The Handmaid’s Tale finale affirms there’s power in subversive uniform dressing
When someone mentions The Handmaid’s Tale, the first image likely to come to mind is a clan of women dressed in oxblood capes and white matador bonnets. It’s a uniform statement – a stylised oppression of the female body which most characters in the series are defined by. The acclaimed drama aired its final episode on Sunday – an emotional viewing that left traumatic questions hanging. It’s subjugation of women is a disturbing subject matter, intended to be reflected one way through clothing. Handmaid’s wear uniforms that are designed with the intention of materially concealing any form of attractiveness and sexuality. But is this the sole implication that they depict? In an age of fashion where subverting the status quo is praised more than ever, most certainly not. Whilst Television’s costume of the year is a uniform intended to dehumanise, Sunday's finale confirmed that it in fact promotes empowerment.
“It’s their own fault. They should have never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army,” Offred – central heroine in the series – says at the beginning of the final episode. It’s a claim that holds much credit, given that shortly after this the group of Handmaid’s collectively defy their superiors at a Salvaging. It’s one of the first occurrences in the series when viewers feel hope instead of horror. In conjunction with it, the cloaking the colonised clan embody no longer serves to debunk, but rather emancipate. Danger is turned on its head as the implications of these dripping capes alter from being victims to becoming an army. It’s the start of an uprise, and the power of uniform dressing aligns with that. Uniforms are something Ann Crabtree – costume designer of the series – references. “I always think about Miuccia Prada in 1990”, she told Vanity Fair’s Jamie Lincoln. “She said the smartest design comes from military uniforms, and I couldn’t agree with her more.” Though women’s military clothing from the Second World War may first come to mind, female movements have embodied uniforms for centuries. Rewind twenty years from 1939 and you land on the Suffragettes. Their radical ideas were married to their uniforms that intended to reverse expectations – they didn’t try to masculinise themselves, but rather styled long skirts that draped with gracefulness, in turn asserting the power in being purely feminine.
The Handmaid dress code is intended to hinder expression – body shapes are not visible and complete freedom of movement is limited. But these women are still mentally free to think and feel. This avoidance of a wholly sartorial affront in turn works if an army has a devoted intention of saying something. Designers are thinking the same thing and putting it into performance on the runway. Manhattan’s MET museum is currently exhibiting the work of Rei Kawakubo – a designer acclaimed for her signature designs which subvert presentations of the body. Many of them hold resemblance to those red capes we’re now so accustomed with from the adaptation of Atwood’s novel. Staple red pieces from Comme des Garçons AW16 could be infused into The Handmaid’s Tale and it’s unlikely viewers would notice any change. The same could be said for Junya Watanabe’s collection of the same season. Both exhibit a sense of cut-out couture – building around voluminous silhouettes that disguise any signs of a feminine body type. It’s experimentalism at its highest – and it’s commended.
Vaquera x The Handmaid's Tale, Comme des Garçons AW16, Jacquemus AW17
You could even tone down this excessiveness a notch or two and land at Jacquemus – fashion’s answer to a collab between Comme des Garçons and Christian Dior. His AW17 collection included black and white bonnets that carried with them suggestions of subordination. Models identities were part-concealed, yet they maintained such confidence in their strides that they projected authority. Remember the slow-mo marching scene down the street in the final episode of The Handmaid’s Tale? There’s clear parallels. “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day” played alongside it – being perfectly fitting with both the drama and its fashion. The list of fashion brands that the drama mirrors in intentions goes on. Dice Kayek, Vetements, Gosha Rubchinskiy – they’re the hottest blood in the fashion business right now, with understandable reason why. They’re collectively creating a subverted uniform in designing big structures that bring with them even bigger statements. But why are they doing this, and why are we applauding it? It’s arguably adesexualisation of the body. But in stripping away stereotypical body structure, we’re left with a neutralisation of gender, and a call for equal levels of power. With the finale of The Handmaid’s Tale and enforcement of such similarities, it only seems as though we need that now more than ever.
Viewers of the show certainly agree. Offred’s subversive uniform may have been curated in the context of enforcement, but it has nonetheless resulted in impact across the globe. Despite the show’s dystopian-themed plot, there’s evidential links to many current political actions. In May, 30 women sombrely stood in Washington DC dressed in red cloaks with an obvious nod to the show. They did so in protest of the Senate’s controversial health-care bill set to defund Planet Parenthood. Last month, women in Warsaw dressed themselves in the uniform too – objecting Trump’s visit to Poland. They stood amidst many other protestors, with their choice in dressing enhancing their beliefs. For both cases, dressing shouted before wearers even said a word. On Friday six women dressed as handmaids marched through London clad in the trademark uniform, calling the program to attention ahead of its finale. In the fashion industry, we all saw that Vaquera x The Handmaid’s Tale collection showcased in New York at the end of June. Cloaks and bonnets were at the forefront of the show, with juxtaposing ideas of oppression and empowerment being intertwined.
Maybe uniforms suggest a desire to blend in, but they also do the exact opposite to that, if one fits themselves into a group that has an intention of saying something. There’s an allegiance to it – that’s what The Handmaid’s Tale’s finale proved. Oppression is what gives power in the form of mentality – it brings these women together and their identical uniforms can only be said to amplify that. With similar measures to designers who have been praised for displaying alternative depictions of the body, there’s something in having a subversive sartorial routine that makes more of a stamp. So as we eagerly await the show’s second series (which has now been confirmed), so too do we consider how to use our choices in dressing to reflect our own political agitation. Praise be.