I am not immune to wanting to “get the look” from a television show. I will confess to researching Audrey Horne’s classic tapered sweaters from Twin Peaks, deciding to power clash thanks to Sharon Horgan’s unimpeachable patterns on Catastrophe, and watching the first two minutes of a Khaleesi hair tutorial before realizing that, nope, I was woefully out of my depth. But the dour visual landscape of Margaret Atwood’s pioneering 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, while classic dystopian fare, has always remained at a reassuring remove: heightened, eerie, and unshoppable.
That is, until 2017 — when I'm scrolling through my Facebook feed and I am served an advertisement for a floor-length Moroccan blue belted maxi dress that looks disturbingly similar to the mandatory uniform that the fundamentalist Christian wives of Gilead wear in the current Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. This is a dystopia where a class of women are forbidden to read, stripped of their names, and raped in a monthly religious ceremony in the hopes that they breed future generations of true believers — and, yes, each caste of women is designated a color-coded wardrobe.
“What is this Serena Joy lewk?” I post incredulously, with a link to the ensemble from online retailer eShakti. The dress has an A-line silhouette and Virgin Mary hue that is close enough to the pious and domineering commander’s wife, Serena Joy, that I feel queasy. Within a week, Facebook pushes a garnet ruched-waist maxi dress that’s a dead ringer for the eye-catching, iconic Handmaid’s dress like that of the main character, Offred. The algorithms-that-be had decided that if I were in the company of headlines of compromised elections, missile tests, and thwarted government agencies, it was time I dressed for a dystopia.
I eyed the handmaiden fashion with a twinned disdain and perverse attraction. Could I casually rock this at a bar, sipping whiskey, and coolly flirting in my end-of-the-world, sex slave wear? Or would this be the equivalent of taking sartorial cues straight from Mike Pence, like a cloth cowbell alerting all who cross my path that I’m packing a uterus? Should women voluntarily wear this? WWMAD [What Would Margaret Atwood Do]?
The waning line between dystopia and real-life patriarchal rule has some women calling upon The Handmaid’s Tale’s rich iconography in their activist wear. In March of this year, Hulu promoted the show at the SXSW Festival with women dressed in handmaid garb marching through the city in silence, a chilling sight that gave members of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, and later, Planned Parenthood in Missouri, the idea to use Atwood’s symbolism for their cause. Participating members rented capes and ordered bonnets online, planning to hold a quiet protest in the Texas Senate gallery while legislators were debating a bill that bans, among other reproductive freedoms, second trimester abortions. The evocative power of donning the robes of forced breeders was not lost on them.
What ensued reveals the potency of that simple red cape: As protesters entered the Texas Senate, “heads turned and the media present took notice and immediately began tweeting about it. State troopers and Senate security — all men — immediately surrounded them, hovering over them menacingly,” Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, tells Racked. “It's very apparent what our message is to anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the book, movie, or the TV show.”
“They didn’t know why, but they were afraid of us,” says Jeni Putalavage, a board member of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas and one of the women who donned handmaid robes to protest.
“I think it’s so intriguing to walk around in these costumes because in both the book and the TV show, the clothing works to take away the individuality of these women,” Putalavage says. “They have just become the bearers of the next generation. And I really think that, both male and female, that’s how these legislators see us women. Playing into that idea and defying them openly, is, I think, kind of perfect.”
Can that layered, emblematic perfection be cut from same red bolt for handmaid-inspired street fashion? From the guarded borders of Gilead have also sprung inspiration boards and bespoke stores with shoppables like a Valentino midi dress, Steve Madden biker boots, handmade red cloaks, a felt cloche hat, and made-to-order bonnets.
Some women can cop the neighboring universe’s fashion without compunction. “The show's clothes are objectively fascinating to the eye,” Anna Burbano, who put together three modern takes on Handmaid looks for the site College Fashion, tells Racked. Her Offred look, for example, consists of a red baby-doll dress and crocheted head piece, something that wouldn’t look out of place at a cocktail party. “It retains touches of conservatism and old-school staples like the knee-high socks and the penny loafers, but her dress is transformed from a Puritanical sack to a fun and sexy piece. It's not quite a costume; it's playful. And, in general, I think fashion being inspired by an unorthodox or, in this case, a dystopian source isn't a bad thing at all.”
That captivating aesthetic ambivalence is embedded in the DNA of the designs. Costume designer Ane Crabtree channeled the commanders when creating her capsule collections for each character and used the influences of modern-day male-dominated religious cults, Puritanism, and even Leni Riefenstahl photographs, she told Jezebel. Yet when the accessories are pared down, the appeal of this particular dystopian fashion doesn’t seem so incongruous with modern tastes.
The clothing of the Hulu adaptation manages to avoid both the military wear of science fiction and the stiffness and ostentation of period costumes. Crabtree used a guiding principle of normalcy in her designs. “It has to feel like a sweatshirt to women,” she told Racked’s Lilian Min. Offred and her fellow handmaids’ dresses look breathable, flattering, and cozy. Take off the bonnet and heavy cloak, and underneath are practical, waist-defining garments in a superb palette that you can dress up or down. The beauty in the styling brings an immediacy to the story, a reminder that this world lies just adjacent to our own.
“From a purely design perspective, someone did a rocking good job on those,” says writer Alyssa Royse of eShakti’s handmaid lookalike dress. Royse says it’s the political subtext of the garment that’s most appealing to her: “Like a pussy hat on steroids, and without the pinkness.”
For some, the prescient nature of the story is the draw to its haunting clothes. “Sure, it’s sort of disturbing to want to wear it,” says Laura Morris, who works in childcare. “But to be really frank, turning on the news, I feel disturbed. Last week I Googled what kind of boots Offred wears and ordered a similar pair. Yes, the ugly ones. They’re brown and grungy — you can march into battle with those! That’s me, right now, that is what I want.”
The urge to shop the look — the “that’s me” feeling — is a fierce audience identification that can come with watching emotionally fraught shows like The Handmaid’s Tale.
“There’s research on media psychology that shows that we want to have this vicarious experience through the television,” fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen tells Racked. “Although we’re not in this Puritan, dystopian type of society, if there’s some emotion that’s evoked through this show, and you get this feeling like you’re the character, you’re having this subconscious experience as if you’re living in the show. In your current reality, you’re going to carry those emotions with you and mimic this through your fashion.”
In other words, living deeply in Offred’s story, seeing yourself in her, may mean reaching for looks that resemble hers. Her mindset of resistance brings a sociopolitical amplification to the clothing, drawn in the deep reds associated with women’s liberation and life force. “I admit to fantasizing about seeing these dresses everywhere, with some killer soundtrack,” Royse adds.
Royse’s fantasy — of blood-red skirts and cloaks and maybe a few white bonnets whirling around cocktail parties — is not so far out-of-reach. New York-based fashion label Vaquera, in collaboration with Hulu, is creating a collection inspired by the story to be released in June (Vaquera did not respond to comment on their line). The items teased so far are riffs on the book’s themes, like a ruched and shortened Handmaid’s cloak and a red jacket with white embroidery that says “M’aidez,” a resistance group within the novel and TV show. Vaquera has made sure these pieces can stand alone; they’re an addendum to Atwood’s world and not a mirror of Gilead’s prescribed wardrobe. One look, a red sweatshirt with a white hood that reads “Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum,” is a callback to the message “Don’t let the bastards grind you down,” which Offred finds carved in her room, left by the Handmaid that came before her.
Kelsey Knox, a library archivist, is no stranger to copping fashion from books. She’s been searching Etsy for handmaid gear and is currently coveting Vaquera’s “M’aidez” jacket. “I love that fashion inspired by The Handmaid’s Tale is inherently a political statement,” Knox tells Racked. Walking down the street in the jacket, “I feel that I would be saying that I stand with all women who won’t put up with having their bodies or lives regulated by men. The [Ma’deiz jacket] is a way of taking back that idea of oppression and making it a feminist statement.”
Taking back what oppresses us is a familiar trope in language. We reclaim slurs, cannibalizing the brutality, repackaging them as empowerment, and owning it. In one scene from the TV series, Offred sarcastically notes that “red is my color,” a wry comment on the hue of the uniform she had no part in choosing. “That’s my color” is something we say while shuffling through racks with friends; it’s a hallmark of personal aesthetics. But in Offred’s reality, uniforms tribalize as much as they alienate. Clothing is an injunction, while fashion is contraband.
The Handmaid’s Tale fashion — in both its activist and its street iterations — may be its own sort of political digestion, a way to recalibrate the oppression we carry on our backs in the Trump climate. Wearers choose to make handmaid’s red their color.
“It is common to use fashions of your enemy during wartime,” Jonathan Walford, curatorial director of Ontario’s Fashion History Museum, tells Racked. “Tartans were fashionable in Germany during World War II, and dirndls were popular here.”
The cognitive dissonance in desiring the wardrobe of restrictive cultures is not unheard of. Walford points to the popularity of the Mao jacket as an instance in which regime wear inspired modern fashion. “Mao Tse Tung was in the news a lot in the early 1970s, but those pictures of the entire Chinese nation dressed in grey or khaki cotton jackets and pants didn't deter the West from adopting the Mao jackets into fashion,” Walford says.
Walford suspects that our penchant for enemy garb is “the subconscious result of the focus of one’s attention on current events.”
When I reached out to eShakti, the online customizable clothing retailer that sells what I dubbed “The Serena Joy lewk,” they said that while they did not use The Handmaid’s Tale as a direct reference, they believe fashion trends happen organically. “After all, most designers read the same magazines and newspapers, watch the same TV programs, attend the same trade shows and museum exhibits,” an eShakti representative tells Racked. “What may sometimes seem like a coincidence or happy accident is often very connected to current events.”
A cursory look at current events, which are populated with photos of exclusively white men signing anti-abortion executive orders; laws requiring the burial or cremation of fetuses; lawmakers calling pregnant women “hosts”; and a healthcare act that effectively renders the seeking of treatment for domestic abuse, rape, and C-sections akin to preexisting conditions will tell you that, for women and so many others, the enemy is already at the gates. Maybe wearing clothing from The Handmaid’s Tale, masquerading as the two-legged wombs some legislators would prefer we were, is the closest analog women have to rifling through their enemy’s armory.
Perhaps when we see a red maxi dress fluttering at a party, or a bright teal number out to lunch, we will know what it means — something more tacit than a “The Future is Female” T-shirt, something less conspicuous than a pussy hat — an encoded message from our closets not unlike the one that the first Offred etched into the wood for all future Offreds after her: You are not alone in this.