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How "Women Talking" costume maker Quita Alfred Obtained Clothing From a Mennonite Community

Quita Alfred, a costume designer, grew raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and always felt a connection to the Mennonite community there. Alfred views the conversation she had with "Women Talking" director Sarah Polley as being "very serendipitous."

Swati Bhat

Credit: ©Orion Pictures Corp/Courtesy Everett Collection

I'm in the Mennonite [community] of North America, and if I can get a jump on this before we start prep, I'm likely to be able to find practically everything that we need, Alfred recalled telling Polley.

Alfred first had a meeting with Marianne Hildebrand, a prominent but non-conformist Mennonite living in nearby Winkler. There, in the heart of Mennonite territory, Alfred had access to local shops where he could buy clothes and accessories. “We always joke in the movies, ‘Oh, I’ll just run to the pirate shop for you!’” she laughs. “But in this case, there were a number of times I actually did go to the Mennonite shop and buy prayer coverings, or the real fabric that the real women in more traditional colonies use.”

Alfred started organising the families into colour schemes and patterns once she had gathered a collection of garments and textiles. As intelligent characters, Alfred envisioned the Friesens—played by Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, and Emily Mitchell—in blues and purples .“I always use the word ‘electric colors,’” she explains, and “small, repeating patterns.”

Alfred perceived the Loewens, which included Jessie Buckley, as intuitive and said that they were "more feeling than intellect." She "chose swirly designs and natural colours - greens and browns and flowing shapes" for their family. Alfred goes on to say about Buckley's clothing, "It nearly looks like murky water. like tumultuous water. Jessie immediately replied to it. With the Loewen women, there is something hidden.

Alfred used dark red and black to represent the Janz family, and especially Frances McDormand's 'Scarface' Janz, "because they were so rigid and so conventional and so immovable in their convictions and their values."

The gowns are "a lot more intricate than they look," according to Alfred, so making them proved to be a fun task. The costume team worked on pleating and other intricate tasks for hours. Each dress has a bib over the top that snaps on the left shoulder as well as an underbodice. She argues that the garments are designed to "negate the wearer." They are designed to serve as a reminder of their inferior status to both God and the male members of their family. To keep the women covered and modest, the dresses are also modest in style and design.

Alfred discovered from her research that over the course of 500 years, Mennonite custom and travel had embraced a variety of designs and patterns. Puffed sleeves date back to their early Dutch origins. They introduced floral designs as soon as they arrived in Prussia, Poland. They incorporated vivid colours into their prayer cloths, absorbing them from Russia and Ukraine. They have persisted with them, she claims, "because they are a culture that is so wedded to its history and bound to tradition."


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