15 Secrets from the Game of Thrones Costume Department
From the Dothraki’s leather ensembles to Jon Snow’s (IKEA) fur-collared cape, what your favorite Game of Thrones character is wearing often says as much about them—and their current position in the quest for power—as the words they speak.
As with every other element of the big-budget series, even the tiniest details are of tantamount importance to the series’s costume department, which has largely been led by costume designer Michele Clapton (whose stunning work can also be seen on The Crown). Here are 15 secrets we uncovered about the people who set the fashions in Westeros.
1. THE COSTUME DEPARTMENT IS HUGE.
With so many warring factions, and each one sporting its own individual style, clothing the cast of Game of Thrones is a massive job. Clapton once estimated that she oversees the creation of approximately 120 principal costumes per season, and has a team of about 70 to 100 people working with her at any given time. Among the specialists she has on call are embroiderers, leather workers, printers, cutters, armorers, metal workers, dyers, and jewelers.
2. THE COSTUMES REFLECT A CHARACTER’S POSITION AND STATE OF MIND, AND ARE CONSTANTLY EVOLVING.
When asked how she has managed to keep the characters’ looks so fresh after logging so much time on the show, Clapton told Fast Company, “It’s relatively easy, as the costumes are related to each character’s journey. So they’re a reaction to their situation, state of mind, or direction—whatever really is happening to them, or whatever they are trying to make happen.”
“It’s so exciting because we can almost go anywhere as long as it makes sense,” Clapton told the Los Angeles Times of the creative freedom she enjoys on the show. “If [the characters] live on a windy, rocky island, like the Greyjoys do, then they dress accordingly: They have costumes made of heavy, densely woven cloth that are waxed and painted with fish oil to help keep out the wind. Everything has a reason for being there.”
3. MANY OF THE FABRICS ARE MADE FROM SCRATCH.
"Ninety-nine percent of the costumes are made in-house, in Belfast,” Clapton told the Los Angeles Times. “We have everything on site: our armorers, our weavers, and our embroiderers. We weave our own fabric with our loom—many of the fabrics are literally made from scratch.”
4. EBAY CAN BE A GODSEND.
While Clapton often dips into the massive collection of materials and trinkets she has assembled over the years—including all sorts of beads, shells, stones, crystals, feathers, and leather pieces—there are times where a costume requires her to look outside of her own library of goodies. This was definitely the case when she was assembling the bone armor worn by the Wildlings. Fortunately, there’s eBay. Clapton ended up sourcing many of the bones from the online auction site, which her team then molded and assembled into armor using string and latex.
5. DAENERYS TARGARYEN AND CERSEI LANNISTER’S LOOKS HAVE EVOLVED THE MOST.
Of all the characters on the series, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) may have had the most makeovers. In the show’s earliest days, she was often seen in sheer, light-colored dresses to reflect her innocence. After being sold to Khal Drogo by her brother, she adapted to the Dothraki’s leather-clad warrior style. As she struggled to find her place in the world, her femininity was again emphasized with skin-baring gowns. But now, determined to claim the Iron Throne as her own, her style has been reimagined yet again.
“She’s this figurehead of her army,” Clapton told Uproxx. “I wanted her to be able to stand in front of the Unsullied and be their leader.” And that chain she wears across her chest? “She can’t have a crown, she hasn’t conquered yet,” Clapton said. “But I loved this [idea] of this chain of intent … I think it’s quite interesting that we finally see her embracing her brother’s ambition. What does that say? You’re seeing the beginning of something. We’re not at the end yet and I think it’s very important at this moment that we start seeing who she is.”
Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) is having a militant moment, too. Having been re-crowned as Queen (at least in her own mind), season seven sees her trading in embellished gowns for what looks more like a suit of armor. The change, according to Clapton, is because “She’s still in mourning. She’s lost all her children. It was a high price to pay for this crown … She uses this beading [as] this sense of power but it’s all quite brittle and it’s all an adornment. It’s not part of the dress. She has a collar and she has these shoulder pieces, but they’re separate from the dress. Everything’s removable and I thought it was really important that her dress, the simple dress underneath is really uncluttered. She’s in mourning. She puts these things on to show strength but there’s a brittleness in that strength.”
6. THERE’S A TEAM OF PEOPLE WHO MAKE THE COSTUMES LOOK WORN.
While some characters have managed to make it to the seventh season while remaining perfectly coiffed (see: Cersei, with the exception of that Walk of Shame), making a play for the Iron Throne can be a dirty business. As such, according to Clapton’s website, she also employs a “breakdown team, consisting of painters and textile artists whose job is to destroy and repair the costumes in order to make them appear to be old and worn, giving them a more realistic feel.”
7. LOOK CLOSELY AT ANY EMBROIDERY AND YOU’RE LIKELY TO SEE A SECRET MESSAGE.
Though the current season of Game of Thrones has adopted a more militaristic look for most of the main characters, as we hurtle toward the series finale and find out who (if anyone) ends up nabbing the Iron Throne, previous seasons have featured a lot of delicate embroidery. From 2011 to 2016, the show even employed its very own master embroiderer, Michele Carragher, who worked with Clapton to create designs that matched the show’s narrative.
“The embroidery is a subliminal way to tell someone's story," Clapton told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014. By way of example, she cited the beadwork seen on Sansa Stark’s (Sophie Turner) dress when she married Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) in season three, which traced the winding road she took to get to that wedding day. “You can see the influence of her mother, Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley), in the House of Tully fish that swim around her body, then the emergence of the Stark Direwolf and eventually the heavy stamp of the Lannister lion on the back of her neck."
8. THOSE TINY DETAILS MATTER, AND ARE WHAT MAKE THE SHOW SO UNIQUE.
With such a large landscape to look at, one reporter wondered whether the costume department’s attention to even the smallest details really mattered, as most viewers were likely to miss them. Clapton adamantly disagreed. “People watch TV on screens the size of a movie screen now,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “And devoted fans watch episodes over and over. After three or four viewings, you start to see these details. And that's why we do it. That's what makes Game of Thrones special."
9. THEY RARELY MAKE DUPLICATES OF ANY ONE OUTFIT.
Given the costume department’s attention to detail, it’s hardly surprising that crafting a single costume—particularly the more elaborate dresses worn by the female characters—can be a time-consuming process. (It took Carragher 14 days just to stitch Sansa’s aforementioned wedding dress.) Because of this, Clapton said they rarely make duplicates, which is standard practice on most other shows in case a costume is dirtied or damaged.
10. JON SNOW’S CAPE IS PRACTICALLY ITS OWN CHARACTER.
Though Jon Snow’s (Kit Harington) changing look hasn’t been quite as dramatic as his aunt’s, the heavy cape that he wears is a major statement piece. The production team has logged a lot of hours discussing whether or not he should be wearing the cape—which is worn partly in tribute to Ned Stark (Sean Bean), the man he believes is his father—during pivotal scenes.
“We had a lot of discussions about does the cape give him presence or is it better to not have that presence? What are we trying to say?” Clapton told Uproxx. “There are times when we removed it because we wanted him to be more vulnerable. Especially I think, when he saw Dany, and he went to see her for the first time in her chamber. We decided to remove it, but then when he went to see Cersei, we put it on.”
11. SANSA STARK’S CAPE IS ALSO A TRIBUTE TO HER FATHER.
Like Jon, who she believes is her bastard brother, Sansa is often seen draped in a cape of her own—and it, too, is a tribute to her late father. “Sansa's cape ... represents Ned and her desire to take on more of a leadership role at Winterfell,” Clapton said.
12. THOSE CAPES MAY LOOK LUXURIOUS, BUT THEY’RE NOT.
In what might be one of the greatest testaments to the costume team’s talent and creativity, Clapton—while discussing the series at the Getty Museum—revealed that those capes we’ve all been admiring “are actually IKEA rugs. We take anything we can; we cut and we shave them and then we added strong leather straps.”
In the wake of this admission, IKEA created a set of instructions for how to turn your SKOLD rug into the ultimate Game of Thrones cape.
13. NIPPLES PRESENTED A PROBLEM FOR THE COSTUME DESIGNER.
When asked by Fast Company whether there was ever a time where she tried something for a costume that didn’t work, Clapton said that it was “hard to think of an instance because the costumes are developed and discussed long before they make it to the set, but there are one or two that get through. I hated the Sand Snakes nipples on their armor. I really thought that we had eliminated the problem, but when lit they really showed. I was mortified.”
14. THERE’S A THEME THAT CONNECTS ALL OF THE MAIN FEMALE CHARACTERS.
When discussing the many changing styles of all of the series’s characters, Clapton told Insider that though they’ve each taken very different routes to arrive at their current positions, there’s “just a showing of strength among the women, and in a funny way this is true with Sansa as well. She has the chain, she has the circle, she's bringing all that she's been through to her costume. You need to look at the story. Her strength and the way that she's clothed to protect herself from the things that have happened. At the same time, she's beginning to assert herself as an independent woman and not actually being manipulated by anyone anymore. And so it's just a stepping forward of each of these three women—well fourth, if you include Arya."
15. IT’S IMPORTANT TO KEEP CGI IN MIND.
Given how much of Game of Thrones is action-based, Clapton and her team do need to keep CGI effects in mind. This is particularly true of Daenerys, who has already spent much of this season showing off her dragon-riding skills, which need to be accounted for when designing her outfits.
“We are always striving for movement in the costumes when Dany is on the dragon,” Clapton told Vanity Fair, “but we are aware of other departments, such as visual effects. If costumes move too much, they are difficult for them to work with. We all try to work together to achieve the best result we can.”