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How Women Talking’s Costume Designer Brought Mennonite Tradition to the Screen

Quita Alfred talks working with members of the religious community, putting herself in the shoes of Mennonite women, and learning to appreciate plain dress.

A still from the movie, Women Talking
Photograph by Michael Gibson

The costumes are probably the last thing you noticed in Women Talking, Sarah Polley’s powerful adaption of the Miriam Toews novel of the same name. That’s not because they aren’t well-done or interesting—they were designed to blend in. A story of women forced to reckon with and respond to violence they experienced at the hands of men, Women Talking transports you to a Mennonite community in southern Manitoba. It’s a world where clothing options are limited, and “plain dress” is the norm for women. “It’s a term that refers to dressing modestly, dressing in keeping with their religious faith,” Quita Alfred, Women Talking’s costume designer, told W. Alfred worked hard to make the portrayal of Mennonite women an accurate one, speaking with members of the religious community in the southern regions of Canada to determine the design, patterns, and fabrics used among these communities in real life.

For, Alfred, entering the world of the Mennonites was a bit like returning home. The costume designer grew up in Winnipeg, where many of these ultraconservative communities find themselves. “I was familiar with Mennonite culture in that it’s very normal to go into a grocery store in Winnipeg and see women dressed the way they are in our film,” she said. With the help of Mennonite women Alfred now calls her “lifelong friends,” she was able to create accurate pieces to fully immerse the viewer in story—while also including symbols through fabric and subtle design choices that moved the narrative along.

What was one aspect of Mennonite dressing you learned through your research that surprised you?

Though they seem simple, Mennonite clothes have 500 years of history distilled into them. The florals, the shapes of the sleeve, the length of the skirt, the choice of pleating on the bodice or not; there are very few places in a really traditional community like that where the women are allowed to express themselves. Something as simple as trim, for example, is frowned upon. So, many of the women expressed themselves in the work on their bodices and in the choice of the vivacity of a print.

August (Ben Whishaw) with Ona and Salome Friesen (Rooney Mara and Claire Foy).

Photograph by Michael Gibson

How did you go about doing that?

I divided the main families in our story by mood. Within those groups, we chose colors and patterns we felt would best express the characters and help the actors build their roles through costume.

For example, there was Scarface Janz’s family, Frances McDormand’s character and her daughters. They were the most conservative and unmoving. What came to mind for me were the colors of dried blood and rust: things that haven’t moved for ages. Scarface was meant to be a seamstress in our film. So I felt—and I discussed this with Fran—one of the few places she might have to express herself in such a conservative society would be in her handwork. We did a lot of fussy work on Fran’s bodices. It subliminally displays a bit of her pride.

Jessie Buckley as Mariche Loewen.

Photograph by Michael Gibson

It also seemed like the woman could express themselves through their hair and accessories, like prayer covers.

To a certain extent. Those beautiful braids are, again, one of the few places that the women have to express themselves, but even that is just at a young age, because as soon as the women are married, they are meant to don a prayer covering. Conformity is the norm and is the goal for men and women, but particularly for women. You’ll notice that Ona, Rooney Mara’s character, does not wear one, even though she’s pregnant and in her mid-thirties. That is definitely an act of defiance.

Alfred on set.

Photograph by Michael Gibson

Where did you source the fabrics and the pieces? Were they from the Mennonite community?

They’re all from real Mennonite communities. There are fabric stores in Winnipeg, for example, that have a whole separate section—with a separate entrance and everything. They sell only to religious colonies. They exclusively carry the types of things those communities buy, the florals they like, the poly-cotton denims they like to use for overalls.

I saw somewhere that you tried on a dress at one point. What was that like?

It was really revealing. I thought, “Wait a minute: why would a farm wife with 10 or 15 children want to spend the day in a long-sleeve polyester dress in the heat, in the dust, in the sun? There;s something I’m missing.”

I was lucky enough to find some real dresses early on. I put them on and started jumping around my studio in Winnipeg, thinking, “What the heck? Why? They don’t even have pockets.” As I spent time in the dresses, I started to understand. They’re immensely practical. You can move, lift your leg, step over a fence. If you’re nursing five children under four, which is sometimes the case in very conservative communities, the piece of the bodice unsnaps at the left shoulder, so you can nurse and still be discreet. But the biggest thing I found was when I threw them in the washing machine, they came out exactly the way they went in. I thought, “Okay, the polyester is making more sense to me now.”

Mara in Women Talking.

Photograph by Michael Gibson

Except for the lack of pockets?

That part, I couldn’t wrap my head around. But then I found out there are faith reasons for that: The lack of pockets means there’s no place for idle hands, which to a modern woman, again, seems restrictive. But this is a tenet of the Russian Mennonite faith.

Judith Ivey and Foy in Women Talking.

Photograph by Michael Gibson

Is it true that one time, some of the actors went to grab Starbucks in costume?

It was hilarious. This was during the height of Covid, so we were in a convention center and there was a Starbucks across the street. Sheila [McCarthy] went to get a coffee between setups. Apparently a girl in Starbucks who was in her early twenties said, “Oh, I love your dress.” At that time, fashion magazines were writing about this boho-prairie-chic thing going on.

Yeah, we actually recently published a piece about prairie girl style. It’s definitely in right now.

I know. Sarah and I were asking, “Did we start this, or did we jump on this?”

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