Let’s talk about gowns and wigs, shall we? After all, if our years of covering costume design hasn’t made us capable of holding forth on the topic, then certainly our years of covering drag queens has made us somewhat close to the borders of Expertville. Besides, we’ve spent a small amount of time talking about the fashions of Westeros before. In fact, it was our minor dabbling in analyzing the costumes of Game of Thrones that actually made us want to delve a little into the looks of its prequel series House of the Dragon because they’re so different that it took us a few episodes to really get a handle on them. We’ll have much more to say about the costumes as the series progresses, but for now, we’re going to focus on the women in the first two episodes, “The Heirs of the Dragon” and “The Rogue Prince,” largely because the women are always the most interesting characters in these stories, which is one of the main things (along with all the sex and stomach-churning violence) that distinguishes George R.R. Martin’s work from Tolkien’s.
We’re going to do something here that we don’t normally do in our costume discussions: critique. While we’re much more interested in looking at costume design from a semiotic perspective, we feel like we have to acknowledge something right off the bat if we’re being perfectly honest.
The costumes of House of the Dragon do not, for the most part, look as rich, detailed or well-fitted onscreen as the costumes of Game of Thrones. Now, there are some reasons why that might be so; not least of them being that we’re comparing the work of two different costume designers and we’re also comparing fashions that are meant to have been worn centuries apart from each other. Michele Clapton provided nearly all of the costume designs for Game of Thrones and Janey Temime has stepped in to do the work on House of the Dragon. Both women are highly celebrated in their field, so this isn’t about declaring which did a better job. They’re both at the top of their game and have impressive resumes. We’re a little more interested in unpacking why Temime made some of the choices she did.
Putting aside the question of fit – which is really only an issue with some of Rhaenyra’s and Rhaenys’ pieces – what really threw us was how flimsy some of these costumes look. Obviously, we’re not talking about the armor, which is as impressive as armor gets, and certainly King Viserys isn’t hurting for high-quality pieces in his wardrobe, but the first two episodes spent considerable time with Alicent Hightower and Rhaenyra and it took us a good while to adjust to the styles. The main reason why they seem less structured and much flimsier than the costumes we were used to seeing on Game of Thrones is a simple one: it’s not winter. Winter isn’t coming; not for a long time, and the story so far is set in the southern hemisphere. These are summer children. No Winterfell, no Night’s Watch, no Starks, no fur, very little leather or wool and a lot less velvet. It should probably also be noted that Alicent and Rhaenyra, while both varying degrees of high-born, are in no way major players the way, say, Daenerys and Cersei were at the height of their powers. They’re girls in an overwhelmingly patriarchal system, waiting to see what the world will let them be. It wouldn’t be right to drape them in too much power – which is, after all, what fine clothes are among the high-born of Westeros.
We also noted the repeated use of embroidered or embellished trim on otherwise fairly plain pieces. This is a far cry from the massive sleeves, rich brocades, and trailing hems favored by Cersei Lannister, Margaery Tyrell and other high-born, power-seeking women of centuries later. As we noted in last week’s podcast, we think there’s a pretty good reason for why the clothes are simpler, with more naive embellishments. To make our point, we’re going ask you to focus on the jewelry for a second.
Check out the earrings and necklaces worn by Alicent, Rhaenyra and Aemma, among others. They have a slightly rough, hand-forged, ancient-world quality to them, like the kind of jewelry worn by wealthy women in ancient Greece or Rome. This is true even of the pieces worn by some of the men:
Compare this to some of the insanely elaborate or meticulously crafted pieces worn 200 years later. This, to us, explains why the costumes feel so different. It’s not just that the weather is warmer. Comparing the Westeros of Viserys’ time with the Westeros of Daenerys’ time is like comparing the England of Henry II to the England of Elizabeth I. In other words, it’s like comparing the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. We’re in a rougher, less refined, quite literally darker time period than the one we’re used to.
Unlike Tolkien, where things like clothing and architecture denoted a character’s racial background, those same elements in Martin are used to signal a character’s family origins. The Targaryen family colors are red and black and we see that in all of their costumes in the first few episodes:
Note how Queen Aemma wears the family red, but not the family black. Her few costumes are mostly red and gold.
As are her daughter’s clothes. In fact, we think it’s pretty clear that while Rhaenyra is currently a princess without power, the family black is largely being denied her. The red signifies her family and the gold signifies her wealth, but without the black, she is largely without any power or influence. To see what a woman with more power looks like, we need only turn to her cousin, the Queen Who Never Was, Rhaenys Velaryon:
To be fair, she never got the kind of power she felt was owed to her, but she and her husband Corlys Velaryon comprise the wealthiest family in all of Westeros. It would not do for Corlys to outdress the King, but you can see the kind of richness in his wife’s styles that Rhaenyra is largely being denied.
Even their daughter Laena dresses in more elaborate than the princess royal, although to be fair, she’s probably wearing the finest dress she owns for this moment, where she’s being presented to Viserys as a potential wife. That is the most elaborate jewelry we’ve seen on anyone so far. There’s very much a tacky sort of child pageant quality to her costume here. So far, Rhaenys and Laena have been shown strictly in blue, which could be seen as a nod to the family’s sea-faring background, much like Corlys’s family crest, which features a seahorse.
Two asides about Rhaenys: 1) We LOVE her wig design (all the rest kinda suck, we’re sorry to say). It plays with the idea of the elaborate hairstyles of wealthy and aristocratic women at the time of, say, Louis XVI, but it owes nothing to real-world hairstyles. It’s big, it’s off the head, but the shape is completely new and alien. We also like the how the twists and braids of her hair are less like the elaborate Targaryen braids and more akin to her husband’s dreads. People signal their family affiliations entirely through their personal style in this world. The second aside – and this one cracks us up – is that she’s wearing to Rhaenyra’s investiture exactly the same dress she wore to the tourney, except with the collar switched out. No aristocratic woman would wear the same dress to a daytime sporting event and a royal investiture unless she felt like the latter was as much a farce as the former. The Queen Who Never Was is not about to waste a new dress on the Girl Who Never Will Be. And speaking of twice-worn blue dresses…
If you pay attention to the timeline of the second episode, Alicent Hightower wore this unusual gown several days in a row. We don’t quite know what to make of that, as she can’t really be considered poor, but we suppose it plays slightly into her sense of restraint and demureness. She’s clearly not a showy sort, although this isn’t exactly a plain gown. The seaming is gorgeous and the cutouts are highly unusual for this setting. We wonder if her father makes her wear this dress, which is alluring without being too obvious about it. EDITED TO ADD: As commenter Kelly Red reminded us, Otto suggested to his daughter that she wear one of her mother’s dresses to visit the King. And speaking of girls in plain dresses doing as their father wishes…
For Rhaenyra’s investiture, she’s suddenly looking a lot like a Targaryen queen. She’s wearing the black and much more of the red, while her jewelry and all of her clothing is much more elaborate than anything we’ve seen. This all makes perfect sense, of course. Rhaenys aside, you don’t wear a day dress to your investiture. In Westeros, you wear your power on your sleeve and in this moment, with all of the seven kingdoms bending the knee to her, Rhaenyra is in her glory – and looks the part. And speaking of bending the knee and looking the part…
Rhaenyra defies both her father and the Council by jumping on the back of her dragon and enacting a showdown at Dragonstone with her Uncle Daemon, who has stolen the dragon egg that had been put aside for her dead brother. Talk about wearing your power on your sleeve; she’s literally sporting the dragon scales that mark her as a dragon rider of House Targaryen. Aside from her investiture gown, this is the most elaborate (and heaviest) costume she’s worn yet. It is, of course, impossible to see this costume and not think of Daenerys’ dragon-riding coats, which were all very similar in shape and style. It makes us think that Daenerys might have been paying homage to, if not outright cosplaying as one of her great female ancestors while she was trying to seize power for herself in much the same way, facing many of the same obstacles.
More to come! We’ll be doing further costume examinations and you can check out our podcast tomorrow for all of our thoughts on the second episode.
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