The symbolism of clothing and colour in The Handmaid’s Tale

One of the texts I’m teaching this coming year is Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, as part of the dystopian topic for OCR A-Level literature. Re-reading it (again!) it’s striking how much the colours play a part in the makeup of this novel.

Clothing in dystopian fiction is an important signifier. The totalitarian dystopias – The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984 and so on – use clothing as a method of control, ensuring that divisions (often power hierarchies) are respected, and that people are in their appropriate places. In 1984, the Party members wear black or blue overalls (a working man’s clothing, removing distinctions of gender but maintaining the distinction of Inner or Outer party), Atwood’s characters are strictly defined by their coloured uniforms. The hierarchies in The Handmaid’s Tale are made clear through the clothing the women in particular are forced to wear.

Red

Red is loaded with symbolic meaning in the novel. The most obvious is the colour of the Handmaids’ dresses, long, draping, covering every inch of their bodies. Frequently she complains how hot and uncomfortable the clothing is, a physical constant oppression, and remembers ‘freedom’ as the ability to wear less, for women to wear what they chose. When the Commander takes Offred to Jezebels nightclub, the clothing is vibrant, bright and multi-coloured but a perverted inversion of what Offred remembers as freedom. As a Handmaid, Offred also wears red gloves and shoes. Atwood specifically explains the symbolism: “the colour of blood, which defines us”, yet there is also more to it than that. Red is certainly associated with menstrual blood and the womb; it’s also oppressive and over-powering, almost too vibrant (see Jane Eyre’s terrifying experience, for example of its oppressive horrors). Red in the novel comes to symbolise all blood, for example the men hanging in the square and other acts of violence in the novels are described with red prominent; blood is not only life but death – just as birth is in Gilead. Red is associated with lust and overpowering passion – not the pretty romantic pink of sweet innocent love. The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850), tells the story of Hester Prynne, condemned to wear a scarlet A on her dress, symbolising her adultery. The Handmaids are designed for adultery, and their clothing reflects that.

White

Frequently used as a stark contrast to white, symbolising innocence and purity. The Daughters wear white until marriage, for example, and Offred’s underwear is white. It’s also used as a frequent visual image to marry red and white together – the bodies hanging on the wall have white bags on their heads, splashed with red – a shocking and brutal contrast.

The wings of the Handmaids’ uniform are white, blocking their view of the world and hiding them from sight in turn – wrapping them in the colour of innocence.

Blue

The Wives wear blue, a colour associated with Mary, the Madonna, and symbolising their ultimate role as mothers – but pure mothers, ones who have not conceived themselves but rear the children anyway. Offred often seems envious of the coolness of Serena Joy’s clothes – “Her dress is crisp cool cotton. For her it’s blue, watercolour, not this red of mine that sucks in heat and blazes with it at the same time.” She’s also jealous, although she rarely admits it, of some of Serena Joy’s additional freedoms and higher place in the hierarchy of women, noting that Serena Joy could, at any moment, have her reassigned or worse. Occasionally Offred refers to the blue of the sky as protective – warm, enveloping her – perhaps a reference to the protection offered the Wives by the outward signs of their status. Serena Joy’s flowers – a motif in themselves! – also reflect the contrast of blue and red;

 “Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve,”

Here, the irises are blue, cool and frozen, symbolic of Serena Joy’s wifely status with her lack of fertility, in contrast with the red tulips that are overflowing with seedpods, being destroyed by Serena Joy’s shears, a vicious representation of Serena’s feelings towards Offred.

Green

The Marthas, domestic servants running the home, dress in green, a colour associated with nature but also cleanliness and health – medical organisations frequently use green as a colour of healing. The Guardians (remember – full title “Guardians of the Faith”) also wear a green uniform, reminiscent of military garb, and indicating their role to protect and defend Gilead.

Black

Traditionally used to symbolise death and threat, used by Atwood as the primary colour for the Eyes and their vans. It’s also a sign of power and often in description in the novel, accompanied with the vans, surveillance, the authority, brings to mind connotations of the SS officers’ uniforms in Nazi Germany, particularly with the other insignia worn.

Grey

Men and women in the Colonies wear grey, symbolising their lack of importance and their “unwoman”/”unman” status – an interesting comparison perhaps with Fitzgerald’s “ash grey men” in the Valley of Ashes, in The Great Gatsby.

Econowives

Occupying a strange space on the very fringes of the novel, the Econowives are very like the Proles in 1984; they are working class, therefore beyond the novel’s scope and beyond the notice in many ways of the ruling powers, the Commanders, Wives and so on. They wear “striped dresses, red and blue and green and cheap and skimpy,” a mix of colours (although still the prescribed colours – the women are clearly still subject to many restrictions) indicating their need to fulfil the roles separated by Wife, Handmaid and Martha.

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