hen Margaret Atwood penned The Handmaid’s Tale, the last thing she might have expected is a flurry of sartorial tributes. But thanks to resurgent interest in the novel, sparked by a hit TV adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss, the characters Atwood created have now stepped off the page and stomped onto the spring/summer 2018catwalks.

Few could have predicted how poignant the novel would feel thirty years on. Published in 1985, at the height of America’s Reagan era puritanism, it presents a dystopian future where women are denied reproductive rights and forced to breed for the state’s ruling commanders. In an uncertain political climate, with Donald Trump in the White House, the Harvey Weinsteinscandal unfolding in Hollywood and women around the world speaking out against sexual assault in the #MeToo campaign, Atwood’s narrative has lost none of its potency.

The contemporary parallels came into sharp focus in May, a month after the TV series premiered in the US, when activists in Texas donned the red robes and bonnets of the handmaids to protest against anti-abortion legislation. Their battlecry was echoed across the country: women in Missouri wore the same habits to a debate on limiting reproductive health funding; demonstrators in red cloaks crowded into a statehouse in Ohio to protest a bill criminalising abortion; and in Washington DC, supporters of Planned Parenthood stood outside the Capitol, their heads bowed and their faces obscured by stark white bonnets. Even in their silence, the costumes spoke volumes about the continued subjugation of women.

“The loss of any personal freedom, the fear of retribution, the cruelty of forcing women to be so stratified and categorized‎, and most of all having to obliterate their pasts and their identities is something so profoundly troubling,” wrote Vera Wang, in a statement ahead of her spring/summer 2018 presentation. She had read The Handmaid’s Tale, binge-watched the show and followed the news coverage over the summer. Her response was a collection of sleek skirt suits and floor-length gowns that wouldn’t look out of place in Atwood’s fictional Gilead. Instead of a red and white colour palette, Wang chose inky-black silks and subdued grey checks, but the hats were a direct reference to her source material – some models wore neat little caps and others had on oversized bonnets that hid their faces entirely.

Vera Wang

As with the costumes of the protestors, the power of Wang’s collection lies in its unsettling dichotomy. It’s both demure and somehow ominous; a silent threat to the patriarchal world order. Despite the trailing sleeves and conservative necklines, the details were eerily seductive: jackets slipped off the shoulders, corsets were exposed under thin layers of tulle and garter belts were slung over tailored trousers. The heavy cloaks and stiff bonnets no longer felt oppressive – now they looked like armour.

At Preen, the tension between conservatism and sexuality was more overt. Designers Thea Bregazzi and Justin Thornton created crisp white shirt dresses and red lace frocks that evoked The Handmaid’s Tale and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. Models wore linen pilgrim hats and asymmetrical gowns, slashed to reveal delicate silk camisoles and sheer underskirts.

For Bregazzi and Thornton, the collection was both personal and political – a commentary on the sort of future they wanted for their two young daughters. “We’re living in an anarchical time when people have lost faith in leaders and society,” Thornton told Vogue’s Anders Christian Madsen. “We want women to deconstruct their own femininity and reconstruct it so they can be whatever they want.”

Fast forward to the spring/summer 2018 shows, however, and the references become more diluted, chiming with fashion’s new conservative mood. There were starched white pilgrim collars at Paul & Joe, droopy denim bonnets at Kenzo Memento and billowing red robes at A.W.A.K.E. At Emilia Wickstead, ankle-skimming gowns came with high necklines and voluminous sleeves, while at The Row models stepped out wearing fluid column dresses that swept to the floor, rendered in pure white silk and bright red gauze.

The Row

It’s easy to see why fashion has fallen for The Handmaid’s Tale. Those evocative red robes always strike a nerve, whether you see them on TV, on the catwalk, or at protests on the streets of our cities. They are emblems of oppression that women have subverted and claimed for themselves. As the narrator, Offred, says in the final episode of the show, “They should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army.”

Browse the best Handmaid’s Tale-inspired looks from the spring/summer 2018 shows below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *