Fashion

Meticulous and Meaningful: Dissecting the Costumes in Game of Thrones

As Game of Thrones comes to an epic end, let's take a look at the secrets and hidden messages behind the show's sartorial masterpieces.
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The night is no longer dark, but this post is still full of spoilers. If you haven’t seen the finale of Game of Thrones, look away!

And now our watch has ended. After eight glorious seasons of suspense, spine-tingling fantasy, questionable romances, plot twists, revenge, and intrigue, the cultural juggernaut that is Game of Thrones has just bid its loyal fans its final adieu. And to say the final season has left most of us in shock is the definition of an understatement. Then again, George R.R. Martin never promised us a fairytale.

When it came to the fashion, three-time Emmy Award-winning costume designer Michele Clapton delivered. All throughout the series, kings and queens flit about in ostentatious finery, warriors battled in bespoke armor, imaginary creatures inspired fear in never-before-seen garb, plus a whole horde of extras did their thing, all under this meticulous costumer’s watchful eye. Each garment was intentional, a product of immense thought and careful planning by Clapton and her team and each with its own narrative.

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As this era comes to an epic end, and while we are still processing all our season finale feelings, let's take a look at the sartorial artistry of everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure. 

Outfitting the Seven Kingdoms 

So where does one start when costuming an entire mythical realm? “Game of Thrones is much harder in a way because you have to make it up. I just look all the time, even when I’m not working on something, I’ll make scrapbooks. When I see an image, I’ll just stick it in like a Cersei file, or whatever, and I’ll just keep putting things in it… So when it comes around to starting again, I’ll have a little sort of file of ideas which just might influence the way it goes,” enthuses Clapton in a behind the scenes interview with HBO.

In the same interview, Clapton shares: “Designing for a series like this, first it has to come from the script. That guides you. Then you start building up a picture of how this person lives, and what influences them.”

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She and her team gave the different kingdoms codes to distinguish them from one another, dictated by the climate, the architecture, their house colors or by what dyes and materials people in that region had access to. King’s Landing, for example, was richer and open to trade, resulting to more flamboyant attires and silkier dresses for its residents. In stark contrast was Winterfell, where people dressed up in thick furs and battle-hardy outfits, also since its people lived near the wilderness beyond the Wall.

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Like everything in this series, the costumes were done on a massive scale with sometimes 80 to 100 people working tirelessly in Clapton’s costume shop, plus the people assigned to the multiple and simultaneous filming locations. Clapton collaborated with embroiderer Michele Carragher, whose intricate stitching featured heavily in the gowns of nobility in the capital in the beginning of the series.

Given the many battle and fight scenes, the show, of course, also had its own armorer, Natalie Lee, as well as a ‘weapons master,’ Tommy Dunne. And lastly, when all was said and done, a separate department was in charge of breakdown, which quite literally aged the costumes to give them a more lived-in look. “It’s amazing how they can take something that’s been beautifully beaded and looks stunning but has no lifeand then give it life, give it character, make it related to the character who’s wearing it…” shares Clapton. 

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It was a hugely choreographed effort that allowed the series to have such a seamless and visually arresting look throughout its run. We all knew it was fantasy, but the rich, almost palpable imagery sometimes made us forget that. Each dress, each ornate piece of jewelry, every panel of leather or piece armor had a hint about the character’s story arc, all if you would just read between the lines. 

Fashion and Power: The Women of Game of Thrones

As they say, all fashion is politics, and all politics is power. Like modern-day politicians, the GoT politicos also used clothes to send messages and craft personas. There was an entire subplot and a whole lot of foreshadowing that went on with the costumes, especially for the women. Most of the females in the show began as bargaining chips and vulnerable pawns in the series, but evolved into the power players of Westeros toward the end of the saga. Their journeys were all tumultuous, to say the least, but showing how they found or lost their ways in a mostly misogynistic, albeit mythical world, was indeed a narrative worth telling.  

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Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons

Daenerys Targaryen was clearly a fan favorite from the get-go and many mourned at her sudden turn to unwitting villain. Some say that clues hinting she would become the Mad Queen had been there all along, while others argue her character development was too hurried. Nonetheless, her story from exiled princess to fierce Khaleesi to military powerhouse was a transformation woven into her clothes.

She started off as a puppet in her brother Viserys’ bid for power, clad in sheer frocks and in long flowy hair. By the time she was married off to Khal Drogo, and the two fell madly in love, she was quickly seen adapting to her Dothraki queen status in rugged leathers and fur. Her romance unfortunately did not last, but from the ashes of her first love, she literally became the Mother of Dragons. With her newfound power, she traveled to Qarth and Slaver’s Bay, gained an Unsullied army, freed slaves, won over allies, and truly came into her own.

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While she had previously been seen in clothes inspired by the cities she had liberated, by season five, we saw a Dany who was a cut and cape above it all, with a rather untouchable quality to her as she ruled over Meereen. Her structured dresses in white and gray painted her with a regal allure, quite a far cry from her diaphanous past. But despite her growing power, there was still that bit of fear. And thus despite showing her femininity in halter dresses and flowy pleats, Dany was still always wearing pants. Well, if you had to run at a moment’s notice or ride a dragon, you’d probably wear pants too. 

Daenerys also knew how to show her power and toward the end she’d had quite a number bend the knee, although some more reluctantly than others.

Her character didn’t wear a crown, but she had always wanted to impress that she was for all intents and purposes a queen, so Michele Clapton designed jewelry with strong sculptural dragon motifs in collaboration with British jewelers Yunus and Eliza. The jewelry started off small, like a brooch, but as her dragons grew, so did her accoutrements, from a statement necklace to the chunky dragon chain that featured heavily in her later outfits.

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In the final season, Daenerys Targaryen was clad in militaristic armor in Targaryen colors of charcoal and red. Her hair featured more and more elaborate braids, which in Dothraki tradition symbolized victories in battle. We never even got to see her sit on the Iron Throne of a thousand swords she had envisioned as a little girl before her nephew-slash-lover Jon Snow stabbed her in the heart. She did her best to triumph as a liberator, a wheel-breaker, a female ruler amongst men, but in the end, the show had her succumb to tyranny and madness. No words could be grimmer at this moment than those spoken by Tyrion to Jon, “Duty is the death of love.”

Cersei Lannister, The Evil Queen (or The Queen Mother)

Despite being Queen while married to Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy), Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) didn’t really hold that much power in the beginning of the series. And in soft dresses of muted pastels, embroidered oftentimes with avian motifs, her clothing reflected her inner turmoil of being a bird trapped in a gilded cage. "Cersei has always spoken a lot through her costumes… On Game of Thrones, you have to say so much in so little time. I use costumes on Cersei to get across her mood and how she's feeling visually,” notes Clapton

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After the death of Robert, Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) ascended to the Iron Throne, elevating Cersei to the role of Queen Mother. Her young son, though erratic, was much easier to control. To reflect her more influential status, and as a response to a power struggle between her and the cunning Margaery Tyrell, Cersei’s clothes became structured and formidable. The fabrics became heavier, and her gowns started featuring a lot more Lannister red and the house’s lion sigil embroidered or stamped onto breastplates.

As the show progressed, Cersei’s blind, unbridled quest for power led her toward darker and darker paths. By the end of season six, she was in control of the capital but at great costher three children died tragic deaths. A far cry from the noblewoman’s frocks she used to wear, Cersei then clothed herself like that of a warrior queen with high necklines, leather, and chainmail, all in very somber colors. Her hair, which was cut short after her walk of shame, was kept that way as she no longer had to use her femininity to get ahead. And, apart from that one moment of weakness right before her death, that strong power-dressing Cersei is how we shall remember the villain we all loved to hate.

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Sansa Stark, The Ultimate Survivor 

The journey of Sansa as told through her clothes is one that is truly fascinating as well.

She started off as a weak, doe-eyed female, although one with latent ambition. Her elegant attire in the first season was a striking and deliberate departure from that of tomboy sister Arya’s. When she reached Kings Landing, “she embraced Cersei’s style, and to some degree, her color palette [the Lannister’s rival red] not understanding its meaning," says Clapton. It was perhaps survival camouflage at its finest, as Sansa trudged through life in the capital as a royal prisoner.

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Her first marriage was to Tyrion Lannister, and to this, she wore a gown which featured embroideries of Lannister lions overpowering Stark wolves and Tully fishes. Clapton envisioned the dress to feel as restrictive as possible, and with the stitching of Carragher to ‘portray a message of dominance.’ For Sansa’s second ill-fated wedding to the sadistic Ramsay Bolton, she wore a white gown that was a ‘ghostly homage to her parents’, which featured her father’s fur collar and her mother’s coat and clasps.

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But most fascinating was when we met ‘Dark Sansa’ in Season Four after she escaped with Petyr Baelish to the Eyrie, her aunt Lisa Arryn’s dominion. Being a seamstress, we saw her making a dress that mimicked that of Baelish, with strong shoulders of crow feathers, and a necklace with a needle at the end, which was a nod to sister Arya’s favorite sword. Here, she made a conscious decision to go dark, as if to convey she no longer wanted to be a victim. In an interview, Sophie Turner, who played Sansa said: “When she changed her outfit, that was just the first hint that she was ready to start playing the game… Sansa has had to do everything nonverbally. She’s never been allowed to speak up or say anything… She’s always had a bit of a façade…. That’s how she’s had to adapt to this cruel, cruel world.”

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By Season Six Sansa was reunited with her brother Jon and eventually the Starks started gaining control of Winterfell. Hardened by trauma, and further exacerbated by her distrust of Jon Snow’s then-girlfriend Daenerys, her clothes exhibited a toughness in laced-up leather and thick furs. It was a time of war, and Sansa’s armor-like outfits spelled that she was ready for it. Her strength and nobility were further cemented when at the final moment, and with steely resolve, she declared independence for her territory from the influence of the capital. And despite never really aspiring for the throne, under the weight of a silver direwolf crown, we saw Sansa starting her reign as the undisputed Queen of the North. 

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Arya Stark, the Tomboy Turned Heroine 

A girl power icon from the start, Arya Stark eschewed gender and societal norms in favor of her true self with such lovable flair. A cult favorite, she triumphed over every challenge in earthy tones and loose, androgynous apparel more appropriate for a sword fighter than a lady. But as the series wore on, and as her killing list grew, Arya started adopting tougher and decidedly more boyish clothes, which were quite practical for a runaway. The fact that her clothes didn’t change could also be part of Clapton’s plan: “Certain characters move more in their costumes to tell their story whereas others, by not changing, tell their story.”

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And maybe if you can’t quite remember what Arya wore, it’s probably a good thing. After all, she did learn the art of disguise as part of her assassin training in the House of Black and White. She did don nobler and warrior-like garb toward  Season Eight as she was reunited with what remained of her family in Winterfell. Her accessory of choice? Her Valyrian sword Needle, which hardly left her side after being gifted to her by Jon Snow. If you have the skills to kill the Night King and his army of the Undead, you could probably wear anything and it wouldn’t really matter. 

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The last we saw of Arya was her on a ship sailing to what is west of Westeros, where all the maps end. In sleek leather and a cape trimmed in fur, with hair slicked back, she was a woman ready to go where no man has ever gone. Let’s hope, in the not so distant future, our beloved heroine finds the happy ending we all deserve.

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