‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Author’s ‘Frightening’ Inspiration for Handmaid Outfits

The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most famous TV shows of modern times — and the most well-known images from the series is the handmaid’s outfits. During an interview, Handmaid’s Tale author Margaret Atwood discussed the origins of the outfits. Interestingly, she took inspiration from many sources, including an image that frightened her.

Elisabeth Moss with awards surrounded by women dressed in Handmaid's Tale outfits
Elisabeth Moss with women dressed in Handmaid’s Tale outfits | Todd Williamson/Getty Images for Hulu

Margaret Atwood reveals why outfits matter so much in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

Like many dystopias, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a totalitarian regime. Atwood noted how many such regimes attached great significance to clothing. “Many totalitarianisms have used clothing, both forbidden and enforced, to identify and control people — think of yellow stars and Roman purple,” she told The New York Times.

For context, Jewish people were forced to wear yellow stars in Nazi Germany. In addition, Roman purple clothing was seen as a status symbol in the ancient world because purple dye was very expensive.

Margaret Atwood reveals how religion, cans, and Victorians inspired ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ outfits

Subsequently, Atwood explained where her ideas for the clothing from The Handmaid’s Tale came from. “The modesty costumes worn by the women of Gilead are derived from Western religious iconography — the Wives wear the blue of purity, from the Virgin Mary; the Handmaids wear red, from the blood of parturition, but also from Mary Magdalene,” Atwood wrote.

For context, the Virgin Mary was Jesus Christ’s mother while Mary Magdalene was his most famous female follower and she’s sometimes depicted wearing red or having red hair. “Also, red is easier to see if you happen to be fleeing.”

A trailer for The Handmaid’s Tale

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In addition, Atwood discussed how cans inspired the outfits. “I must confess that the face-hiding bonnets came not only from mid-Victorian costume and from nuns, but from the Old Dutch Cleanser package of the 1940s, which showed a woman with her face hidden, and which frightened me as a child,” Atwood revealed. The cans showed women with sticks who were chasing dirt away. According to Paste, she said she found the women on the Old Dutch Cleanser cans mysterious when she was young.

A Handmaid’s Tale trailer

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A fashion designer who worked on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ speaks out

Of course, Atwood is responsible for the novel The Handmaid’s Tale. However, she’s not the creator of the outfits for the series. Natalie Bronfman serves as the costume designer for the series. According to Paper, she and her team drew a little from mid-20th century fashion while designing the clothes for the show. Bronfman said this was because The Handmaid’s Tale is partially about how women were expected to act during an earlier time period. Bronfman said there are few shows whose costuming have made such an impact as The Handmaid’s Tale. Those costumes certainly wouldn’t be the same if Atwood hadn’t described them in her book.

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