I get up out of the chair, advance my feet into the sunlight, in their red shoes, flat-heeled to save the spine and not for dancing. The red gloves are lying on the bed. I pick them up, pull them onto my hands, finger by finger. Everything except the wings around my face is red: the color of blood, which defines us.
Handmaids wear clothing made almost entirely of red (except for the white wings extending from their wimple). As Offred states, the color red symbolizes blood: the menstrual blood of the handmaids, necessary for conception but also a reminder of sexuality. Thus, the red clothing represents the dual symbolism of the handmaids’ fertility: their function and purpose as breeders, but also as objects of perversion in this repressed society.
Frowning, she tears out three tokens and hands them to me. Her face might be kindly if she would smile. But the frown isn’t personal: it’s the red dress she disapproves of, and what it stands for. She thinks I may be catching, like a disease or any form of bad luck.
Offred proposes one possibility for what the handmaid’s red dress represents to Serena Joy: Offred’s position as what is essentially a sex worker. In reality, however, the red dress reminds Serena Joy that she can’t fulfill a wife’s key marital role. Not only has Offred usurped Serena Joy in the couple’s bed, she also is their only means to have offspring. Thus, the red dress symbolizes Serena Joy’s loss of identity and her inability to satisfy her husband.
What if I were to come at night, when he’s on duty alone—though he would never be allowed such solitude—and permit him beyond my white wings? What if I were to peel off my red shroud and show myself to him, to them, by the uncertain light of the lanterns?
As Offred passes through the checkpoint manned by two young Guardians, her red clothing again takes on multiple symbolic meanings. She refers to her clothes as a shroud, indicating the hopeless nature of her role. She sees no chance of freedom in the future, only metaphorical death as she succumbs to her Commander and literal death if she were to rebel. At the same time, however, the red clothing symbolizes rampant sexuality as she plays with the idea of seducing the Guardian. In Gilead, the act of sex has become a mechanized, loveless, even masochistic act.
By now I’m wrung out, exhausted. My breasts are painful, they’re leaking a little. Fake milk, it happens this way with some of us. We sit on our benches, facing one another, as we are transported; we’re without emotion now, almost without feeling, we might be bundles of red cloth. We ache. Each of us holds in her lap a phantom, a ghost baby. What confronts us, now the excitement’s over, is our own failure.
Faced with Janine’s success at delivering a baby, each handmaid becomes more acutely aware of her failure. Every element of their identities has been stripped from them: No longer real mothers, no longer independent women, they have yet to fulfill their only purpose in Gilead and provide a child for their Commander. They have become simply a pile of “red cloth.” No person exists underneath the fabric, or if she does, she has no inherent meaning on her own.
The air is bright with adrenaline, we are permitted anything and this is freedom, in my body also, I’m reeling, red spreads everywhere . . . Now there are sounds, gasps, a low noise like growling, yells, and the red bodies tumble forward and I can no longer see, he’s obscured by arms, fists, feet. A high scream comes from somewhere, like a horse in terror.
As the women are given free rein and are even invited to attack the prisoner purported to be a rapist, they create a sea of red. At this instance, they are no longer individuals but simply a red force of vengeance, eager to take out their anger on any victim they can since in their daily lives, handmaids feel powerless. The red clothing of the handmaids comes to symbolize their shared fury at the society they now inhabit as well as the blood they are about to spill.