Queens Seizing Power: The Meanings Behind The Season 7 Costumes of “Game of Thrones”

Posted on August 22, 2017

 

It all started with that coat. That glorious coat.

 

 

 

When Daenerys got the word from a super-sonic raven that her beloved nephew Jon was trapped in a stupid situation entirely of his own devising way up north, Miss Unburnt, Mother of Dragons, Breaker of Chains herself broke out the latest from the Dragonstone winter runways, shoved her only occasionally brilliant adviser out of the way, and leapt onto the back of her dragon, looking every inch the Queen of Winter. Mother of Dragons? Mother of FIERCENESS. Come THROUGH, Miss Dany. Elsa is invited to take all the seats.

Okay, with that bit of finger-snapping out of the way, we’ll dispense with (most of) the hyperbole. It didn’t really all start with that coat. The costumes of Game of Thrones, almost entirely the work of the brilliant Michele Clapton, have always been beautifully rendered pieces of character-enforcing, world-building, theme-enhancing art, since the show’s beginning. But Clapton may just have outdone herself with that one gorgeous, dragon-inspired piece. Up until that moment, if someone had asked us what our favorite Game of Thrones costume was, we’d have been hard-pressed to whittle all our favorites down to one. Now? It’s not even a question. That one garment should, if the world was just, secure Michele Clapton another Emmy. It may just be the most-discussed TV show costume in several years. And it, along with several other discussion-worthy costumes that popped up this season, finally prompted us to get off our asses and do an examination of the themes found in her work. Some day, (possible 2018 goal), we’d like to do a From-Day-One examination of all the GOT costumes, but for now, for this post, we’re sticking to the major, over-riding theme of season 7: The Game of Thrones is now almost entirely a game played by queens. All of the overt power plays and power struggles going on in the story are being instituted by women, and even women with no interest in ruling are seizing power or reveling in the gaining of it. And all of this is reflected so strongly in the costumes it’s almost as if they have dialogue. Let’s look at how each woman (and one man) is dressing differently and demonstrating their much-raised status this season.

 

Queen Cersei

There are two Cersei quotes, from the character-building, foreshadowing-heavy early days of the show that best sum up her style direction upon taking the Iron Throne. The first, said to her husband Robert, whom she considered soft and timid about ruling: “I should wear the armor and you the gown.” Now that virtually all her old foes and anyone who crossed her has now been vanquished and she rules the way she always felt she should have, she has found a way to wear both, by combining armor or armor-like elements with stripped-bare gowns rendered entirely in black.

Note the amazing cutout design of this entirely leather gown. Seriously. She’s wearing a black leather gown. That’s like nothing seen on the show up until this point. It could be argued that she switched to an all-black wardrobe because she’s in mourning (Is black even a mourning color in Westeros? Serious question.) for her dead children or because the weather’s getting colder and like everyone else in the story, she’s switching to a darker, winter-appropriate palette. Without denying the likelihood of either of those takes, we tend to see her adoption of black to be of a piece with a major costuming motif this season: queens ascending by taking on the trappings of the men who influenced them. In Cersei’s case, her wardrobe most resembles that of her late father Tywin, who also favored minimalist black ensembles with touches of silver. Note the tight sleeves (as opposed to the enormous, to-the-floor-sleeves in the King’s Landing mode that she sported for most of the series), high collar and padded shoulders. Despite still being in a floor-length gown, she gives the impression of being unencumbered and powerfully built.

 

Possibly the most glaring representation of her earlier quote. This is as much armor as it is gown. Note how her lion’s head shoulder armor mimics the Lannister family armor that Jaime is wearing. Michele Clapton has found a way to outfit Cersei in a manner that evokes the grand historically European styles that inspired most of the show’s costumes while stripping away virtually anything that speaks of docility or secondary status. In other words, she’s still outfitted in the silhouette of a queen but with virtually none of the trappings. Even her crown is small. This speaks of a second telling quote she once uttered to Littlefinger, after he smugly offered that knowledge is the same thing as power. “Power is power,” she replied, after providing a demonstration with her guards. Cersei, after everything she’s been through and everything she’s lost, is not particularly interested in the trappings of power. She’s had them most of her life and takes them for granted now. Besides, they never did much for her except build a gilded cage around her. She’s far less interested in shows of ostentatious wealth (no jewelry except her ring, which is as much a symbol of royal power as a crown) as she is in demonstrations of pure power.

 

This is not a mourning gown. This is not a gown worn because the weather is getting colder. This is a gown worn to intimidate; worn to make the wearer larger, darker, and as ominous and untouchable as possible.

 

Note how even a simple dress that’s probably not meant to be worn outside her chambers is still as black as night, tightly fitted, and high-collared as anything else she’s wearing. Like all the three main queens of this post, Cersei is a survivor of sexual assault. Not just in her marriage to Robert, but most recently, in her humiliating walk of shame, from which she most likely will never recover. Like all three queens, she has responded to this by covering herself up completely. Wearing armor isn’t just a show of power; it’s a way of preventing injury as well.

 

Queen Daenerys

Like Cersei, Daenerys went through a very deliberate image change upon taking a throne in Westeros. Like Sansa and to a lesser extent Arya, Daenerys’ costumes have reflected the culture and climate of the lands she was living in. When she was Khaleesi, she dressed more like a Dothraki woman. When she declared herself Queen of Meereen, she dressed in something of a hybrid between Targaryan family motifs and southern Essosian styles, (strong shoulders paired with light, flowy fabrics and occasionally pants with boots and overskirts). Now that she’s back on the shores of Westeros, she’s hewing much closer to the styles of her family. The v-shape and the strong horizontal shoulder evoke the costumes of her brother Viserys, as does her new preference for gray and black ensembles.

Unlike Cersei, however, Daenerys is fairly obsessed with the trappings of power. She has to win a war for people’s hearts, as Tyrion keeps advising her, and she can’t afford to strip herself of the symbols of royalty the way Cersei has. Dany needs to put on something of a show, and she knows it.

Note how overt the dragon references are in her costumes now. There’s a red undertone to this one, as well as motifs that evoke scales and claws. Note how she’s wearing a split overskirt over a pair of pants. Like Cersei, she understands that a woman seizing power in this world needs to look powerful. Cersei chose strong shoulders and ominously powerful-looking gowns. Dany chose strong shoulders, dragon motifs, and pants.

 

 

Note that once she claims Dragonstone back as her family seat, she starts wearing this gorgeous three-headed dragon on a chain. She hasn’t chosen to wear a crown yet, even though she fully claims the title of Queen. This is her way of showing power while still providing the illusion that the people will eventually provide her with a crown.

Note also the pleated-skirt motif, which repeats both in her costumes and Missandei’s.

 

Note how consistently rendered her image is. All of her ensembles have small touches to differentiate them (in this instance, the fur-lined sleeves and collar), but despite the seemingly countless number of them, they’re all still the same gray or black, high-necked, tight-sleeved, horizontal shouldered, V-shaped dress coat over a pair of pants and boots. There’s a vaguely military feel to it, especially when she wears a sash with it.

Note also the major difference between her and Cersei: the hair. Cersei prefers to keep hers as stripped-bare as her costumes after decades of having to wear enormous and elaborate hairstyles in the King’s Landing mode (and then being forcibly shorn of it). Dany, needing to constantly re-affirm her queenliness without using a crown, has opted to seriously bump up her hair game. The point of such an elaborate hairstyle is the same as it’s always been with elaborate hairstyles throughout history: I can afford to have someone spend hours doing this for me. It is yet another form of intimidation through the use of presentation. Just a far more subtle one.

 

Another example of how there are slight touches of red in her costumes now. Note how the sash evokes dragon scales. Note how, despite her tiny size and queenly hair, the costume exudes authority and demands respect.

We’d been spending all of this season marveling at Daenerys’ gorgeous clothes, but we, like a whole lot of other people, gasped out loud when she got the call to enter the fray:

 

Stunning. After seeing her in so much gray and black all season, it was a shock to the senses to see her in a geometrically patterned white. This shock is a visual representation of the sensory shock Dany would be feeling, first for being in a cold climate for the first time in her life, and second, for coming face to face with something that drastically changed her entire world view in an instant – AND took one of her children from her. In other words, Dany’s been shocked to the core and this costume, among many other things, symbolizes just that. We feel that change in her because she has never looked like this before.

This is not just breathtaking, it’s also the most literal representation of her Dragon Queen nomenclature yet. She’s sported various details to evoke her connection to her “children,” but this is the first time she stepped out in something designed to literally make her look less human; literally blur the line between her and her dragons. The ridges of the fur evoke the bumps and ridges of the dragons, while the offset brown fur in the back clearly symbolizes their backs and tails. This was deployed exactly at this moment to secure the highest emotional response from the audience when they were forced to watch one of her children die slowly and horribly. You had to believe that she was a mother watching one of her beloved children die. Emilia Clarke may not have been up to the task of delivering those emotions onscreen, but thanks to this stunning piece, she almost didn’t have to. We know she’s their mother because she looks like them.

We would put this one costume very high on the list of the greatest fantasy costumes of all time. It’s that stunning and that well-rendered. And it deserves to be as iconic as Darth Vader or Gandalf, to be frank.

 

Lady Sansa Stark

Sansa is not literally a queen, although her storyline and her costume motifs share quite a few similarities with Daenerys’ and Cersei’s. She has found herself in a position of power after being rendered powerless for most of her life. She has found not only that she’s good at being powerful, but that she likes it quite a bit. Unlike Cersei and Dany, however, her quest isn’t about conquering others to gain power but solely about protecting and re-establishing the power of her family in the North.

Like both queens, she’d been passed around, passed over, and exploited. Like both queens, she survived by luck, force of will, and shrewdness. Like both queens, she had to turn herself into something colder and less human in order to not only survive, but to gain or regain power for herself. Like both queens, she is inspired by influential men with whom she frequently disagreed and that is reflected in her costume design. For Cersei, it was Tywin; for Dany, Viserys. In Sansa’s case, she’s dressing like Jon Snow. But its less about looking like her half-brother and more about the same thing all these ruling women have to deal with: Looking the part. In Sansa’s case, she’s sporting the blacks, grays, and broad, fur-draped shoulders of the Warden of the North, whose name is Stark. Like Cersei and and Dany, Sansa’s costumes are extremely fitted and tailored, with multiple elements utilized to evoke power and status. She may not have a dragon sash or a crown, but what she does have is the most finely produced garments to be found in the north. The pleating on the skirt, frayed lattice-work on the bodice, fine leather belt and chain – they all speak to money, power and influence. This was an ensemble that took some time and craftsmanship to produce, even if it’s not embroidered in silk or shot through with silver strands. This is haute couture, Winterfell-style. It shares similarities with her parents and her half-brother’s costumes, but with much more finely rendered details. This is important because Arya will be accusing her of loving power and pretty things. It wouldn’t do to have her standing there in one of Catelyn’s old burlap pinafores and a sensible braid. Note, for instance, how much her hair evokes season-one Cersei. That’s not Northern Girl hair. That’s King’s Landing hair. To Arya, it’s revolting to see her like this, dressed so finely and sporting the hair of their enemies.

Note also how Sansa has almost literally chained her body up. She has no intention of opening herself up to the kinds of physical abuse she suffered. Like the queens, she is living her history through her clothing, while also establishing her power and preventing herself from being exposed to further abuse.

But it’s not just queens and high-born ladies seeking power to rule in this tale. Game of Thrones has always been a story about power itself, and the ways in which those born high and low suffer to seek more of it. We could go off on a tangent examining practically anyone still left alive at this point, but we’ll restrict ourselves to three characters who support the motifs of power-seeking and the displaying of your personal history through your presentation.

 

Arya Stark

Arya is something of a hypocrite, whether the story wants to admit it or not. The former cup-bearer of Tywin Lannister doesn’t really have any room to judge Sansa for doing what she had to to survive. And if the story won’t overtly make that point, the costume design is doing it rather subtly. This is a new ensemble for Arya. While she’s clearly eschewing the pretty dresses she seems to think characterize her sister, she’s nonetheless wearing some incredibly meticulous and finely rendered clothing, the likes of which she’s never worn except when she lived at Winterfell.

In other words, Arya came home to the seat of her family’s wealth – which Sansa suffered mightily to re-secure – and then helped herself to the kind of fine craftsmanship available to House Stark in order to put together this finely crafted ensemble. Like Sansa and Daenerys, Arya’s costumes reflect where she’s been, as well as the most influential men in her life. This owes quite a bit to the styles worn in Braavos, but specifically evokes the costume of her first fighting teacher, Syrio Forel. The laced jerkin with the capped shoulders is very Braavos, as is the loincloth-like skirt over the pants. The brown leather windowpane-quilted vest and pulled-back hairstyle is very Ned Stark. But that kind of quilting and fine leather is miles away from the literal rags she was wearing when she walked up to the gate of Winterfell and demanded to be let in.

 

Missandei

It might seem odd to place Missandei alongside all the other power-seeking women in the story, but in her own quiet way, she’s living and re-affirming the ideals and motifs found in the stories of other women. Like all the women mentioned, she is now experiencing a level of power she never felt before after a lifetime of exploitation. Like the other women, she is dressing now to signify her status but also to pay homage to the important people in her life as well as the places she’s been. Clearly, much of this ensemble is designed to mimic a Targaryen family ensemble, with the same high neck, horizontal shoulders and V-shape. She’s also sporting a circular three-headed dragon brooch, which situates her visually between Daenerys and Tyrion (who sports the circular Hand of the Queen brooch). But unlike Dany, she’s wearing a criss-cross leather harness with the circle motif found in a lot of Meereenese clothing. This reminds us not only of where she’s been, but also of her origins as a slave and even of her connection to Grey Worm of the Unsullied, who also sported a leather harness.

 

Tyrion Lannister

And finally, in the power-seeking sweepstakes, there’s Tyrion. To be honest, he sits somewhat outside the themes and motifs we’ve been discussing here. Like many of the queens, he’s been cast aside, exploited and passed over. Like them, he secured his way back into a position of influence. Like them, he’s showing it in his clothing, which is darker than ever and hasn’t been this finely rendered since he left King’s Landing.

In truth, we really only included him here because the work on his costumes has been no less stunning than any of the women’s we’ve already highlighted. The stripe motif in his looks is new (we think), but what really caught our eye with his costumes this season is how exquisitely tailored they are. That striped jerkin was made by someone who’s been making Peter Dinklage’s costumes for years and knows his body dimensions better than he does.

Note how he eschews the more Targaryen-esque motifs that Dany and Missandei favor. He’s dark and sober in his style, and he’s finely rendered like a man of his position should be, but it sure does look to us like he’s still basically dressing like a Lannister. No horizontal shoulder, V-shape, pleats or even dragon motifs to be found anywhere on his designs. He’s not just being influenced by his past in his clothing; he’s indicating that he still might be stuck in it.

 

[Photo Credit: HBO – Stills: Tom and Lorenzo, HBO]

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