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February 26, 2015

Taking Flight

An ancient tale of heroism soars on wings of linen, wool and silk.

Libby Slate

When costume designer Delphine White began work on the CBS mini-series The Dovekeepers, she quickly came to one conclusion — there weren't enough hours in the day.

For starters, she had just a week to research the history surrounding the tale set in ancient Israel before leaving for the Malta production site.

Once there she had only 10 days to source costume houses and fabric shops before businesses in Europe shut down for the August vacation.

The production, which airs March 31 and April 1, tells the story of the women who tended doves behind the walls of the Israeli mountaintop fortress Masada, where almost 1,000 Jewish men, women and children were besieged by the Romans in 73 CE, ultimately committing suicide to avoid capture and death at the hands of their oppressors.

"Time was the biggest challenge," says White, who had previously read and loved the Alice Hoffman novel on which the miniseries is based.

She turned to museums, consultants at New York's Yeshiva University and the Bible — "That came up a lot, for obvious reasons" — and made several trips to Rome during pre-production.

One discovery: "There was a lot of linen and wool used at the time, but the Jewish people never mixed the two." Other Jewish traditions were also upheld, such as the use of fringe trims, prayer shawls and veils.

But when it came to color, "We made a very clear decision that we would opt more for fantasy than reality," says White, whose other period credits include the series Copper and the telefilm The Winning Season.

"We're dealing with actors, and we want to enhance their looks."

Those actors include Cote de Pablo as Shirah, who has mystical powers; Kathryn Prescott as dovekeeper Aziza, raised as a warrior in male clothing; Sam Neill as Jew-turned-assimilated-Roman historian Josephus; and Sam Hazeldine as Roman commander Flavius.

Against a backdrop of muted desert tones, "Shirah's costumes had three distinct looks, stemming from where she lived," White says, noting they were rich and vibrant in Jerusalem, dyed even deeper hues of peacock blues and purple in Moab and faded-with-time in Masada.

Aziza dressed primarily as a woman in Masada, but also disguised herself as her brother to fight, donning armor designed to hide her gender.

Pre-Masada, her Moab-inspired warrior garb consisted of a caftan-like garment of heavy blue silk, designed to protect from daytime sun and nighttime cold, complete with a metal-decorated loincloth made in the costume shop.

White worked closely with show supervisor Augusto Grassi, who oversaw leather design for the outfits for Flavius and fellow Roman Claudius.

The armor, from master metalworker Luca Giampaoli, along with jewelry, were handcrafted in Malta and Bulgaria. While the real Jewish warriors wore only daggers when fighting, for television White envisioned leather armor that, she says, "They would have pilfered from other armies."

White and her team won rave reviews from Roma Downey, executive producer of the mini with husband Mark Burnett (other exec producers are Frank Siracusa, John Weber and Yves Simoneau).

"They did an amazing job. Delphine never failed to amaze me," says Downey, who read the novel on a transatlantic flight and was moved to tears so often that a flight attendant kept asking her if she was okay.

"We tried to make each of the women have their own personality through their wardrobe," she adds, "and even within the confines of the look, Delphine was able to create subtle differences through texture and color."

Downey notes that the costumes also had to keep actors comfortable in extreme heat and cold, and those used in fighting required ease of movement.

And again, forsaking fact for fantasy, "Because of these women, there was a sensuality. It was important that these fabrics flow, to allow the shape of their bodies to flow underneath.

It was the same with the veils — it was appropriate in that era that women's heads were covered, but we wanted to show their beauty."

Photos: Curt Arrigo/CBS

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