tones meeting and melding with her pale “human” flesh.

This isn’t to say that every dystopian universe must have established color schemes for their tribes. Two of Crabtree’s favorite dystopias are Blade Runner and Gattaca, which both favor neon color-washed dark aesthetics versus more explicit color coding. They, like Children of Men, have a more grimdark dystopian vision. But still, fashion and beauty both play tacit world-building roles. The Replicants in Blade Runner take on lavish, otherworldly looks, from snow-white hair to derelict outfits to red eyes. In Gattaca, protagonist Vincent molds his “invalid” body to someone else’s “valid” one, adopting clothing and color contacts as his uniform. And though Children of Men is rife with dreary, dark clothing, hippie dealer Jasper and activist Miriam are draped in comparatively friendly knits. (The world’s post-children existence also manifests through tongue-in-cheek, flashy ads for trendy dog clothes.)

Elizabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Photo: Hulu

Of course, fashion is far from the only way you can signal a dystopian moment. But when accessible to all, the bounty and creativity of fashion and beauty pursuits signal a kind of material and bodily freedom that is oftentimes the first to come under scrutiny, particularly for femme-identifying people. Rigid social castes and material scarcity are abstractions, but you can carry them through what clothes you’re allowed to wear, what skin you’re allowed to show, how you dare to carry your body.

Dystopian iconographies are rooted in repression and violence — yet there’s also a steadiness to them, and through fashion, dystopian ideas can manifest as part of a barricade not just against other -isms, but also for your own, perhaps uneasy sense of self. That’s the siren call of this kind of vision, which almost always start off as someone’s utopian one. It’s for your own good. It’s the way things now are. It’s comfortable. It’s not complacency if it’s for your own survival. In fiction, these are the worst-case scenarios as thrilling, cautionary tales, spectacles told as much by dialogue as by coded cloths and colors and cuts. The horror unfolds when the fiction becomes fact. But much of humanity is already there in some form or another. The rest of us must catch up to and resist our darkest futures. We already know what they could look like.

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