5 Questions with Quita Alfred, Costume Designer for ‘Women Talking’

Quita Alfred is a costume designer who has spent over 35 years in the film and television industry. She splits her time between Toronto and Winnipeg. She can be easily bribed with summa borscht. Her latest film, Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, opens everywhere January 20th. 

1. When did you first become interested in costume design?

When I was very young. My mom taught me to hand sew when I was about 4 yrs old, I think so that I would leave her alone for a bit on Saturday afternoons. Barbie was my early muse; she got a lot more beadwork than the women in our current film. I’m not sure why I didn’t consider fashion design more seriously. I’ve been known to be a bit dramatic; that might have a little bit to do with it. When I went off to what was then Ryerson in Toronto (now Toronto Metropolitan University) to study Theatre Production in 1982, I had opera design in mind. Then I went to a real opera. After I woke up, I decided that maybe that wasn’t the way for me. I sewed and was a dresser for theatre for a few years, and then decided I liked groceries, so I switched to film.

2. What was your reaction when Sarah Polley contacted you to do the costumes for Women Talking?

My first contact with the film was an email from our Toronto producer, Lyn Lucibello. I’d worked with Lyn a couple of times before, but not in the capacity of costume designer. When we spoke on the phone and Lyn told me that she and Sarah Polley had been sitting in her office going over a list of costume designers and my name had come up, I looked around my house for hidden cameras, as I thought I was being pranked. When Lyn mentioned Miriam’s name, too, I was done. Miriam’s one of my absolute favourite authors.
I hadn’t heard from Sarah in over thirty years at that point. I was the assistant costume designer on the CBC series The Road to Avonlea for several years. Since then, I had watched Sarah’s career from afar, watching her grow into the talented and articulate actor, activist, director, mother, author, and exceptional human being that she is today (she was always an exceptional human being, so no surprise there). When I finally had a Zoom with Sarah, of course there were tears all-round. Then I said, “You know I’m in Winnipeg, right? Just north of the heartland of Mennonite culture…”  “What?!”, she said. She didn’t even know I was from Winnipeg. I said, “If I’m given the time, I can find you the info you need for this story within 2 hrs of my front door.”

3. Can you explain the process of selecting and designing costumes for the film? What were some of the challenges in creating costumes for a film about Mennonites?

Biggest challenge was probably taking it easy on the plum platz when I went to visit people for stories.
I had the most amazing, gracious, generous, and kind help from so many people on this project. Growing up in Winnipeg, of course I thought I was familiar with Mennonite culture; so many of my friends, neighbours, teammates, teachers, babysitters, etc, were and are Mennonite. What I had was a casual, superficial knowledge of the culture. In true Manitoba/Mennonite fashion, however, after literally two phone calls, I was put in touch with a contact in southern Manitoba who introduced me to so many generous people, vendors, and resources, including contacts in Ontario (originally from MB, of course) who opened cultural doors for me that would have otherwise been very difficult to navigate.

It certainly cannot be said of the Mennonites that they have forgotten their history, so researching was a dream. Working within the very narrow parameters of Plain Dress was a challenge for someone who loves a sequin, but once I spent a couple of days in one of those pleated polyester beauties (shout-out Winkler MCC!), I fell in love with them and their practicality. You put one of those dresses in the washing machine and it comes out looking exactly the way it did when you scrunched it in there. Brilliant. Without lace, buttons (!) sequins and 5″ heels, I had to depend on colour, mood, and scale of pattern to differentiate the characters. I received the most wonderful anecdotal input when purchasing fabrics, for example. “Oh, my mother would have chosen this one. That one is too…!”

A lot of the costume work for this film is actually not seen “on camera”. We used body augmentation, restriction, size choice to suggest physicality for the actors. None of these women had given birth to 8 or 10 children, hadn’t spent 40 years doing back-breaking manual farm labour, for example. We altered bodies to suggest a different life than the ones the actors had lived. I asked the actors how my department could help add to their character development, and we came up with some great ideas, even including broken shoe straps, ill-fitting garments and hidden pockets under the dresses.

I would be lying if I didn’t mention that, convincing a world-renowned, international cast of actors that spending the summer in 38-degree heat in polyester was a good idea, wasn’t easy. Except for Ben Whishaw, our “August”. He was living the Schlaubeksjen Life (Shlaubexen? You guys and your oral language!) before he even got to us. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if he’d changed into his costume or not…I love him for that. He’s a gem.

I could never have done this work without the generosity and kindness of the Mennonite community. Out of respect, I wanted it to be right.

4. I’ve heard that Daily Bonnet articles were being shared on set. Can you elaborate? 

Well… Of course I started by sharing the Daily Bonnet Glossary of Mennonite Profanity. Torontonians aren’t always known for their, shall we say, “sociability”, so I wanted everyone to understand the humour that I knew and loved growing up in Winnipeg. Thankfully, we had one of the most wonderful groups of people ever to assemble to make a film, so the humour was much appreciated. I especially liked to share things from The Daily Bonnet with the cast, as many of them weren’t Canadian. It definitely helped set the tone, and Sarah really appreciated it, too. I can’t even remember which specific posts I sent out… many, many involved socks and sandals. It’s still difficult to explain to those Easterners what it’s like growing up somewhere other than the Centre of the Universe. I wanted them to have a taste…  Ask me another time about the mug my crew gave me as a wrap gift. Tante Quita will live forever.

5. The film, including your costumes, are getting rave reviews and high praise from everyone. What sort of reactions have you received from the Mennonite community? 

So far, only positive ones, thankfully! Let’s see what happens after this weekend (!) Sarah has told me that when she was showing the film before its release to specific Mennonite focus groups, she got very positive feedback about the costumes. I couldn’t be more honoured than that. I even met several Mennonite women in Los Angeles who came up to me after screenings and Q & A sessions, to talk about the costumes and their culture. Of course they were from Manitoba. Of course some were Loewens and Friesens, of course some of them had connections to my contacts in Manitoba and Ontario…  We’re/you’re everywhere! As I said before, out of respect for the generosity I was shown, I wanted to be as accurate as possible. Respect for the community, for the doors that were opened to me, the stories shared, and for my home. There was no reason to take license with these costumes, even for Hollywood consumption. The reality is fascinating enough.

I can’t wait to hear how Manitobans react to our film. Go see it!!!

(photo credit: Balthazar Alfred)