The Power of Symbolism: The Handmaids of Hulu’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’

Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum
Elisabeth Moss as ‘Offred’ (June) in The Handmaids Tale.

The Handmaid’s Tale has long been overdue a reboot. Margret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel is a literary classic, and until 2017, had only been adapted into a mediocre-at-best film in 1990 (31% on Rotten Tomatoes? Ooft.)  It lay somewhat dormant for years; while it’s a commonly studied book, and something of a cult classic, it was only picked up by Hulu and adapted as a 10-part television show in 2016 (and that’s only series one). To my shock and horror, I had never heard about The Handmaids Tale until my best friend lent me a copy of the novel. I devoured the book in a few days, and absolutely adored the harsh, unrelenting hopelessness of the world Atwood had created. Inevitably, the TV and film nerd in myself began imagining what a contemporary retelling of the story would look like, in an age of Brexit, Trump and ISIS. Lo and behold – I typed it into YouTube, and happened upon the trailer for the upcoming Hulu adaption.

I’m going to start here by saying that I couldn’t have imagined a better adaption of the book. The casting is perfection, with Elisabeth Moss playing the long-suffering Offred, (or June) and Samira Wiley expertly playing June’s best friend, and ‘gender-traitor’ Moira. The show is strange, horrific and visceral; and so, so poignant and necessary at this point in time. It’s honestly a beautiful adaption of the novel, and all changes felt relevant and needed. Okay, I’ll stop gushing now. Go watch it if you haven’t already because it’s stunning. Gilead is a world that’s terrifying because it’s so easy to see our world in it; our world is there, was there, but it’s fading fast. This dystopia isn’t brought on by a virus, or zombies, or war – but by an unspecified event, which caused mass infertility. People are commodified and literally colour coded per their use for the Government of Gilead. Ane Crabtree, the costume designer of this piece, is honestly phenomenal and has created a world so visceral and beautiful that she deserves all the awards laid at her feet. Can you tell I’m a fan?

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The Leah and Rachel Centre, where Handmaids are taught to bear children on behalf of Gilead’s rich, childless couples. Ew.

I’ll start by looking at the colours – they’re the most obvious place to start in any review of The Handmaid’s Tale. Women are colour coded, as per their reproductive usefulness. The barren wives of the Commanders of Government wear blue, in a range of tones and textures. Household workers and chefs, known as Marthas, wear an olive-green colour, in rougher hewn fabric. Wives of normal men, also barren, wear striped dresses, to denote multiple roles – as both wife and housekeeper. They’re called the Econowives – and I can’t help but think their dresses are reminiscent of old-fashioned, striped shopping bags. And, finally, the Handmaids of the tale, and the main focus of the story, are cloaked in a deep, rich, blood red, signalling their fertility. Colour plays a huge role in The Handmaids Tale, and an understanding of the colours and their significance provide a useful shortcut to quickly establish characters and their roles within the society. The colours are stark and harsh, on a cinematic background that is so washed out it becomes almost sepia toned. The contrast of colour against the utterly drab background of the piece makes every scene stunningly beautiful – a lesson in cinematography if there ever was one.

The sheer vibrancy of the red is representative of the reproductive importance of the Handmaids, but it’s indicative of a whole range of things. The first thing that stood out to me was the comparison to The Scarlet Letter, the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne; a story intertwined with themes of religious fervour, shame, sex and feminism. That’s something of a personal comparison, since the book is a favourite of mine. Red is the colour of passion, of lust, of temptation – and of shame; the Handmaids occupy a strange, double live in which they are loathed but necessary; heroes yet prisoners. Another obvious denotation to draw from the use of the colour red is the colour of blood; specifically menstrual blood in this context, I think. These women still bleed, and so they can still breed. (Little rhyme there to break up the grim topic!) Not that one colour can tell us this – it’s just something that comes to my mind when I watch the show. They’re also indicative of blood yet to be spilt – Handmaids are allowed to tear prisoner’s limb-from-limb in a horrifying ritual known as a ‘Salvaging’.  Ane Crabtree, the costume designer of The Handmaids Tale has spoken at length about the difficulty in ensuring that the red was the ‘right’ red – red is a colour that is hard to portray in cinema, and I can only imagine the difficulty faced by the designers in finding exactly the right shade. It’s a tough job and they did amazingly.

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Janine wearing the ‘Wings’.

The sense of confinement in these costumes is breath-taking – literally. (Yay, another pun!) They’re restrictive, confining and totally strip the women of the story of any independence or agency. Crabtree has created a world, and a religious code of dress that’s inherently believable – and all the more terrifying. It’s difficult to normalise this style of dress, especially in a modern context, and the use of older shapes from the 1900’s, 1930’s and 1940’s really helped to achieve this. These costumes came from a place of war, and this war-like, rationed mentality is clearly seen in these garments. A personal favourite garment remains the ‘Wings’ worn by the Handmaids when they are outside; they’re a protective shield, to keep the eyes of the world off their faces, lest they be tempted or seduced by them. It’s another display of male control over the Handmaids, similarly to how their boots aren’t allowed to have laces; lest the Handmaids hang themselves in the few minutes they’re allowed alone in a day. The wings also reduce the wearers hearing and field of vision, which Crabtree notes is important; highlighting the cages that these women are living in day to day. Handmaids wear long, shapeless cloaks that over their entire bodies when they step outside the house, and even their socks and underwear are regimented; loose shapeless pants and knee-high brownish-grey socks. The utilitarian vibe of the clothing highlights the Handmaids roles as part pf Gilead’s system; they’re there to perform a function, and nothing more.

One more sickening little detail about the Handmaids; all fertile women are tagged with red trackers on their left ear. It’s assumed that these have GPS trackers installed, to keep each Handmaid firmly under the control of Gilead. It’s so gross, and so genius.

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Offred’s ‘I’M FERTILE’ tag.

Even the wives of the ‘Commanders’, the high-ranking officials of Gilead, are confined into their place by their costumes. They all wear varying shades of teal and blue, a beautiful, serene shade; totally opposing the vibrancy of the Handmaid’s red robes. There are darker and lighter shades here, as well as more varied shapes and lines; the wives are afforded something akin to Gilead’s version of freedom. However; they’re still stuck, confined by these roles in a world they, and their husbands, helped to create. The teal is a cooler colour, and this certainly reflects Serena Joy’s personality, the wife of Offred’s commander. The visual contrast between these two women is striking as they go head to head all season. However, despite this contrast, the irony is, both of these women are slaves to this regime. It’s difficult to use clothing to portray a sense of oppression, but this is expertly managed by Crabtree; these women are prisoners to the whims of a hugely powerful, patriarchal system, and colour-coded by usefulness. It’s repulsive, but almost entirely convincing, making The Handmaids Tale one of the most terrifying dystopian worlds I’ve ever experienced.

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The Ceremony – I’ll not spoil it if you haven’t watched.

I’m not alone in feeling this. The chord that this book, and this show, has struck with women around the world is unbelievable. The power of costume, here, doesn’t just end in the show – just take a look at recent protests in Washington, Ohio, New Hampshire and Texas. Recent political shifts in America, surrounding gender discrimination and limitations placed on reproductive rights have led to protests in which women dressed as Handmaids protest at city halls, courts and city centres. This show has far-reaching implications and a very tangible political presence; these costumes aren’t just clothes on the actors bodies. They’re becoming a very real symbol of political resistance, and as a costumer and designer, that’s something that’s hard to wrap my head around. It’s incredible to see the power of this narrative, and these designs, making a real statement in the real world.

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Protests in Texas.

Sorry for the slightly more serious nature of this post; The Handmaids Tale is a book and a show I really love and admire; and I wanted to do it justice. I’ve re-written the article about 10 times since I watched the series, trying to get it right, and I’ve still only covered the Handmaids! It’s hard to identify why I love a show that makes me so uncomfortable, but I’ve always been a sucker for dystopian novels and television shows, and this is one that stuck with me long past the credits. The Handmaids Tale is beautiful and horrible, and if you haven’t seen it, or read it, you really should. Rant over. Also – if you haven’t, and you’ve read this – sorry. Hope I haven’t spoiled anything!

So – watch The Handmaids Tale. For sure.

Till Friday,

Liz xo



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