The Relationship between Clothing and identity in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

‘Everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us.’
-Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale, p.18.

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) demonstrates how clothing can be used to enforce rigid, fixed identities as the government of Gilead attempts to control the population in the dystopian novel. It establishes the limitations of clothing and how it can be used as a method of containment and repression. The protagonist Offred, along with other women in the text, are required to wear certain clothes that reflect their role and status in society.

The colour of clothing is used to differentiate between women and signify their role in society. Offred wears ‘red shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine’ and ‘red gloves’ (Handmaid’s, p. 18). She also mentions how ‘everything except the wings around my face is red: the colour of blood, which defines us’ (Handmaid’s, p. 18). Offred’s role in society is to provide children for the Commanders and their Wives; by dressing the Handmaids in red it defines them by their specific roles. Red, the colour of blood, is associated with menstruation and so their internal use is being reflected by the clothing. Red can also signify passion and lust, which is ironic due to these feelings being taken away from the Handmaids. The colour can be associated with an over-powering force, and here it also links to both life and death. There is also a focus on practicality, and not pleasure, as the shoes are designed to protect the spine which is important for child birth. The wings are significant as they are the only item of clothing that is white. White is a neutral colour which represents how their faces are separated from the body, suggesting they are not important unlike their bodies. They also provide a limited vision thus showing how their clothes are used as a restraint and to gain control. Offred describes herself as ‘a distorted shadow’ (Handmaid’s, p. 19) which demonstrates how her identity has been distorted and manipulated to fit the new regime. Offred’s walking partner, Ofglen, is described as ‘a shape, red with white wings around the face, a shape like mine, a nondescript woman […] looking down the white tunnels of cloth that enclose us’ (Handmaid’s pp. 28-29). Here, Offred feels that they have been reduced to shapes, rather than people, which demonstrates the degrading powers of clothing. Cynthia G. Kuhn suggests that ‘the coding of gender is an ongoing concern in Atwood’s writing, especially as it results in the marginalization of women, and dress plays a significant role in illuminating such displacement.’ (2) Colour reduces women’s status in Gilead, which links to Kuhn’s discussion. They are specifically segregated from the higher positions of men. Therefore, clothing and colour can be used to maintain control over the women in Gilead.

Although Gilead uses clothing to control, it can also signify small glimpses of a subverted freedom. An example is when the Commander takes Offred to Jezebels. Here, the women appear to have freedom over their clothes. They are bright, colourful and a clear contrast to the dresses of the Handmaids and Marthas. Yet, it represents an inverted freedom as all the clothes cover a limited amount of skin and are a mismatch of lingerie and costumes worn for male pleasure. Offred comments on her friend Moira’s outfit: ‘What is the significance of it here, why are rabbits supposed to be sexually attractive to men? How can this bedraggled costume appeal?’ (Handmaid’s, p. 251). Without anybody telling her, Offred assumes that the women dress to be sexually attractive to men. The repetition of questions implies Offred struggles to understand why it is necessary for them to be sexually appealing. Clothing still has limitations as it is worn for a specific purpose of appealing to men. Offred cannot decide if the women at Jezebels are happy:

‘At first glance there’s a cheerfulness to this scene. It’s like a masquerade party; they         are like oversized children, dressed up in togs they’ve rummaged from trunks. Is there      joy in this? There could be, but have they chosen it? You can’t tell by looking.’
(The Handmaid’s Tale, p. 247)

‘Masquerade party’ has associations with mystery and disguising identity. By describing them as children it suggests an innocence and child-like behaviour and that they are trying to be grown up or be people that they are not. These images of disguise and acting further supports how clothing is used to limit freedom in the text. Madonne Miner suggests ‘the “past” called up by the Commander, the past that brings delight into his voice, is one in which women are on display for men, and are dependent upon men.’ (3) This observation links to the subverted view of freedom present at Jezebels. The women are on display for the wealthier men of Gilead, and they rely on their lust and reluctance to let go of the past. The women at Jezebels may have more freedom than the Handmaids and Marthas, yet they are still required to follow the rules created by men. Clothing is used to control women and put them in specific roles, even when they have a small amount of freedom.

To conclude, in The Handmaid’s Tale, clothing is used to segregate and undermine women, forcing them into roles. New identities are created for the women and the clothes reinforce them, whilst stripping away their true identities as a method to gain control.

Featured image:

(1)   Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (London: Vintage Classics, 2010)

(2)   Cynthia G. Kuhn, Self-fashioning in Margaret Atwood’s Fiction: Dress, Culture, and Identity (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005), p. 22.

(3)   Madonne Miner, ‘”Trust Me”: Reading the Romance Plot in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale’, Twentieth Century Literature, 37.2 (1991), 148-168.

Written By Sophie Shepherd.
© The Literature Blog, 2018. All Rights Reserved.

2 thoughts on “The Relationship between Clothing and identity in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.”

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