As women's reproductive rights continue to be rolled back in the US and other parts of the world, comparisons have been made to The Handmaid's Tale, which reimagines America as the post-nuclear hellscape of Gilead.
So it's only fitting that the red robes and white winged bonnets of Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss) and her fellow reproductive slaves have become a symbol of power, as women reclaim the costume to campaign for reproductive rights and women's liberty.
The protest power of the Handmaid’s robes was first glimpsed when members of NARAL Pro Choice Texas and the Texas Equal Access Fund donned them in the Texas Senate in May 2017 in opposition to restrictive abortion laws in the state.
Lest we think the phenomenon is strictly a US one, Polish Handmaids protested Trump’s visit to their country in the red robes, while they also made appearances in Queensland ahead of the state’s election. The message behind The Handmaid’s Tale, that takes inspiration from real life events throughout history—such as slavery, genocide, the Stolen Generations, etc.—to portray the fertile young Handmaids who have become reproductive slaves to rich, powerful and barren couples, is particularly pertinent on our shores, as abortion is still illegal in many Australian states.
The immediate correlation of the red robes to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian creation means protesters can let the robes do the talking. And they have, with the above mentioned Texas Handmaid’s sitting silently in the Senate as a form of protest.
Star of the show, Elisabeth Moss, says that the robes are “an image that stands so clearly for feminism and women’s rights. I don’t know many costumes or outfits in literature that someone could wear into an assembly and you immediately know why they’re there and what side they’re on.”
Costume designer Ane Crabtree tells Jezebel that seeing the robes employed as a tool of activism makes her emotional. “Anybody who is an everyman, an everywoman, a working person, an immigrant, these are all things that are my family. A person of colour, a girl who’s not the typical girl visually—anything that feels like you don’t feel a part of society and now you’re feeling like even less, anytime anybody who is feeling that, from any group, racial, political background, belief system, gay, straight bi, whatever, anybody who feels repressed, oppression, victimised, violence against them, I’m rooting for those people. And to feel like folks are so impassioned about changing, about righting the wrongs, that to me is everything, because that is pure human spirit at work. It is not about the costumes anymore.”
Speaking to website The Verge, Emily Morgan, founder of The Handmaid Coalition which protests regressive laws affecting women and minorities in the US, explains why the robes have found such resonance. She says, “the costume itself is an incredibly useful tool for demonstration, not just because of its symbolic weight, but also because of the uniform’s practical benefits. The bonnet’s wings can help protect protestors’ identities, and the uniformity of the costumes helps the group present a unified image—including for male allies who wear the costume to participate.”
And in this video from The New York Times, which Morgan narrates, men are shown donning the bonnets and robes.
If you’re thinking of making your own Handmaid’s robes for protest or just for fun (perhaps the first time that word has been associated with The Handmaid’s Tale), The Handmaid Coalition has a handy guide on their website as to how to do so.
Whereas the pink pussy hats of the inaugural Women’s March in 2017 were met with criticism in some circles, objection to the Handmaids robes has been less so. Though the robes and bonnets are worn by cisgender women with functioning reproductive systems in The Handmaid’s Tale (which has its own problems with representation), they symbolise all women who have been subjugated by the Republic of Gilead; from the Marthas, domestic workers who are often women of colour, to the sex workers of Jezebels, to the old, infertile, gay, trans and disabled women who work in the colonies. The Handmaid’s robes represent the oppression of all women.
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SBS will air the double-episode season premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale at 8.30pm Thursday 6 June, with episodes 1-3 available on SBS On Demand. New episodes will then air weekly on SBS, moving to the 9:30pm time slot from Thursday 20th June. All episodes will be available to stream weekly on SBS On Demand.