I Feel Conflicted About This “Handmaid’s Tale” Fashion Show

And I guess that was the point.

Image: Sheila Sund

I know today everyone is up in arms about corporate sponsors pulling out of the Public Theater and Shakespeare in the Park’s production of Julius Caesar because (spoiler alert) the main guy dies at the end, but I have slightly smaller nit to pick with the business of entertainment culture. Namely: fashion. Last week on the Lower East Side, and independent fashion label called Vaquera, run by four friends, showed a collection of—what should we call them? clothes? dresses? garments? religiously oppressive coverings?—at a fashion show that was sponsored by Hulu, the VOD service that also produces original series, like the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Okay so that’s a lot. The garments are inspired by the show, the show is about an oppressive misogynistic theocratic regime in the not-too-distant future that uses fertile women as sex slaves for the heavenly sacrifice of saving civilization, and the show’s producer pitched in to pay for the whole thing to happen. It should be noted that the collection will not be available for sale, which I think is a very wise thing. It’s not like I’m against making statements with art, but I sort of thought that’s what Margaret Atwood was doing in the first place with her novel. The TV show is just the same thing in another medium, right? With like, additional plot points? So what does that make this fashion show?

To me, this feels like over-aestheticizing the full-body scarlet letter and sort of reducing it to an interpretation of a symbol, rendering it near meaningless while also bringing it into the spotlight? For one thing, it’s not the same as burqa- or chador-inspired fashions (however you may feel about them), in part because those are real garments that exist (in oppressive religions, indeed), and in part because those are theoretically targeted for people who will actually wear them.

So what is the viewer supposed to think about this collection? There is deliberately no prescription; it’s the ultimate fashion-world version of “makes u think.” You could really go down a rabbit hole about the meaning and symbolism of fashion here, but this is purely “conceptual” fashion, which is even more slippery and intangible—it can kind of be whatever it wants and just provoke. But since Hulu sponsored the collection, that sort of drains the blood from it, making it feel more like marketing for the show than an artistic statement. More than anything, looking at the Times slideshow just felt to me like the outtakes from a fashion-school prompt: how would you design the red dresses for Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale?”

Finally, I just wanted to highlight this bit because it’s soooooooooooo fashion:

The collection, which will not be available for sale, was conceived to reflect themes of oppression and empowerment. That duality seemed at first to be like black and white, but the Vaquera designers quickly realized how interconnected the two can be.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Goes High Fashion

Wow, deep. I think I’ll stick to gray.