Backstage after Shayne Oliver’s debut at Helmut Lang, he lamented what he perceived to be the hollow politicization of fashion week: “No one was creating solutions for the problems—just talking about it,” he said. But that hasn’t stopped aestheticized takes on social and political issues from showing up on the runway, whether at Dior, where Maria Grazia Chiuri debuted a new series of t-shirts stating, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”—a reference to a seminal essay by art historian Linda Nochlin—or, more recently, at Vera Wang, where the designer incorporated oversized bonnets à la Handmaid’s Tale into her Spring 2018 collection.
In fact, they weren’t just Handmaid’s Tale-like—they were pulled directly from the Margaret Atwood tale, which Wang read, and watched, over the summer, just like the rest of us. “The loss of any personal freedom, the fear of retribution, the cruelty of forcing women to be so stratified and categorized, and most of all having to obliterate their pasts and their identities is something so profoundly troubling,” Wang wrote in a statement.
But for Spring 2018, Wang traded a symbol of oppression in for creative freedom, swapping the white bonnets of Offred and her peers for black and pairing them with deconstructed and repurposed interpretations of classics like corseting, plaid suiting, and Vera Wang trademark darkly romantic gowns. (“Control ultimately begets self-expression,” she continued, according to Vogue.) The Handmaid’s Tale was always dark and subversive—and Vera Wang’s Spring 2018 takes that darkness literally, filled with all-black looks punctuated by glitter and plaid. It makes The Handmaid’s Tale’s most striking visual signifier—the “wings” that prevent the titular cadre of Handmaids from engaging with, or even seeing, their surroundings, and prevent observers from viewing their faces (thus rendering them all, essentially, the same, at least visually)—part of a wardrobe predicated on individuality. Plus, pairing the Handmaid's bonnets with some decidedly non-Gilead-appropriate slips, chain mail minidresses, and sheer diaphanous gowns is certainly a subversive touch worthy of Atwood.
Wang is not the first designer to seek inspiration in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel. In fact, independent New York-based upstart Vaquera received Hulu’s stamp of approval for a collection based on The Handmaid’s Tale series over the summer. Their interpretation, however, was a bit more of a performance of its references. Models trotted down the Vaquera runway hitching up their skirts and vamping for the camera, with one woman even pausing to give another a quick kiss before shoving her away.
“The thing that I keep on saying is that it is really relevant right now, but people have been oppressed forever, so it’s always a relevant time for this, no matter who’s in the White House,” designer Claire Sully said at the time, adding that the Trump election last year “definitely influenced our rage.” She continued: “But in a way, that rage should always be there. Because all this is always happening.”