Phaedra’s House of Costume is tucked into a basement in Amman’s affluent Shmeisani neighborhood, a squished warren of white stone-clad houses. Here in Jordan, army uniforms from Britain, America, Iraq, Iran, Palestine and Syria colonize the space. Phaedra Dahdaleh, 36, has carefully curated these and other costumes over the last decade. Sometimes she rents them out for television commercials and music videos. But lately? She’s begun dressing the stars — including Stana Katic of Castle fame and Raza Jaffrey, the British actor who plays Dr. Neal Hudson on the CBS medical drama Code Black.
Oh, and then there’s Brad Pitt and Tilda Swinton, who relied on Dahdaleh and Co. to dress them for Netflix’s $60 million War Machine, premiering in May. And, of course, there was Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, which got her the first taste of fame. For the handful of films that shoot in Jordan every year, Dahdaleh is a godsend. The Hashemite Kingdom is no Hollywood, cycling sets and casts in and out endlessly. But when ambitious flicks related to the Middle East need a home, they come to Dahdaleh’s turf.
Mostly though, her work involves exhuming dead historical characters from photographs and research. For The Great Arab Revolt TV miniseries, directed by Aseel Mansour and screened in Jordan, Dahdaleh had to buy expensive fabric from Abu Dhabi for Prince Faisal’s character. In photographs from the early 20th century, he can be seen wearing special hattas, or head scarves, with patterns no longer found in stores. The hours of research are crucial in achieving that willing suspension of disbelief so key to any film. For Revolt, she clothed 80 main characters and hundreds of extras as British, Ottoman and French soldiers from the same time period. Though she’s not a huge fan of war movies — or war at all — she gets a kick out of her historical adventuring.
She doesn’t know if the wars in the region will ever end, but she’s not afraid to dream of a more colorful future.
It’s ironic that Jordan, a friendly nation to the U.S., is the site of so many militial films. Amin Matalqa, the Sundance-winning director who worked with Dahdaleh on The Rendezvous, says Jordan’s geographical diversity, “from the urban hills of Amman to the majestic desert and the one-of-a-kind ancient city of Petra,” make it an attractive host nation. This is exactly what the Royal Film Commission is pushing for, according to its managing director, George David. Two years ago, the commission began luring film crews with tax exemptions.
Yet the industry still fluctuates, according to David. “Jordan has always been an oasis of safety in a troubled region,” he says, “but it’s a challenge to convince producers.” (This year looks better than others, he notes.) The instability means fiscal uncertainty even for successful types like Dahdaleh. She still relies on her parents for some help and isn’t ashamed to don multiple hats, even when they don’t put her at the top of the ladder. She’s been assistant to the PR assistant, assistant textile artist, costume assistant and, whew, eventually, costume supervisor. Her first big break came in 2013 as costume designer for Stewart’s Rosewater, a serious political drama based on the true story of journalist Maziar Bahari’s 2009 imprisonment by Iran. We couldn’t reach Stewart for comment, but in 2014 he told BuzzFeed that Dahdaleh “crushed it,” despite a tiny budget. Even now, her big Netflix gig has her doing unsexy work, shanghaied in Abu Dhabi sorting costumes. (War Machine’s producers didn’t reply to a request for comment.)
But Dahdaleh’s expanding nonetheless. She has a team of seven people and just opened a second branch in Abu Dhabi. As for the content of her work? Dahdaleh would gladly transcend films about geopolitics and terrorism. She doesn’t know if the wars in the region will ever end, but she’s not afraid to dream of a more colorful future. For example, working on a saucy musical with a director like Baz Luhrmann would pretty much rock her world. “I was obsessed with Moulin Rouge,” she says.
Growing up in a creative, musical family in Amman as the daughter of an interior designer and a civil engineer-slash-painter, Dahdaleh hoped to make music — she loved the Beatles and Queen. She went to boarding school in the U.K. and studied music (saxophone) at the University of Surrey but switched her focus to the business side of the industry after working in the administration for an orchestra in London. She then earned a graduate degree in culture and art and returned to Jordan hoping to create a program that would make classical music more appealing to young musicians. But the landscape for such work in the country was arid. So she took a position as a public relations officer for the film commission. When her boss asked her to write about a religious Italian film, La Sacra Famiglia, which was shooting in Jordan, she returned from the assignment with her resignation in hand. She loved the energy of the movie industry, and though she didn’t have a clear skill set to dive into film, she was willing to pay her dues.
And now? She’s got no plans to head to Tinseltown, rooted as she is to the Middle East. But she wouldn’t mind making a trip down the red carpet one day, perhaps to gather up a golden man as her country’s first costume designer to do so.
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