Every once and a while, you see a film that not only exceeds all expectations on screen, but also possesses momentous ability to change perspective and inspires learning, compassion, and understanding. Women Talking, directed by Sarah Polley, is one of those films. Recently, I attended a screening of Women Talking and admittedly, my perception of what I was about to watch was quite bleak, especially as a Marvel nerd and journalist who focuses entirely on costume design in film and television. But when I left the theaters that night I realized how entirely wrong my pre-conceived impression was. Women Talking and the costumes were beyond enlightening.
Costume designer Quita Alfred grew up around Mennonite culture in Winnipeg, Southern Manitoba. Because of this background and her connection to the community, Quita knew that there was only one way to go about this film; authentically and responsibly. Quita Alfred was the perfect costume designer for this project, and I was honored to be able to speak to her about her research and the costumes for Women Talking.
Photo: Costume Designer Quita Alfred at the opening of the “Women Talking: An Act of Female Imagination” exhibit at the FIDM Museum, Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (photo:Benjamin Shmikler/ABImages)
Spencer Williams: I fell in love with Women Talking and the costumes you designed. Perhaps from an outside perspective, this might seem like a simple film in terms of costume. But you and I both know that this is actually quite a complex project. Designing costumes for a Mennonite community… First, how familiar were you with this culture before you began the project?
Quita Alfred: Well, I thought I was familiar with it, and then I learned that was definitely not the case.
I grew up in Winnipeg, Southern Manitoba which is about four hours north of Fargo. It is definitely Mennonite country. It was one of the first places that the Russian Mennonites came to North America. In the 1870s, the Mennonites were granted land in southern Manitoba because they were renowned as hardy farmers and hardworking people. So they came and were allowed the ability to have their own schools and not send their children to the public school system. The Canadian government agreed to that in order to entice them. Because they are the resourceful and hardworking people that they are, they made Manitoba work for them.
I thought I was familiar with the Mennonite culture through foods, the language, industriousness culture, frugality, and practicality. But really, did not know about their history and their importance in genealogy to their culture. Through the help of two cultural consultants, I was led into the culture in a way that I would never have been able to if I had gone about this as just another research project. Through the kindness and generosity of these two women and the community that they introduced me to, I was able to do an amazing amount of research that I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.
I was able to learn about manufacturing techniques, find vendors, and learn about the cultural reasons behind the plain dress. I will be forever indebted to them. Out of that kindness that was afforded me, it was really important to me and still is that the costumes are as accurate as possible.
Spencer: These costumes are the real deal. They are authentic.
Quita Alfred: They are authentic. In fact, some of the garments on the background are real Mennonite dresses bought from real Mennonite women through yard sales or contacts. We used those in fitting our principal actors before we built the costumes for them and designed their costumes with references to the real thing. This way, the actors even had a chance to wear actual garments from people in the real community to get a sense of their characters and feel what it’s like to wear these garments.
Spencer: Wow. This is so fascinating. It’s so funny how you say you went in with one perspective, but you evolved as you started working on this project. Because that’s how I felt as an audience member. I went into this film with one idea, thinking everyone was going to be wearing just plain white dresses and bonnets. Which, I couldn’t have been more wrong! *laughs*
Quita Alfred: *laughs* Everybody who doesn’t know much about Mennonite culture likes to talk about bonnets.
Spencer: I don’t know why; I guess that is just that lazy, preconceived image in my head!
Quita Alfred: It’s a word that people know, and they associate it with Little House on the Prairie. Some Mennonite cultures do. Swiss Mennonites do. But our women are based on Russian Mennonite culture, which is slightly different. glad you got to have a new appreciation. Where I grew up, seeing women dressed the way the women in our film are, although they’re not quite as conservative as the community in our film, it’s perfectly normal to see a woman or a group of women get out of a minivan in a grocery store parking lot dressed the way the women in our film are. That was normal to me. What I didn’t know was the history behind all of it and the faith-based reasons behind the plain dress.
Spencer: That’s actually what I want to move into is the significance of the plain dress. The word is plain. The psychology behind this garment is plain, as it lacks buttons and zippers. But at the same time, I still wouldn’t categorize this look as plain because it’s actually quite sophisticated in the way these garments are constructed. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Quita Alfred: Thank you for saying so. It sounds like you’ve had a look up close at how they are constructed because that was definitely something that I did not know, and our cutter, Janice Skinner, and our whole team of sewers had to wrap our heads around.
I actually had a mockup made by a cutter in Winnipeg that was built completely differently from the way these costumes are. But eventually, we got some authentic garments, and we thought, “oh, that makes way more sense!”
As you said, plain is in the name, and plain dress refers to not simply a dress that is plain without adornment, but it refers to a way of dressing that adheres to tenants or ideas of modesty. There is a lack of pride, a lack of ostentatiousness. This is really in order to remind the wearer, which applies to the men as well, of their devotion to their place in the universe and to negate pridefulness, showiness, and competition. Imagine kids in junior high, everybody’s got to have that new pair of jeans or that new pair of runners, right? That is in some ways related to a type of uniform, but not for the same reasons that somebody wears a school uniform. Plain dress takes all of that preoccupation with the self out of the picture and focuses on, in this case, faith.
I loved discovering all of the reasons behind these things that I just assumed were very simple. I have about 530 of these dresses in my collection now. Every last one has snaps on the left shoulder and is constructed the same. It snaps off, and underneath that is essentially a snap-front blouse. That way, if you’re nursing one of your many children, you can very simply undo the under piece and expose a breast to nurse. Culturally, traditional Russian Mennonite women are very modest about exposing any part of their body. Even amongst women and their families. The design of these dresses makes that practical.
Spencer: Interesting. I also think a lot about restriction when I think of plain dress?
Quita Alfred: To a certain extent. Yes. There were restrictions for me as a designer, certainly, because there are very narrow parameters in which I could work. You can’t add jewelry, you can’t add lace, you can’t add a petticoat, and you can’t add four-inch heels.
When I first started researching, although I’d seen these dresses for fifty-something years in my life at this point, I didn’t understand how a woman with ten children who works on a farm for so many hours a day, has a lot of children, responsibilities, and housework, why they would want to wear a long-sleeved polyester dress all of the time? All of us contemporary, modern secular people balk at polyester. Why this seemingly impractical garment? Then I put one on, and my entire view changed.
You can move, and you’re protected from the elements. The long sleeves seem ridiculous. For example, you’re protected from the sun. You’re protected from dust, you’re protected from the work that you’re doing in a hayloft on a farm. You can move because of the pleats! And you put that dress into whether it’s a bucket to hand wash or into a managed washing machine, and it comes out exactly the way it went in. Once I figured that out, and I’d washed and dried a few, I just remember thinking… “I get it. I get it now.”
Spencer: I didn’t think of it like that. It makes sense. The whole story within this film is about these women trying to protect each other, and they’re protecting themselves with their clothing as well. You have such a wealth of knowledge. You’re giving historian vibes right now, and I feel like I could talk to you forever.
Quita Alfred: That’s a high compliment. Spencer, thank you. Because that’s my jam. Research is my jam.
Spencer: Research is C O O L! *laughs* You mentioned a major piece of this film was relying on the actual Mennonite community in regard to sourcing and research. Did you feel like there was an openness on their part?
Quita Alfred: My experience with the Mennonite culture has always, even before I knew any of this and did any of this research, been one of generosity and kindness. This experience was a reinforcement of that. People were, were happy to share with me. Not because they knew I needed to make a fancy movie but because they knew I had a need. Because I had a question that needed answering. They have a tradition of service to others in their community.
A curious thing about this film is that many of the women who live this way will never see this film. They were very curious as to why I would be interested in their culture and be interested in their way of making things.
Spencer: To me, it sounds like it’s more about them wanting to tell their story, and they trusted you to tell their story, authentically. It’s about sharing their history, their knowledge, and their story with you to portray an accurate, authentic depiction of their lives… Which I think is quite beautiful.
Quita Alfred: I hope you’re right. Thank you, Spencer.
Spencer: Moving back to the textiles and the colors, I was struck by the use of textiles and colors in this film as they were clearly significant to the overall storytelling. The colors said a lot about the character, who they are, and where they are going. Is that fair to say?
Quita Alfred: Yes, absolutely. And thank you for noticing that because we had so few details to work with. As I said, we had to work within very narrow parameters and try to subtly and almost subliminally differentiate characters.
I broke the families into three groups. The three main families in the story are the Friesen women, the Loewen family, and Scarface Janz’s family. To keep them all straight because there are so many characters and families, I divided them into moods. For me, I specifically assigned colorways, but I did it more instinctively. I spoke with Sarah and eventually the actors about this, but they were more forthright in their reactions.
I was drawn toward pure colors for the Friesen family. We used more purples, the strong blue. Repetitive, regular patterns with forward movement in my mind
The Loewens wore more natural colors, greens, browns, and rusts with more open patterns. There were less constricted shapes in the patterns, which were murkier and less defined because of my interpretation of their characters. There was more going on under the surface with them. That was more emotionally motivated. So we’ve got instinct, with the Loewens, and intellect with the Friesens. Neither is more important than the other. They are just different reactions to the same problem.
Then there was Scarface Janz’s family which is particularly traditional. They represented immovability. I didn’t want to put everybody in black, even though the older women would traditionally wear plain black as well.
Spencer: One costume that stood out to me was Mejal’s (Michelle McLeod) dress. I was struck by the vibrancy.
Quita Alfred: That was probably one of the brightest fabrics in our ensemble. And that piece is the only one that isn’t made of polyester. That’s one I found that I just fell in love with, and I had to have it. And then Sarah fell in love with it, and we needed to get it in the movie. It was so exuberant, we thought Mejal was the girl for that. But ironically, it was the hardest dress to keep track of and to take care of because it moved, whereas the polyester just did what you told it to do. The rayon stretched. It that was a real-life example of why women use the fabrics that they do.
Spencer: This film was equally as powerful as it was personal. In order to make this film work, I imagine you had to work very closely with the cast. I would love to hear about your collaboration with director Sarah Polley and the incredible cast, which includes Claire Foy, Rooney Mara, Jesse Buckley, Judith Ivy, and Francis McDermott incredible cast.
Quita Alfred: It is an incredible cast, and among so many things, everything about this film was special for me and unlike any other professional experience. Mainly because of the support from Sarah and from the producers, the collaboration with the cast, which is also almost unprecedented for me as a designer.
I’ve known Sarah since she was young because I was the assistant costume designer on Road to Avonlea. She’s always in my mind, and still is of course, this bright spark. As a child, she was wise beyond her years as well as poised and mature. Although I didn’t see her for thirty years after that experience, I watched her blossom into this amazing actor, a thoughtful feminist, an activist, a director, and an artist. I was not in the least bit surprised because I knew her as a child to be, to have the potential to be those things.
She is so supportive. She is confident enough in herself and in her work to allow collaboration, which is a rare thing in the film industry. It was an amazing collaboration.
Our producers were amazingly supportive too. Lyn Lucibello, Dede Gardner… and Frances McDormand was one of our producers as well. I’ve never worked in a situation where I’ve had so much support and respect. It was an amazing way to work.
Spencer: Overall, what do you hope audiences take away from this film?
Quita Alfred: Well, you just said the word. Hope. Although there is difficult material to deal with including sexual assault, and domestic violence. I would \ like to stress that this is not a story about something that happens to Mennonite people in a Mennonite community. Sexual violence and the pervasiveness of domestic violence are in every culture. Our film just happens to take place in this community. It is a universal, scourge on human beings. I hope, and I think Sarah would agree with me on this, that this film reminds people that people can change lives. There is hope even in the most challenging situations.
I told you about how my mind was changed after putting on one of those dresses. There is that idea of letting go of judgment and subjective opinions. I had many subjective opinions about it the culture and the look of plain dress going into this. I had my mind changed, and I love when that happens.
Spencer: That’s beautiful. Personally, I really took in a whole new appreciation and understanding of this culture but also just reinforced that idea of learning. Never stop learning and do the research, because not everything is as it seems.
Quita Alfred: You’re exactly right. That’s, that’s a really great way of putting it, learning, never stop learning, and challenging your ideas about things.
Spencer: Thank you so much Quita, for joining me. I really loved this conversation. I feel like I’ve learned so much and I am feeling so inspired to keep learning. This was just such a beautiful film, and I really enjoyed this.
Quita Alfred: Same here. I enjoyed meeting you and speaking with you, Spencer. Thank you so much for taking the time and asking such thoughtful questions. And uh… if you want a dress, I can hook you up. I have millions *laughs*
Spencer: Don’t play with me right now. You know I would absolutely take you up on this! *laughs*