COLUMN: Viewpoint – Costume designer shares process


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Last Wednesday night after watching the Oscar winning film Women Talking at Steinbach’s Keystone Cinema I was privileged to attend a special event featuring Quita Alfred the talented Winnipeg woman who was the movie’s costume designer.

The film’s script is based on the book Women Talking by celebrated Canadian author Miriam Toews who grew up in Steinbach.

On March 8 film fans packed The Public Brewhouse and Gallery just a few minutes’ walk from the Keystone where a sold-out audience had just seen Women Talking. As we sipped cold glasses of beer and ate pieces of delicious platz local writers Erin and Andrew Unger interviewed Quita about her experience as the costume designer for the movie.

I’d read several articles about Quita but hearing her talk in person with such passion and enthusiasm about her work on Women Talking was certainly a treat.

I volunteer at an MCC Thrift store so it was neat to learn some of the film’s costumes had been purchased at MCC shops in southern Manitoba, including the one in Steinbach. Quita said in particular, many of the shoes the actors wore in the film were bought at thrift stores.

We don’t see the feet of the actors for long periods of time in the movie save for a moving scene of the spiritual practice of foot-washing. But when their feet are in view you notice the female actors are wearing socks and sandals in the film. Although Quita said not all the actors were keen about the unique footwear author Miriam Toews told Quita she loved it.

I was intrigued when Quita said they needed to make seven absolutely identical dresses for all the main actors since their outfits could be damaged by heat and just general wear and tear.

Quita also described all the hard work that went into ‘breaking down’ the denim for the overalls we see on the screen so the material didn’t look so new. Two women sewed hundreds of pairs of overalls for the movie.

Most of the women’s dresses in the film were made of polyester and Quita wore dresses made of the material herself so she could understand how the material felt and moved with her body. She realized why women living in colonies like the one in the film would wear polyester. It was affordable, practical, and comfortable and kept its shape when laundered.

Quita paid special tribute to MaryAnn Hildebrand from Manitoba and Esther Janzen from Ontario, two Mennonite women who generously helped her do research, source materials, and make the connections she needed to create authentic outfits for the film.

I was fascinated when Quita talked about how she had designed the dresses for the movie characters based on their personality traits and also the families they were a part of in the film. She carefully chose fabrics reflecting their family dynamic.

Quita said there was some discussion about whether the filmmakers had the right to tell the story since it was inspired by a horrific true incident of rape and abuse that happened to women on a Mennonite colony in Bolvia. Quita said everyone involved in making Women Talking was committed to telling the women’s story with respect and without any voyeurism.

It was clear Quita was very moved to be in Steinbach seeing the film in a packed theatre with a Mennonite audience and then having such a large group turn out to hear her talk about the movie. She said it was better than being in Hollywood.

Quita feels the message of Women Talking is so important and she hopes the movie will keep on generating meaningful conversations.

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