'Copper' period costumes cut from whole cloth

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For some shows, costumers need only shop to build characters' wardrobes. But when shopping is impossible, costume design comes into play.

Before a word is uttered in a period drama, costumes instantly tell you when and where the action unfolds. In BBC America's "Copper" Sundays, it's 1865 Manhattan.

With the exception of a few pieces -- which are treated like the priceless treasures they are -- costume designer Delphine White creates the series' clothes.

From her perch on an exercise ball behind her desk on the set in Toronto, White runs a very impressive wardrobe department. White's office walls are covered in photos of period dress: uptown, middle class, Five Points, Eva's Paradise (the brothel) and Native Americans.

Workers dye vats of fabric and distress boots by roughing up new ones. In a vast room that looks like a time warp department store, racks of clothes are organized by uptown, teen boys, prostitutes, posh men's hats, petticoats, corsets.

"It is very difficult to find this period in vintage," White tells Zap2it. "It is way too fragile. The pieces we have are basically used for patterns."

White does tremendous amounts of research and studies costumes at Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art. She rents costumes from a shop in Italy and pores over books and online images.

"Almost everything in a speaking role is handmade," she says.

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But the few original pieces are amazing. "This exquisitely tailored gown is dupioni silk," White says. "It is something I picked up at a vintage sale. Elizabeth ( Anastasia Griffith) is a very, very studied character. She dresses for impact. She understands clothing and is very, very similar in character to Eva ( Franka Potente) in that they use their feminine wiles to get what they want. Women couldn't vote. They had two ways to make it: One is they married a wealthy man, or two is they became a prostitute and ran a brothel."

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As a madam and as an immigrant with a true devil-may-care attitude, Eva assembles an eclectic look. "She has accumulated things, and after a while she uses it," Potente says. "Bavarian influences, the fabrics men bring - we incorporate a lot of men's attire into her wardrobe, such as the hat. I think she has a fashion sense."

"Copper" fashions change a little this year, White says. "This year there is a quest for women to look a little more colorful," she says.

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The richer women wore rich fabrics that were "brocades and Jacquards and embroidery," White says. One of her tricks in creating pieces for the wealthier characters is to repurpose old tablecloths, curtains and shawls.

"Delphine has taught me more about the era than anyone," says Tessa Thompson, who plays Sara, Dr. Freeman's wife. "She's really into how clothes tell the story of our social and economic standing. You can tell from the patina how they worked and lived."
Photo/Video credit: BBC America
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