The Handmaid's Tale

Look of the Week: June's black coat defiance on The Handmaid's Tale

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Jul 1, 2018

Welcome back to Look of the Week, celebrating the best in TV and film sartorial excellence, past and present across sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and other genre classics, plus the occasional red carpet style highlight.

Gilead is a color-coded clothing world: red for Handmaids, various shades of teal for Wives, a murky grayish-green for the domestic servant Marthas, and Aunts are clad in khaki-brown. The men of this dystopian society typically wear black; both the Commanders and the Guardians are dressed in dark clothes, giving an air of authority. But on The Handmaid’s Tale, there have been several opportunities to play with the clothing uniformity.

Women are only granted to wear the shade of dominant men when there has been a death. It reverts back to its role as mourning attire. As with the Riverdale’s River Vixen cheer squad, the Handmaids are also funeral-ready. The red cape and head-covering white wings are switched for black; red veils cover their faces. The opening sequence of episode 7, “After,” shows some of the casualties of the bombing: 31 red coffins for 31 handmaids (26 commanders also died in the attack). This is a funeral en masse.

The Handmaid's Tale
They move as one; the matching uniform still dehumanizes, and red chiffon-covered faces add to an already chilling tone. But when they remove that piece of material, the collective grief is potent. The Handmaids are one. The names of the dead are read out loud, memorialized in the limited capacity of their Gilead moniker. But these women will remember them. It is also worth noting that even before they remove the red chiffon, it is easy to spot June (Elisabeth Moss) in the crowd; her red scarf is the giveaway. Even when people are forced to wear the same things, there are a number of ways to individualize an ensemble.

At the start of Season 2, SYFY FANGRRLS spoke to award-winning Handmaid’s Tale costume designer Ane Crabtree to discuss the first three episodes. June spends more time out of her red garments than we had previously seen, as a result of the plan to get her out of Gilead before the baby is born. June was on the run, and the red dress, cape and wings do not make for a great getaway outfit. At the end of the premiere, June burns the clothes she has been forced to wear in an act of defiant symbolism.

The Handmaid's Tale
There is no post-Handmaid uniform makeover montage. Instead, she wears borrowed clothes gathered by Nick (Max Minghella) including a black hooded coat, the left-behind garments of the Boston Globe employees, and an outfit from the Econo home she takes refuge in. It wasn’t long before she was back in the all-too-familiar signature red Handmaid outfit — something that has become a symbol of defiance in the real world, but is a sign of Gilead oppression on The Handmaid’s Tale.

In the most recent episode, “Holly,” June is once again by herself out in the wilderness. She finds herself in the empty home of Commander and Mrs. Mackenzie. Escape is not easy, even with a car at her disposal. Nature is against her; a wolf and deep snow are just two of the obstacles. Being nine months pregnant doesn’t help. Even if she does maneuver the car out of the garage with its iced-over door, getting through heavily armed checkpoints in that red dress is unlikely. But she has to try.

Borrowed clothes are once again a necessity for survival, but her wardrobe options are limited. Wives are not allowed to drive, which means the easily recognizable items that mirror Serena Joy’s (Yvonne Strahovski’s) daily outfits are an instant no-go. On the surface, a Wife has more power than a Handmaid, but she is just as restricted by the archaic Gilead laws.

In the bedroom opposite, June finds the Commander Mackenzie's closet, containing a black overcoat to hide her red covered bump. Through her costume design, Crabtree uses clothes as a mirror to the world that was before Gilead — except this mirror is from a funhouse; everything is distorted and twisted out of shape. When June looks in the mirror dressed in black outerwear, she flashes back to her first pregnancy. In this scene we see her getting ready to go to a book launch party. The mood is relaxed as she tells husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) to not bother with a tie. Her black backless mini-dress hugs every single curve of that baby bump.

The Handmaid's Tale
This is not the shapeless Handmaid gown or even the white dress she wore in last week’s episode, “The Last Ceremony.” A white gown to represent purity and innocence, a bridal gown for a Handmaid that will never be married in this society. In an earlier flashback in “Holly,” June’s daughter Hannah refuses to let go of her mother to go into school. Here she is wearing a brighter pink than that of her Gilead attire. This moment of separation is a hard one, even with the knowledge that it is only for a few hours. Now June lives this moment as a forever reality. Seeing her daughter in Gilead for those brief precious moments doesn’t reopen the wound that has been there since day one. However, it shifts into focus that June is going to have another child torn from her.

Before June goes into labor there are decisions that need to be made. Options are always limited, but in “Holly” we see this character with more agency than she has had since her last escape plan went awry. She might not have the power of the Commander, whose coat she wears, but the mix of red and black gives an air of defiance. The masculine lines of the coat paired with the knitted convertible mittens give quite the visual. Weather informs layering costume design decisions — because The Handmaid's Tale shoots in Toronto during the winter — but there is something incredibly striking about the softness of the gloves with the stark black coat.

The Handmaid's Tale
Her solitude is interrupted by Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy. The latter finds June’s ditched bonnet and cape, suspecting the worst. Instead June is hiding on the third floor where she finds a shotgun and ammunition. Positioning herself as an unseen sniper she cracks open a window, watching the Waterford marriage crumble.

Fred snarks bitterly that even in death they will be bound, using June’s discarded cape as way to make a pointed statement, whipping it toward the woman he assaulted with his belt a few episodes prior. Clothes are a weapon. Bitter resentment feeds Serena Joy’s defiance as she repeats that she now has nothing after giving him everything. It's a bed of her own making.

The Handmaid's Tale
The black-coated sniper hears all of this through an open window, but she can’t pull the trigger even while wearing something that symbolizes the power of her oppressor. Later, June uses the gun for survival — not to shoot a person or the wolf that stalks the woods; instead to signal where she is. This baby is coming, and without medical help there is no way either will survive in solitude. 

In "Holly," June's options are limited, right down to the clothes she wears. But she doesn't have to wear the wedding dress like birthing frock, and she gets a moment with her baby before this cruel world seeps back in. In Gilead, this feels like a victory. Maybe, just maybe, this is the beginning of the end for this oppressive nation.