The Powerful Meaning Behind the Dresses in Sarah Polley’s ‘Women Talking’

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As “Women Talking” costume designer Quita Alfred was prepping for the critically-acclaimed film, she’d often send director Sarah Polley photos she’d come across of the so-called #cottagecore aesthetic.

“It was funny, like, ‘Oh, on page 72 on of Vogue magazine…’ and we laughed because, yes, it’s attractive in many ways, but what it represented to us was so very different,” she says.

The film — based on the 2018 Miriam Toews novel of the same name (and inspired by a true story) — chronicles eight women from two families across three generations, who hold a clandestine meeting in a barn hayloft and, upon the discovery that local women have been repeated victims of horrific crimes committed by the men in their unnamed religious colony (Mennonite in the book), deliberate whether to stay and fight or leave into a world completely foreign to them.

The women are illiterate (only boys can go to school), but share, debate, waver and decide while clad in Mennonite “plain dress.” The traditional puff-sleeve, cinched waist, midi-length A-line silhouette, often covered in floral prints, has now been translated — or co-opted, as fashion is wont to do — into glossy editorials, TikTok trends and this writer’s closet, under the guise of #cottagecore.

“We had a lot of conversations about that look, when in fact [the traditional dress] was meant to be repressive, as a form of submission,” says Alfred, “to remind the women of their submission to their God, to their men and their families — which was really ironic, then, when we would see the fashion spreads of all this beautiful ‘boho’ [styles.]”

Left to right: Mejal (Michelle McLeod), Greta (Sheila McCarthy), Neitje (Liv McNeil, back), Mariche (Jessie Buckley, front), Salome (Claire Foy), Autje (Kate Hallett, sitting on ground), Ona (Rooney Mara) and Agata (Judith Ivey) in the hayloft.

Left to right: Mejal (Michelle McLeod), Greta (Sheila McCarthy), Neitje (Liv McNeil, back), Mariche (Jessie Buckley, front), Salome (Claire Foy), Autje (Kate Hallett, sitting on ground), Ona (Rooney Mara) and Agata (Judith Ivey) in the hayloft.

Alfred grew up in Manitoba, Canada, home to various Mennonite communities for more than a century, so she had a foundational knowledge of them. Through her extensive historical research and outreach to people in (or who left) the community, she even amassed upwards of 500 authentic Mennonite women’s dresses (and men’s overalls), which outfitted background actors.

The concept of “plain dress” is to present oneself “modestly and with no superfluous prideful elements to your dress,” says Alfred. “Living simply — those dresses are made to make the wearer disappear, to negate the flesh, to take away temptation, in a sense, to remind them of their place, literally and figuratively.”

For the movie, Polley and cinematographer Luc Montpellier decided on an overarching “desaturated” tone and color palette, to further emphasize the conformity in the community, as well as the timelessness of the adversity and repression the women faced in a patriarchal environment. There’s a moment of surprise, when viewers realize the film takes place in 2010 and not the distant past.

“I’ve heard many people talk about the period feel of the film or the ‘period costumes,’ and I try to graciously, but still forcibly remind people these aren’t period costumes,” says Alfred. “These women really live like this, still to this day.”

Rooney, Ivey and Foy have a discussion with director Sarah Polley.

Rooney, Ivey and Foy have a discussion with director Sarah Polley.

Staying authentic to the ethos of plain dress did present a challenge to the costume designer in differentiating the characters, “so I divided the families into moods, rather than personalities,” says Alfred. 

In the Friesen family, fiery Salome (Claire Foy) maintains her resolute stance to fight for the future of her children. Pregnant, reflective Ona (Rooney Mara) carefully considers the options and asks the important questions. Matriarch Agata (Judith Ivey) looks out for the brood, while young niece Neitje (Liv McNeil) amuses herself as the adults talk.

“In my mind, their mood and their their temperaments were leaning towards intellect, rather than instinct,” says Alfred,” so for them, I chose pure colors — blues and purples — and small repeating patterns and leading lines. I use the word ‘electric’ a lot; I don’t know why that came to me, but it’s busy and forward moving.”

The Loewen family counters, with Mariche (Jesse Buckley, “The Lost Daughter“) pushing to stay in the only home she knows, despite her abusive daily reality. Her teen daughter Autje (Kate Hallett) plays with Neitje in the rafters, while quietly rebellious younger sister Mejal (Michelle McLeod) struggles to be heard, in between taking puffs of her cigarette.

“In my mind, their temperaments were more their reactions, and their temperaments were more leaning towards the instinctive, rather than the intellectual,” says Alfred. “So for them, I chose more colors found directly in nature, like what we associate with with foliage and leaves: browns and greens and colors like that. Their patterns were much more swirling and murky — except for Mejal, who was quite expressive. She’s feisty, and she had a lot to say.”

Augustus (Ben Whishaw, left) documents the meeting, as the women are not allowed to learn to read or write.

Augustus (Ben Whishaw, left) documents the meeting, as the women are not allowed to learn to read or write.

Alfred also used her connections and resourcefulness to authentically source the fabrics for the custom-made dresses for the lead cast.

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“There are ordinary fabric stores [in southern Manitoba] that have whole private sections that are only accessible to Hutterite and Mennonite colonies,” says Alfred, explaining that Mennonite families will go in to buy entire bolts of the same fabric to make identical dresses for entire families. 

But not just anyone can access the sequestered sides of these fabric stores.

“In true Manitoba fashion, anybody’s two degrees of separation from you,” says Alfred. “I called a colleague, who called her mom, who had a friend, who called the guy. Then, I had worked with somebody who worked at the other side of the store in Winnipeg, who called the man that ran the Mennonite colony side.” Her helpful contacts also referred her to artisans who helped with building costumes for the film.

'I bought the fabric quite early with her in mind because it spoke to me of things going on under the surface,' says Alfred, about the pattern on Mariche's (far right) dress.

‘I bought the fabric quite early with her in mind because it spoke to me of things going on under the surface,’ says Alfred, about the pattern on Mariche’s (far right) dress.

The expressive prints, rich colors and even sheens of each characters’ dresses illuminate or darken, concordant with the impassioned discourse peaking and plummeting, as nightfall — when the colony’s men return from town — forebodingly approaches. 

“That was Luc’s beautiful lighting that helped me achieve that,” says Alfred, who sent Montpellier fabric samples for lighting tests during prep. She also used her phone to desaturate the lighting up to 75% to determine the ideal composite of textures.

Alfred points out that all the dresses, in true Mennonite fashion, are made from polyester, with the exception of low-key nonconformist and chainsmoker Mejal: Her standout brown-toned,  hibiscus-printed dress, with a square neckline, is actually rayon — from the public side of the fabric store. 

“Because it was a beautiful pattern,” says Alfred, of making the exception. “As simple as that.”

The construction of the dresses, however, wasn’t so simple. The subtly distinctive details on the bodices — the precise pleating, delicate ruching and paneling — took the costume team 40 hours per look.

Flinty elder Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand, below) — who steadfastly refuses to leave — has the most elaborate dress of them all. 

Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand).

Scarface Janz (Frances McDormand).

“In our minds, she was a seamstress, so I wanted her details to be quite fussy, to show a little bit of pridefulness,” says Alfred, who illustrated the trait through one of the very few ways Janz could express it. “Her bodices were quite fussy; a lot of details with small patterns and precise angles.”

Out of respect for the Mennonite culture and for character authenticity, Alfred avoided taking creative license in the costumes. However, she did incorporate one functional liberty, which was suggested by McDormand, who also produced the film: adding pockets. McDormand had previously worn a garment with a Shaker pocket, which dates back centuries, and suggested the idea. The principle fits into the culture of the story. 

“The Shakers are very practical people,” says Alfred. “We made these pockets that are like a teardrop shape, with a tie around the waist.” 

The pockets also proved extremely functional for filming needs, especially during pandemic.

“The cast needed to look after their own masks. We put mic packs in the pockets. The actors puts their sides in them,” says Alfred. “Fran’s idea was brilliant, practical and fantastic. In true Mennonite fashion in my experience. Problem solved, simply.”

‘Women Talking’ opens in select theaters, Friday, Dec. 23, 2022 and theaters everywhere on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.

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