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Interview: ‘Women Talking’ Costume Designer Quita Alfred Discusses Her Most Collaborative Project Yet

United Artists Releasing

Leave or fight? That’s the question at the heart of Women Talking, Sarah’s Polley’s fourth feature as a director. The film tells the story of a group of women in an isolated Mennonite community who must decide what to do in the wake of decades of horrific violence against them. Adapted from Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel, the film discusses trauma, faith, and how those who have been silent can finally use their voice. Women Talking’s ensemble cast includes Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Frances McDormand, and Rooney Mara, stuck in their small world; the only world they’ve ever known.

Costume Designer Quita Alfred’s path to designing the clothes of Women Talking began decades earlier. “[Sarah Polley] and I worked together long ago in a TV series called The Road to Avonlea when she was an actor and I was an assistant costume designer. So hearing Sarah’s name attached to this film…I was thrilled!”

Alfred’s hiring also had a touch of serendipity, “I said to Sarah, you know I’m right here in Mennonite country’ and she said ‘What are you talking about?’” Alfred lives in Manitoba, where a large Russian Mennonite community hails. “Seeing women and men in plain dress here in Winnipeg is a completely everyday experience. I can go to the Walmart, that’s just a couple 100 yards from my house here and see people virtually every day dressed almost like the women in our film are.”

When researching the costumes for Women Talking, Alfred was able to become fully immersed in the Mennonite community. Through modern Mennonite consultant Marianne Hildebrand and her friend Esther Jansen, “I had doors open that I would never have had [otherwise]. I had access to vendors that they use, I had access to people who are specialists in making very specific men’s overalls… people who knew about putting the ribbons in a very traditional and specific way onto the straw hats.”

“Out of respect to the community that we were dealing with. I wanted these costumes to be as accurate as possible. Divisions happen within churches about the discussion of whether women should be allowed to have buttons on their dresses on the outside or not let because is that too prideful? Is that too ostentatious?” Alfred said. The particular accuracy also helped to define the time period and specific sect of Mennonite tradition. “Here in Winnipeg I might in a day see six or seven different types of prayer covering who then I can tell are from different churches or different towns because of what the women have on their heads. Each little group has their own specific [customs] and prayer coverings are important because it also signifies married or unmarried. Which is why Rooney Mara’s character not wearing one is a quite rebellious thing.”

With such a large cast of characters, Alfred defined groups of the ensemble through the design of their plain dress clothing. “I assigned a color palette to each of the families, based on my interpretation of the family’s reactions in the story. [Salome’s  family] had a more intellectual response to the questions. I used…reliable patterns, forward moving lines, pure colors, blues, purples, bright colors. Opposed to [Greta’s Family], their reactions were more instinctive. What spoke to me for them were wider patterns. less regulated, less regimented…more natural colors like greens…closer to the reactions of a creature in a natural world. Frances McDormand’s character’s family were ultra conservative, which spoke to me of things that didn’t move. I always make this gesture like if you’re trying to open an old rusty gate. So colors like rust and dried blood and dark burgundy and old immovable ideas came to me with small patterns that make the characters seem less visible, less forceful in their opinions.”

“The color of our film is very desaturated. Within those color groupings, I then had to figure out which patterns and scale what scales of things would survive that desaturation. It had to be something the audience wouldn’t get tired of looking at, that would help us differentiate characters easily.”

On how Alfred approached costuming Melvin, actor August Winter helped provide insight on how their character would approach the male vs. female dress conventions. “August gave me a lot of really great input about how they felt Melvin would feel or what they would wear when presenting as a female. Instead of more traditional, curved, shaped, we kept it straight. It was very revealing and fascinating for me to hear from August and their interpretation because these are details that I would not have considered personally.”

For Ben Whishaw’s character August, Alfred drew on the character’s desire for conformity in his costume design. “He’s a gentle, expressive man, and even the men in his community judge him for the way he presents himself. All his stuff was vintage and washed to death. They were welcoming and easy and soft. If kind were a word that you could use to describe fabric.”

Alfred also took careful attention to the construction of undergarments and how they could inform the actors’ performances. “What it might feel like to have breasts that have nursed 15 children and how does your back feel? Do you need stomach support when you sit because you have had so many children? Is your back sore because you do breath breaking hard farm work all day? So we did a lot of things like that under the costumes that will never be seen as a costume, but will come through in performance.”

The construction of the garments was aided by the Mennonite women who helped guide Alfred’s research. “I was given original authentic patterns for dresses. It was a little reverse engineering and a little bit of archeology. I had hundreds of pairs of [overalls], shirts, and hats done in the community. Then my amazing work room reverse engineered the real thing. They replicated beautifully the things that these women would be making themselves on their kitchen table.”

Alfred’s time learning from and working with the local Mennonite community and the people behind Women Talking made the project one of the highlights of her career. “The collaborative aspect of filmmaking is really appealing to me. This production was the most collaborative, respectful, creative, and supportive experience [I’ve had]. I choose to do nothing but films like that from now on.”

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Written by Leila Jordan

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