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How Game of Thrones Designer Michele Clapton Creates Big Pop-Culture Moments

Clapton, who has worked on costumes for Netflix’s The Crown and the Mamma Mia! sequel, shares how she brings stories to life with her designs.

How Game of Thrones Designer Michele Clapton Creates Big Pop-Culture Moments
Costume designer Michele Clapton is the brains behind some of the most pivotal television moments of 2017. [Photo: Aaron Fever]

Whether she’s designing a runway-worthy fur coat for the Mother of Dragons to wear on HBO’s Game of Thrones or a gown for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation on Netflix’s biopic series The Crown, costume designer Michele Clapton knows that clothes often make the story. Sometimes they can even become characters in their own right.

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As she prepares for a 2018 that includes filming the final season of Game of Thrones and the release of two films that she worked on (the sequel to the hit musical Mamma Mia! and The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, starring Natalie Portman and Kit Harington), Clapton explains how she uses clothing to enhance a story.

Go Minimal For Maximum Effect

The first season of The Crown features an array of ornate, mid-century gowns and crisp military suits, which are on full display during such pivotal scenes as Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding to Prince Philip. But to make certain quieter, yet equally important, moments resonate, Clapton used less extravagant pieces. In the second episode, just before Elizabeth (Claire Foy) finds out about her father’s death, she appears in her room at a safari lodge in Kenya wearing only Philip’s long, white button-up shirt, which serves to accentuate her vulnerability. “To me, [choosing that look] was just as big a decision as the design of her wedding dress, and took just as long to come to,” Clapton says. “[Elizabeth] is at her most open and relaxed and intimate before she finds out this thing that is going to be so monumental in changing her life. I love that contrast.”

Gain Perspective By Taking A Break

Clapton’s designs further the plot arcs of the characters she works on, whether it’s the fictional queen Daenerys Targaryen or the British Queen Elizabeth II. [Photo: Macall B. Polay/Hbo]
In 2015, Clapton took a hiatus from Game of Thrones, which she had worked on since it went into production in 2009. She ended up sitting out season 6—a pause that allowed her to work on The Crown and come back to the HBO juggernaut with fresh eyes. “It rekindled my desire to see [Game of Thrones] through,” Clapton says. “The characters are like real people to me, because I’ve been doing this for so long.” When she returned for season 7, which aired this past summer, she was able to create costumes that reflect the characters’ larger journeys. As Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) battle for the Iron Throne, for example, Clapton has employed increasingly tight tailoring and references to body armor to signal their progressively guarded emotional states.

Expand Your Boundaries

The Crown [Photo: Stuart Hendry/Netflix]
After working on Game of Thrones and The Crown, Clapton signed on for the Abba-infused sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, starring Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan, precisely because it allowed her to step away from heady, British-accented dramas and tackle a comedy instead. Filming in Croatia, Clapton’s biggest challenge was making sure the musical’s 1970s-era costumes (which include bell bottoms and colorful prints) didn’t become too over-the-top, especially during big song-and-dance numbers involving lots of extras. “Costumes [should] be witty, but not funny,” Clapton says. “Even though [the movie] is a bit of light frivolity, I still wanted to figure out why somebody is wearing something, that backstory.” The film, due out in July, was also a welcome chance to diversify. “People pigeonhole you and think, ‘Oh, but you just do medieval stuff,’ ” she says. “Well, no. A designer does anything. A designer works with the script and the story, whether it’s real or period or musical or whatever.”

Hold Firm To Your Vision

Clapton will study a script in order to use characters’ attire to telegraph narratives. This instinct has made her an important voice on set. When the executive producer of The Crown wanted to alter the filming of a scene between Princess Margaret and King George after the costumes had already been painstakingly designed, Clapton pushed back. She argued—successfully—that seeing Elizabeth’s rebellious younger sister in an off-the-shoulder dress as she played piano for her father would make their relationship seem overly intimate unless the camera pulled back to show that the recital was taking place during a dinner party. “[The costume design] is that finely balanced,” Clapton says. “You’re trying to say something, and you have to think so carefully about how something should be. I also want to throw the audience off sometimes. That’s where I have my fun.”

About the author

P. Claire Dodson is an assistant editor at Fast Company. Follow her on Twitter: @Claire_ifying.

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