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Visual Culture

The Rise of the Handmaid Habit as a Visual Icon

Women dressed in Handmaids Tale costumes stage a demonstration against President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence outside of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House, New York, 2018. Photo by Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Women dressed in Handmaids Tale costumes stage a demonstration against President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence outside of the Alexander Hamilton Customs House, New York, 2018. Photo by Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

Political demonstrations are theatrical. Their executions often require intricate choreographies and stage management, and the unfolding drama is eternalized by photographers on the scene. The enduring potency of a demonstration depends on these visual records; it’s no wonder, then, that clever signs and costumes stand out, summing up complex political arguments into a single icon.
The handmaid habit is one of the newest fashions to enter our visual lexicon of dissent. Since Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) was adapted for television in 2017, women around the world protesting abortion bans have donned the scarlet robe and white bonnet. These disguises have caught the attention of the media, from the New York Times and Wired to Saturday Night Live. Yet there’s a significant problem with this symbol—it represents women on the defensive, fighting to secure what they already (admittedly, tenuously) have, instead of advocating for more. It positions women as only having something to lose, without imagining what we might be able to gain.
The Hulu series The Handmaid's Tale is filmed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on February 15, 2019. Photo by Calla Kessler for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

The Hulu series The Handmaid's Tale is filmed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on February 15, 2019. Photo by Calla Kessler for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

That’s not to say that the costumes are ineffectual. (In fact, they represent significant progress from our last major feminist fashion trend—the pussy hat.) They’re somber and unnerving with a hint of camp, effectively connecting dystopian fantasy to our contemporary political climate. For anyone who’s been out of the loop, eight U.S. states, including Alabama, Georgia, and Ohio have all signed legislation this year to significantly limit women’s access to abortion. Today, Missouri’s governor signed a law banning abortions after eight weeks.Alabama’s is the most restrictive, nearly banning the procedure outright, with an exception for women whose pregnancies are life-threatening. Women far beyond the states, from Argentina to the U.K., have also worn the costume to protest their countries’ abortion restrictions. For demonstrater Sarahbeth Caplin, of northern Colorado, the costume signifies more than just abortion rights advocacy, however. “The handmaid costume represents all kinds of female oppression,” she said.
At first, the costume was just the stuff of Atwood’s fiction. Designer Ane Crabtree turned the Canadian author’s vision into a reality when she was hired to create the costumes for the Hulu adaptation, which returns for its third season on June 5th. As Crabtree told British Vogue, her references ranged from a priest she saw in Milan to Amish wardrobes. “In the end,” she said, “the poetic fluidity of the dresses meant that the handmaids looked like lifeblood moving through a grey concrete dystopian world.”
Crabtree’s costumes have become such cultural icons that the Smithsonian National Museum of American History just acquired one for its collection—the dress worn by the show’s star, Elisabeth Moss. “The show and its themes, design and performances have garnered such attention [and] had an outsize impact,” Ryan Lintelman, entertainment curator of the museum’s culture wing, toldVariety. “The fact that this costume has been replicated in protests is really important to us too.”
Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

The handmaid robe draws a diverse group of feminist advocates who are trying to galvanize their communities. Jennifer Botari, who has assembled a grassroots group of handmaids in Ontario, explained: “Forced birth means that those affected are going to lose out on opportunities for social participation…on education…better employment…upward mobility, and the power and privilege that allows them to make their voices heard.” Danielle Ananea, who protested in Colorado with the Indivisible Front Range Resistance (IFRR), believes wearing the handmaid costume is one small step to empower women who feel they “have no voice.” Jocelyn Foye, co-director of the genderfluid-inclusive Womxn Project, which has demonstrated outside of the Rhode Island State House, agrees. “These costumes allow people who are very shy but want to do something to speak up,” she said. “It hides their face. It allows them an opportunity to be a presence. And a presence that’s scary.”
The desire to evoke a sense of fear is, for many participants, what gives the costume its strength. Tori Neal, who recently dressed as a handmaid for a protest in Huntsville, Alabama, wrote via email that the red robe is “a warning about the future.” For Lexie Baker, of Denver, Colorado, the costume also signifies how American society has regressed. “The costume’s purpose is to remind the onlooking audience that female rights have again been teetering, and if you care about keeping us…from slipping backwards into a totalitarian society, then you better take advantage of your right to VOTE,” she wrote.
The reasons for dressing like a handmaid span solidarity, personal empowerment, inspiration for voting, and intersectional expansion for the feminist movement—all valuable, important motives. What the costumes don’t do, however, is imagine a future in which circumstances are actually better for women; they just suggest an apocalyptic path. There’s a bit of a slippery-slope logic operating in this new brand of demonstration: It’s a terrifying, but unlikely, prospect that the U.S. will actually end up functioning like Atwood’s fictional society of Gilead.
The Hulu series  The Handmaid's Tale  is filmed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on February 15, 2019. Photo by Calla Kessler for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

The Hulu series The Handmaid's Tale is filmed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on February 15, 2019. Photo by Calla Kessler for The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Women are so traumatized by the relentless wave of new anti-abortion legislation that it’s difficult to look beyond protesting; the laws put us on the defensive, keeping us continuously fighting against loss. But we don’t just deserve the reproductive rights that were in place before this year—we also deserve more clinics; more government funding for childcare and women’s healthcare; more support for new families…the list goes on.
The radical activists of the 1960s didn’t just protest against the Vietnam War; their clothing and iconography agitated for the peace and love they desired. The rainbow motif of the LGBTQ+ movement signifies an ideal society that’s colorful, inclusive, and equitable. Black Lives Matter T-shirts advocate an America that values black lives in a way it never has before. The current challenge of the women’s movement is to find a similarly succinct, visually compelling symbology for the society we do want. Bring on the designers.
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.