The Dramatic Backstory of Red in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Everyone is Handmaid's Tale is wearing red

“In front of us, to the right, is the store where we order dresses,” Offred narrates in The Handmaid’s Tale. “Some people call them habits, a good word for them. Habits are hard to break.”

The habits in the Handmaid’s universe are a lot of things: concealing, red, accusatory, shameful, red, objectifying, and did I mention very, very red? So red, in fact, that they seem stuck in people’s heads. Handmaid red rippled across cultural pillars like fashion and politics before the show even premiered.

In June 2017, the young New York fashion brand Vaquera collaborated with Hulu and book author Margaret Atwood for a Handmaid’s Tale-inspired (red) fashion show. Other designers were close behind: The Handmaid’s Tale’s aesthetic conquered the runways of Vera Wang, Preen by Thornton Bregazzi, A.W.A.K.E, The Row, Maticevski, Kenzo, Valentino, Beaufille, and everyone else. Did you present a Spring/Summer 2018 collection? Probably, you just don’t remember it! It involved a long, red dress.

The red habits inspired more than fashion. They gave dystopian visual flair to protests across the country, and women wore them at Planned Parenthood and NARAL-organized protests in Washington, D.C. and Texas. When these red-habited rallies proved both well-attended and mediagenic, progressive organizers formed the New-Hampshire based Handmaid Coalition, a chaptered community committed to “keep[ing] fiction from becoming reality.” There are now chapters in every state and habited protesters have made news in Ohio, New Hampshire, Missouri, and even at the Golden Globes.

None of the protagonists in The Handmaid’s Tale ever chose to wear red; the color was given to them by Atwood, who looked to color symbolism in Renaissance art when she created her highly-codified society uniforms. According to an interview the author gave to PBS, the red habit was a natural choice for a fictional dystopian future, as it was inspired by a non-fictional dystopian past that was fixated on red. Atwood first looked to the color’s use in “medieval, early renaissance paintings” (where it appears consistently as the official color of Mary Magdalene in opposition of the virtuous Virgin Mary’s blue). But the color has a more complex religious history. As Atwood points out, “red is the cross and red is blood.” She also emphasizes the color’s enduring practical value with a creepy and more modern anecdote: “German prisoners of war held in Canada [in WWII] were given red outfits because they show up so well against the snow.” The pillars of this reasoning are reflected in the story, where Handmaids are punished and revered, and where I can confirm that their dresses do show up really well in the snow.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, The Handmaid’s Tale’s TV production crew spoke of the visual effect of red in a neutral background. They used phrases like “wanton women,” “a scarlet kind of mark,” “red maple leaves,” “a painterly effect reminiscent of Vermeer,” and menstrual blood. They sought a red that would look good on all skin colors, a red that would live in our memories, a habit that was hard to break.

The duality of the Handmaid habit centers upon its ability to objectify and disgrace its wearer while also empower and armoring it. In the Western Christian culture that informs Atwood’s fictional Gilead, red has two stories: pre- and post-revolutionary. The “pre” stage of Western history is muddled by a pretty huge contradiction: Red was used to both signify sinners and dress the Pope, to titillate the viewers of women in art and condemn its subjects’ vanity. In a very simplistic sense, this pre-18th century story of red is the story of every other damn thing: For white men in power, it’s great, go nuts, wear all the red you want. For literally everyone else, the color is mostly used to accuse, debase and disparage.

Throughout a great deal of recorded history, men traditionally wore red in “courageous” circumstances. There were red knights like Gawain, Galahad and Esclados. The cardinals or “princes of the church” wore red cassocks that symbolized their willingness to shed blood for Christ. Even the red uniforms of the British infantry, chosen according to the strategic necessity of standing out against the thick smog of old-timey cannon fire, came to symbolize bravery.

But while men got a red badge of courage, women got a scarlet letter. You might remember the Whore of Babylon; she wore a red dress. She actually also rode a red beast, whatever that is. Atwood refers to Mary Magdalene, who may have worn red in allusion to the ole WB. La Belle Dame sans Merci, when she is depicted, wears a lot of red. So does Regina George. According to a scientific study that you’re going to need a stiff drink to read but basically sums up the whole attitude at play here, women are perceived as “more sexually threatening” when they wear red. But it also might make you more likely to win the Olympics, so infer from that what you will.

Unfortunately for our taste for symbolism, sometimes red is also just nice to look at. As we know, it stands out in dreary dystopian interiors and at the Texas State Capitol. Plus, stuff that stands out is visually moving. The Handmaid’s Tale director of photography talked about being inspired by Vermeer and although the “painterly” effect sought on the show is expressed extremely well in his work, I think it’s safe to say that Vermeer didn’t stay up at night thinking about the sinful allure of red. He was more of a yellows and blues guy. But even for him, the occasional use of red would have implied, if not risk, at least a lot of thought: Before the mid-19th century, artists chose from reds of varying toxicity and material expense. (The coveted cinnabar, for example, was made using mercury, which is bad for you, while cochineal-derived carmine* was outrageously expensive.)

Photo by George Kraychyk/Hulu

The more interesting second half of the story with red — the post-revolutionary story, and especially that of the red Handmaid habits — is not about what red has been prescribed to mean but what it has been taken to represent. In the second season, set to premiere April 25, 2018, we can speculate that red will appear as a symbol not of bravery as it’s dictated by the powerful, but bravery as it is chosen in moments of insurgence, self-determination and protest. This evidence starts, apparently, with the hats Smurfs wear (bear with me).

One million years ago, when Pangea had not yet split and I was a Senate intern, I used to give tours of the Capitol Building. These tour groups were totally at your mercy for like an hour, so I used the opportunity to talk about whatever was interesting to me at the time — and that was how many floppy red hats are painted around the Capitol. The hats, or Phrygian caps, came to symbolize the fight for freedom in Europe, basically because folks got them confused with another ancient hat, the  pileus, which was given to freed slaves in Rome. This became the famed bonnet rouge of the French Revolution, along with a number of other revolutions. The hat’s revolutionary use forced its meaning to evolve from an ancient symbol of freedom that was granted or earned, into a more philosophically consistent symbol of freedom as an inherent right. It was a feature in revolution after revolution, largely in allegorical and commemorative art. It is pictured on eight national flags and coats of arms. But its use by the United States’ mythologizing art, from the Capitol interior to state flags, is probably the most egregiously and cruelly hypocritical, even hundreds of years later. It turns out there are about a million Phrygian caps in the Capitol, all of them representing “liberty” as it was understood by the Founding Fathers and their pals. (I wasn’t giving those tours for very long.)

Red, on hats and not on hats, is a revolutionary color, and it has coexisted surprisingly well with clerical red. The (Catholic) church was perceived, in an 18th to 20th century revolutionary context, as the greatest oppressor – tyrannizing not just financial and personal liberties, but the mind, soul and fate. That its color was nevertheless adopted by those of a more revolutionary mindset proves how much cachet the color holds. Monseigneur Bienvenu in Les Misérables sums up this contradiction in a little joke about the color red: “It is lucky that those who despise it in a cap revere it in a hat.”

Today, red is associated with insurgent power more than it is with traditional power. It makes us think of the Red Scare more than it makes us think of bishops or soldiers. As the Handmaid Coalition keeps proving, red has the ability, in large quantities, to make people nervous. Or “sexually threatened.” On International Women’s Day in 2017, women across the globe dressed in solidarity in red, the color of brave political protest, united action, the Whore of Babylon and her beast. When The New York Times noted that a lot of “empowered” women were wearing red in 2016, the color was described as possessing “world-beating ferocity.”

“Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which defines us,” says Handmaid narrator Offred, which is true enough even in a post-Thinx world. We don’t totally know what will happen in The Handmaid’s Tale’s second season, but we do know there is freedom in sweet, sweet Canada, and a taking back of some of the characters’ lives. It’s the red habit’s second act. While Atwood gave Offred and friends an oppressive, degrading color, she also gave them a habit that is hard to break in the color of “world-beating ferocity” and freedom, the color that is inside all of us. Or in our Thinx. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum, everybody. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

The Handmaid’s Tale Season Two premieres on tonight, April 25, 2018 on Hulu.

*Is it any surprise at all that this color, whose inaccessibility, symbolic significance, expense and carefully-maintained exoticism drove Renaissance Europeans so completely bonkers, was derived only from the female cochineal insect? More importantly, do the male cochineal insects find this “sexually threatening?”

Photos by George Kraychyk via Hulu

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