Game of Thrones features dragons, blood magic, white walkers, dire wolves, and all sorts of made-up creatures, but its world is a “fantasy reality,” to use the words of the show’s costume designer Michele Clapton. In spite of all the otherworldly elements, viewers still have to believe that the Seven Kingdoms could exist somewhere in the universe.
Much of the credit for the plausibility of the HBO show’s made-up world goes to Clapton, who has overseen costume design throughout the show’s first three seasons. For her, the key is looking at costume design as a mode of storytelling. “It’s so easy to draw a pretty dress in a fun way,” Clapton told Fast Company. “But this is so much more about finding the right look and telling so much more about that character, and that’s what I really, really enjoy: the storytelling.”
With the show’s fourth season premiering this Sunday, Fast Company spoke with Clapton about how she uses clothing to add depth and personality to the show’s parade of devious, dark, and demented characters. Here are her secrets to creating believable, relatable characters in a world that would otherwise be pure fantasy.
On the surface, a costume may look “bad”–ill fitting, full of holes. But viewers should consider the bigger picture and storyline to understand costume choice–or even to look for hints about how a character is evolving. “I don’t think any costume should be looked at in isolation, rather, through the arc of the character,” Clapton says. “Each thing will tell a story. It might look like a costume is wrong, but actually it’s supposed to look like that. It’s telling you something about the character at the time.”
When Sansa Stark, an aspiring queen, arrives at King’s Landing from her more humble origins, for example, she attempts to dress like Cersei Lannister, the Queen Regent of the entire empire, whom she idolized at the time. Cersei embodied everything Sansa thought she wanted in life, so she attempted to copy her in the way she knew how, through clothing. But she didn’t quite get it right, and looks like she’s playing a child’s game of dress-up, drowning in an ill-fitting gown.
“A lot of people said her costume doesn’t fit. Well, of course it doesn’t! She’s a young girl trying to copy someone,” explained Clapton. “Not everyone wears things brilliantly or beautifully, or has the access to do that. I think it’s really important that some things don’t fit. Some things are slightly odd.”
Viewers might not be able to make out all the details Clapton engineers into the clothing through their small screens, but every little aspect adds depth to a persona, Clapton insists. She therefore takes time to add intricacies that most people won’t even notice. The embroidery, done by Michele Carragher, for example, not only tells the life story of an entire character, but also where he or she is headed.
Each house has a “sigil,” or family crest, which is often depicted on the clothing of the characters. When Sansa is married against her will into the Lannister family, her dress shows her family’s sigil, the dire wolf, losing out to the Lannister’s, the lion. “It’s like she has been caught,” explains Clapton.
Clapton sneaks little details like that into many of the outfits she creates. The dragon queen, Daenerys, has scales on her blue dress; Cersei often calls people “my little bird” and often has birds sewn into her clothing. “People don’t necessarily see this,” admitted Clapton. But, it’s still worth the work: “For us, it’s to have that depth in all of the costumes. Even if you look really closely there is something telling you something about this person,” she added.
The best costumes are complementary, reflecting the personality of the person wearing the garb. There’s no better example in Game of Thrones than Margaery Tyrell, a young and beautiful queen-to-be who uses daring fashion to gain more power. “From the very beginning she is brave and experimental in her look, which I wanted. She was a young girl who wanted to be the queen,” Clapton explained.
Margaery is often spotted in revealing or outré outfits. One episode she wore a funnel dress that Clapton told Vogue was an homage to an Alexander McQueen dress made for Bjork. “It was ridiculous. She’s a teenage girl trying things out.”
But over the seasons she has refined her look as she has learned how to wield her body to her benefit, explains Clapton. “She honed this look that was girlishly sexy because she could see that it was exactly what Cersei couldn’t do. The more armor and more regal Cersei got, the more girlish and simple Margaery became–very knowing.”
In the upcoming season, we will see the pinnacle of her use of wardrobe as weapon with her wedding dress, hints of which you can see in this teaser trailer:
As you can see, the train is entirely made of roses and the flower and its thorns snake up through the dress, eventually entangling the crown. “I think it says so much about Margaery. It’s everything we need to know: she’s very beautiful, and very dangerous,” Clapton said.
For all the symbolism Clapton works into her pieces, she also has to design clothing people can wear and work in. The wildlings, who in the show inhabit the wintry north and in reality shoot in very cold locations, have to stay warm and also look the part. Clapton and her team first designed a prototype made from animal skins and sent it to Iceland, where part of the show films, to ensure that it would both be functional and warm. If it gets super chilly, she sews modern clothing like fleeces and down underneath the animal skins.
When Clapton finds herself challenged with real-world constraints, like working with a lot of extras of different shapes and sizes, she doesn’t give up on infusing purpose into the wardrobe. The uniform of the unsullied, an army of elite warrior eunuchs, which was inspired by beetles, can fit many different body types, but not at the expense of a metaphor. “The final piece that really made it come together was the idea of obscuring the face,” explained Clapton. “This really removed all personality, it sort of felt that it was the perfect ethos to be unsullied–all personality removed.”
While many of the costumes Clapton and her team make are very purposeful, sometimes the best wardrobe decisions happen more organically. The genius of Jamie Lannister’s golden hand next season, which we also get a sneak peak of in the video above, snuck up on Clapton, for example. His sister, Cersei, gifts it to him as a replacement for the one that got chopped off last season. In that vein, Clapton designed it as something Cersei would choose to disguise a deformity that she fears. It’s beautiful, ornate, and feminine.
But, the prop actually turned out to embody Jamie’s personality in a way Clapton didn’t expect. “It became the right thing for Jamie. He’s not just this sort of a brutal, sarcastic, callous man. He actually has a really sensitive, quite interesting side.” In this case, the character became more like the costume Clapton designed for him. “It was really beautiful in a way,” she added.