Every tiny detail on Game of Thrones is important. Fans know it, and that's why they pay attention to everything, from Sansa's hairstyles to characters' split-second facial expressions. But one of the most reliably theory-generating (and just pure fun) parts of the show—is the costume design. From the unexpectedly fashun looks of uber-villain Euron Greyjoy to what Ed Sheeran was wearing in his controversial cameo, every bit of GoT clothing that appears on screen can be significant.
Those of us who spend every second of the week dissecting Sunday's episode have Thrones costume designer Michele Clapton to thank for her easter-egg-filled, minutely detailed work. Clapton creates hundreds of costumes every season, but during her time off from the HBO drama, she's not exactly resting. She brought that same level of attention to the first season of Netflix's royal drama The Crown. Her equally detailed, rich work on that series has landed her an Emmy nod, and while Clapton has previously scored three Emmys for GoT, she's excited to be recognized for more realistic pieces.
"It's nice to nominated for something else," the costume designer tells ELLE.com. "Initially it was quite strange to work on The Crown. We decided we had to be very correct about key pieces—we couldn't afford to get something that everyone knew about wrong. It was quite intense. With a fictional book, no one really knows, but obviously with The Crown everyone knew what it should look like."
Despite the differences between the two shows, Clapton found common ground in creating costumes for powerful women who needed to be able to showcase both their strength and their vulnerability onscreen. Clapton is always interested in inserting "codes" into her work: small details that reveal something about the character or the story but that might not be immediately noticeable. The costume maven shared some of these particulars with us; here are the delightfully subtle easter eggs that come into play in both hit shows. While she couldn't dish on future episodes, she confirmed a few things for us about the "warehouses full" of GoT costumes—and yes, Sansa is definitely feeling Littlefinger's influence.
Game of Thrones is purposefully becoming less colorful.
"On Game of Thrones, winter has been coming for a very long time—and now winter has come. I love the women on this show and how they relate to each other. It's almost like the closing down of color. It's war. War is coming, and I wanted to strengthen them.
People say 'Where's the color gone?' Well, there is color in there, but it's very subdued. If the end of the world was coming as you know it, you wouldn't actually be colorful and bright. You'd start being incredibly practical. And, actually, you'd be hiding your femininity. I think that's really important. I wanted the strength in them."
Sansa and Cersei's costumes tell you a lot more about them than you might think.
"Within each of their costumes, there are influences. Cersei's costumes emulate her father. Sansa's are part father, part mother. It's her father's silhouette with the fur, her mother's within. The textures are very much from her mother. Even Littlefinger has influenced Sansa, in a way, with the decision of how she loops and wears things. She's taken a lot of knowledge from bad people, and she's hopefully going to use it to good effect one day. I try to always speak to that—where have they come from and what have they been through."
Sansa's costumes are a reaction to her past trauma.
"With one of the key pieces this year, I wanted it to look as if she was actually sewn or laced into her dress—like there was no way in. So I designed a belt that comes around the neck, across the chest and around the waist. She's trying to protect herself from all the awfulness that's happened. It's a form of armor. It will be interesting to see how that moves forward."
Daenerys' confidence shows in her coat.
"With Daenerys, there's a creeping of red within the scaling embroidery of her coat. It's like she's finally beginning to grasp power and she feels closer to the idea of taking the throne, of coming home. Although it's always been her ambition, whether she actually believed she could isn't clear, even though she said she could. So I decided that finally now she can start inhabiting and owning her family's place. I like the emblematic nature of that."
You can tell a lot about Cersei through her clothes.
"Cersei has always spoken a lot through her costumes, often because she didn't have a voice. 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. Whether she's feeling powerful or whether she's feeling bereft, or whatever. I think quite a lot will come through with that this season."
Game of Thrones costumes are often reused or repurposed.
"Sometimes in the first draft of the script there's a really huge scene, and then by the end [of production] it's a two-minute scene—and you've designed a whole town's worth of costumes. That's happened, but you can't not do it. So then next year, maybe those costumes are dyed and cut and changed and broken down and they become something else. We try and be thrifty. We have a lot of extras who might be on the streets within King's Landing, so it's quite nice to be able to use costumes again and change them. But we have hundreds and thousands of costumes. We have two huge warehouses full at the moment."
Some of The Crown's costumes are based on reality, but others interpret the characters' emotions and experiences.
"The Crown is a lot about the behind story, the personal relationships. That's not really documented. Everything you see of the royal family is usually because they want you to see it. Even when they're relaxed at home, it's a set piece. So we decided that scenes like the wedding and the coronation had to be utterly correct. But, for instance, the bridesmaids dresses at the wedding didn't film the way I would have liked them to. So I actually put on a layer of peach tulle to warm them up.
But where we could really have fun were the moments we completely made up. We loved the idea that Margaret wore slacks. We loved the idea that the queen just puts a loose shirt on sometimes. The moment when her father dies and they're trying to find her, she's in Philip's shirt. She's removed from everything that's about to hit her. I like visually telling that story.
I was really intrigued with how Elizabeth felt in this institution of the palace. She is a young woman. Can you imagine being put in that position? I didn't see her wearing her floor-length pretty dresses, because that would make her seem too vulnerable. In the end I went for blocked strong colors, so in a way it was like armor. I felt she would hide behind that initially. And then you see she slowly becomes comfortable in the situation and some of the prettiness comes back. I slowly let that come back into her main wardrobe in the palace, because she felt she could be herself. I thought it was very interesting to show that."
On The Crown, even the jewelry has secret meaning.
"On Game of Thrones I make those secret elements up to tell the story, but on The Crown we often used real jewelry that was given [to the queen] by certain people to explain the mood. For example, there's a beautiful little basket brooch the queen was given at the birth of Prince Charles. It's a lovely prop to use when you feel like she is craving her family or there's something vulnerable about her. It's almost like the kind of things I make up on Game of Thrones actually do exist to be used on The Crown.
Some people miss it, but if you look at Elizabeth and think about whether she's missing her family or affected by something and see the jewelry, it can tell a story. It's a code. And it helps the actor as much as anything. It gives them a sense of where they are."
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Emily Zemler is a freelance writer based in London. She has written for Esquire, ELLE, The Hollywood Reporter, Playboy, Billboard, and Nylon. She has an MFA in Fiction Writing from Sarah Lawrence and is currently working on her first book.
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