Growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, costume designer Kuita Alfred felt a connection to the nearby Mennonite community. When he spoke to director Sarah Polley about working on his new film “Women Talking,” Alfred described the moment as “rather brutal.”
Adapted from the novel by Miriam Toews, “Women Talking” was inspired by a true story.
Alfred recalls Polley saying, “I’m Mennonite at heart [community] in North America, and if I can get a jump on it before we start preparing, I’ll probably be able to find almost everything we need.”
Alfred began by meeting Marien Hildebrandt, a well-connected, though less traditional, member of the Mennonite community in nearby Winkler. There, in the heart of Mennonite country, Alfred was able to buy clothes and accessories directly from local businesses. “We always joke in the movies, ‘Oh, I’ll run to the pirate store just for you!'” he laughs. “But in this case, I actually went to the Mennonite store several times and bought the prayer veil, or the actual fabric that the actual women in the more traditional colonies used.”
Once he had amassed a collection of dresses and fabrics, Alfred began grouping the families into color schemes and patterns. The Friesians, played by Rooney Mara, Claire Foy and Emily Mitchell, are intellectual characters, so Alfred sees them in blues and purples. “I always use the term ‘electric paint,'” she explains, and “small, repetitive patterns.”
As for the Lowens, which included Jesse Buckley, Alfred saw them as intuitive, describing them as “more emotion than intellect”. For their family, she chose “greens and browns and flowing shapes—swirling patterns and natural colors.” Regarding Buckley’s dress in particular, Alfred explains, “It almost looks like muddy water. Like stagnant water. Jesse responded to it immediately. There’s something beneath the surface with Loewen women.”
When it comes to the Janz family, and especially Frances McDormand’s “Scarface” Janz, Alfred recalls dried blood and rust, dark reds and blacks, “because they were so conservative and so traditional and unwavering in their opinions and beliefs. “
“Creating the costumes proved to be an exciting challenge because they look so complex,” says Alfred. The costume team spent hours doing pleating and other intricate handwork. Each dress has an underbody and a bib on top, which snaps over the left shoulder. Clothes are made to “defy the wearer,” he explains. “They are meant to remind them of their position below God and below the men of their families.” The dress also covered women in modest style and detail as well as kept modest.
In his research, Alfred learned that 500 years of Mennonite travel and tradition included many different styles and patterns. Puffed sleeves come from their early days of Dutch origin. As they moved to Prussia, Poland, they introduced floral prints. From Ukraine and Russia, they adopted bright colors in their prayer covers. “Because they’re a culture that’s so tied to their history and tied to tradition, they’ve stayed with them,” he says.