Women Talking costume designer Quita Alfred talks incorporating the film’s desaturated look into her designs, what Mariche’s (Jessie Buckley) dress says about her, and the costume journey the film takes with its trans character, Melvin (August Winter).
Women Talking costume designer Quita Alfred and director Sarah Polley go way back. In fact, thirty years ago, they worked on the television show Avonlea together.
“We did a lot of fittings together, and actually that informed our work together on this one,” says Alfred. “Having been an actor for so long, Sarah is very aware of the process of the costume department and Avonlea was a hugely costume-heavy show. Sarah’s experience helped and allowed me the tools I needed to spend as much time as I needed with the actors because she understands how important that is.”
Since the film has a distinct, desaturated look, courtesy of cinematographer Luc Montpellier, Alfred had to incorporate that style when choosing the colors and patterns for the costumes.
“What Luc and Sarah decided for the look of the film was to desaturate everything. It’s not so much of a wash, but the color saturation has been reduced. Absolutely, I had to consider what prints and what scale of print would survive that desaturation. We had so few details to work with in order to express character—you couldn’t add a big collar or earrings or lace or stiletto heels—so we had to use color or mood to differentiate. The scale of the pattern speaks to different temperaments.”
A perfect example is Jessie Buckley’s Mariche.
“[With] Mariche’s dress, her fabric looks like troubled waters. Both Sarah and I discussed [it], but Jessie really reacted well to that, too. We used addition or lack of work on the bodices. In the real communities, that’s one of the few things the women have as a means of expression. Jessie’s bodice has virtually nothing on it. It’s subliminally to imply that she has no room in her life for fripperies—it’s pure survival. She doesn’t have the extra energy to focus on herself.”
When it comes to what the women sleep in, practicality is key. There’s a reason why in the first scene of the film, where Rooney Mara’s Ona awakes, she looks almost like she’s tangled up in her sheets.
“The fabric of her nightie is almost the same as her sheets, and that’s because Mennonites, in my experience, are imminently practical and frugal and careful. Nothing goes to waste. What I discovered, through the help of my consultants and women in traditional Mennonite communities, is that the slip or nightie is the only other garment they might have. They might have a selection of dresses, but that slip, which they wear during the day as well, would be made out of old sheets or old curtains or leftover fabric. It would be rare for a woman to buy a particular fabric for undergarments.”
The film takes us on a journey for all of its characters, including Melvin as he transitions, played by non-binary actor August Winter. Not only did Alfred have to think about the sensitivity with this character, but also the logistics of how Melvin would acquire male clothing in a society that wouldn’t support him.
“We had a really interesting process. I found it really fascinating because we had to go from a feminine look in the beginning in the flashbacks, but without it being too much of a jump for one thing. I also discussed with August their level of comfort with wearing a garment that was so expressly female. We kept the silhouette quite simple in the female version of their costume, and then we moved into the male end of it. Since traditional Mennonite families are very big, we went with the idea that she as Nettie had a brother, and they, as Melvin, probably took a set of their brother’s clothing for example and adopted that as their own.”
Just as there’s more to the women than what appears on the outside, there’s more to the costuming, too. In fact, some of Alfred’s work can’t be seen on screen, but in the actors’ performances.
“We used costume techniques available to us, that you don’t see on camera, that are under the clothing to give the actors what they needed to piece together their character, whether it was body augmentation under the costume, or sometimes it was a restriction to help the actor to understand the feeling of having had 10 children and perhaps your torso is not in the best shape. There were a lot of things we did that were not seen on camera as costumes; but they are seen on camera as part of a performance, as aids to a performance.”
Women Talking is now playing.