As President Trump spoke in Poland on Thursday, a small group of women gathered in Warsaw to oppose him. Draped in ruby red cloaks and wearing white bonnets, the women stood silently together, eyes forward, as news photographers snapped their picture and demonstrators around them chanted and held signs.
These are the Handmaids — and they’ve gone global.
Ever since Hulu began promoting its television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year, legions of women have found inspiration in the show’s costumes as they look for new ways to oppose the Trump administration and Republicans nationally. Raging against an agenda they see as anti-women, Handmaids have been spotted protesting in Texas, Ohio, New Hampshire, Missouri, New York, and, of course, Washington, DC.
The speed with which the Handmaid look has spread among activists has shocked the show’s costume designer, Ane Crabtree. “I’ve been designing for 28 years now but I have never in my life experienced anything like this. Not even close,” Crabtree told BuzzFeed News.
“It seemed to set off like wildfire around the country,” she said.
Set in a dystopian future, Atwood’s 1985 book imagined a world where the US government has been replaced with an ultraconservative theocracy in a new country named Gilead. Women are banned from working in the militarized state and divided into social classes — the lowest being Handmaids, who are kept as slaves and raped in order to produce children. Atwood said in February she believed that Trump’s election was partly responsible for the book’s recent spike in sales. (Through her agent, the author declined to comment for this story.)
While Hulu representatives were not keen to discuss politics, the television adaptation has been the inspiration for the Handmaids protest movement. In early March, the company hired actors to wear the costumes and walk around Austin’s South by Southwest festival to promote the show. The stunt caught the eye of Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. “Please tell me they’re going to walk around inside the [Texas] Capitol,” Busby wrote in a Facebook post. “It would be such a missed opportunity if they don’t.”
The idea quickly turned into action, as a small group of NARAL supporters began planning a protest of Texas Senate Bill 25 — which supporters say is designed to stop doctors being sued if a child is born with a disability, but which critics contend would lead to doctors lying to women about the health of their fetuses. NARAL reached out to Crabtree for advice, and although she couldn’t give them the exact design specifications, she did send some tips for how best to create the look.
The women quickly ordered Handmaids costumes online, but when the costumes arrived the cloaks were pink instead of red, NARAL supporter Erin Walter told BuzzFeed News. One of the women raced to an Austin costume rental store and managed to find several “Red Riding Hood” cloaks, Walter said.
Walter, a Unitarian Universalist minister, said donning the costume for the first time felt like a “sacred” moment. “It really was an emotional experience,” she said. “I was not prepared for how haunting and powerful it would feel to put on that red robe and bonnet.”
Photos from the March 20 demonstration at the Texas Capitol immediately went viral and inspired other actions, for which Walter gives credit to Busby’s initial idea. (Busby was on vacation and not available to comment for this story, a NARAL spokesperson said.)
“Heather Busby had a genius idea,” said Walter, “because we have there the intersection of literature — many women love that book — as well as a pop culture moment, thanks to the show. Then we also have a time in our country when women’s rights are under attack.”
For Crabtree, the Hulu costume designer, fashion and costume have always been a mode for self-expression and politics, dating back to the period she spent studying abroad in the UK in the 1980s. “The whole punk movement was very educational for me in terms of what people could do to protest politically,” she said.
Crabtree believes the simplicity and symbolism of her costumes have helped them spread in reaction to the conservative shift in US politics.
“I just think that it’s easy for folks because it’s the color red. It’s like an alarm call,” she said. “It’s something that is considered present day but speaks to a past time when women had no rights, so it’s got a duality in its visual strength in putting out a message where you don’t have to say a word.”
Crabtree said part of the costumes’ strength as a protest symbol is the juxtaposition it creates when Handmaids wander among the general public. “Because everyone is dressed in suits or business attire. It’s a beautiful, shocking visual — most especially in mass,” she said.
Stephanie Martin, an Austin-based teacher who joined later Handmaids protests, said the general public interacts with her differently when she wears the costume than they do when she's in regular clothing. “When people around you see you, you can feel them reacting sometimes,” she said. “You can feel them reacting to it, whether they’re angry or sad. It’s a very charged atmosphere once a Handmaid enters the room.”
Handmaids have been protesting since before the Hulu show first aired. In April 2012, a group of Canadian women wearing red cloaks and winged, white hats — similar to the cornettes worn in the sitcom The Flying Nun — appeared outside the parliament building in Ottawa. Dubbing themselves the Radical Handmaids, the women found inspiration in the Atwood novel to oppose a motion by a Conservative Party MP to debate when human life begins. “The Handmaids Tale is not an instruction manual,” their protest signs read.
“We wanted to do something that was colorful, cultural, and creative, and wasn’t your typical blah-blah rally,” Aalya Ahmad, a Carleton University adjunct professor and Radical Handmaids founder, recalled to BuzzFeed News. “With a little group like ours that didn’t have many resources, we thought we could do something I like to call ‘cause-play’ — rebels with a cause.”
The motion to reopen the abortion debate in Canada was not ultimately successful in parliament, but the Radical Handmaids continued to organize and appear at subsequent events in Canada.
Then earlier this year, the group, which consists of about 10 women but has more than 2,000 followers on Facebook, began noticing the red and white costumes popping up south of the border.
Handmaids now trade fabric tips and sewing patterns with protesters across the country via Facebook, Martin said. “Man, we’ve got it down to an art now. We can whip them out pretty quick,” she said.
On Twitter, Atwood reacts with delight each time someone flags a new Handmaids protest. “My goodness!” she exclaimed on Thursday in response to the protesters in Poland.
Crabtree, meanwhile, is preparing to return to the Hulu show for its second season, mindful of the impact her work has already had on protest culture. “I’d like to just start with something in a purist way as an artist and as a collaborator, and design something wholly because of story,” she said. “But I’m not gonna lie: it’s now in the back of my mind.”
The Austin-based teacher who joined the Handmaids protests is Stephanie Martin. A previous version of this story used an incorrect surname.