Confession that will shock absolutely nobody that knows me: I am a huge fantasy nerd. When I heard four and a half years ago that HBO was adapting George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, I became so excited about the idea of a weekly cable fantasy show, despite never having actually read the books. I tracked down the first four titles in the series, finishing them in record time to become well-versed enough in this fictional universe by the time the pilot episode of Game of Thrones premiered.
When turning x-thousand pages of text into a TV show, there are going to be some changes. Having had these books occupy my headspace before the show aired, I had very clear ideas of how things should look—specifically, the clothes. Martin describes a lot of elaborate doublets and gowns covered in jewels, which brought to my mind Elizabethan fashions. The show’s costume designer Michele Clapton made a conscious decision to mix influences and silhouettes in way that didn’t exist in the books. The showrunners wanted to make a world that was rooted in reality, so different eras were combined in such a way as to create something completely unique. But it wasn’t enough for me to just watch these costumes on the screen—oh, no. As an obsessed fan that loves overanalyzing clothes, I had to pull out my books and figure out what a few differences in costume choices can mean for these characters.
“They dressed [Danaerys] in the wisps that Magister Ilyrio had brought up, and then the gown, a deep plum silk to bring out the violet in her eyes. The girls slid the gilded sandals onto her feet, while the old woman fixed a tiara in her hair, and slid golden bracelets encrusted with amethysts on her wrists. Last of all came the collar, a heavy golden torc emblazoned with ancient Vallyrian glyphs.”
Martin’s costume descriptions are typically pretty brief, so an outsider to the fandom would be forgiven for assuming he isn’t a stickler to detail. (They would be proven wrong by his extensive depictions of meals alone—squirrel stew, anyone?). One thing he does manage to include, however, is references to jewels. Most of these are absent in the TV version, probably because the show spent all their budget on weapons and fake bloods, leaving little for realistic looking baubles. (Seriously, whoever had stock in Fake Blood Enterprises Inc. would be loaded off this show alone.) With little to go on regarding the silhouette, Clapton went with a style she called “Grecian,” evident by the cut and draping. I’m mostly impressed that she was able to find a way to make a dress out of wisps. While plum it ain’t, Danaerys looks like she could float away in a fog.
Sansa wears this dress for most of the show’s first season. The coarseness of the fabric and details on the neck tend to be typical dress of the North of the Westeros (where she is from) compared to the South (the new home to which she is trying to adapt). Her season one wardrobe is, to me, a huge missed opportunity—Sansa is one of the few characters who cares about her clothes a lot, so her lack of costume changes, especially during major events, probably wouldn’t fly with the character. A High Lord’s daughter would absolutely have the money to get a few new fancy duds. In other words: way to cheat us out of some costume porn, TV show.
You’ll notice that Sansa’s sister Arya is also wearing her casual dress, pretty much the only dress she ever wears in the show beyond the pilot. Arya’s clothing is rarely described in the first book, as she’s usually dirty and dressed like a boy. Yet in this dress, her neck detailing is messier and more haphazard than her sister’s, and she has cut off her dress’s elaborate dagged sleeves, making it easier to run around and wield a sword. The girl’s priorities are clear.
“[Ser Loras’s] plate was intricately fashioned and enameled as a bouquet of a thousand different flowers, and his snow-white stallion was draped in a blanket of red and white roses. After each victory, Ser Loras would remove his helm and ride slowly around the fence, and finally pluck a single white rose from his blanket and toss it to some fair maid in the crowd.”
This interpretation was not what I was expecting, though I say that not as a criticism. The flower motifs are still there, but they’re way more elaborate than I had imagined, especially that helmet. When I watched this episode, I had to know: did real knights wear armour this elaborate and crazy for tournaments? Research tells me that yep, they absolutely did.
“The queen wore a high collared black silk gown, with a hundred red rubies sewn into her bodice, covering her from neck to bosom. They were cut in the shape of teardrops, as if the queen were weeping blood.”
The show made a conscious decision not to have black be the colour of mourning in Westeros, despite it being so in the books. My theory is that they didn’t want to confuse viewers with the Night’s Watch, a military order that are only allowed to wear black. Sadly, the viewer got cheated out of seeing bloody teardrop rubies (which, not to be morbid, but DREAM FUNERAL ATTIRE).
Clapton has described Cersei’s gowns as kimono-inspired, with a medieval cut, creating a sartorial fusion unique to this character. She is usually the only one who has her sleeves slashed in a way so that her arms are visible. The necklace here is interesting, because it’s almost a Jazz Age-inspired piece, and wouldn’t look out of place on a flapper.
“By the time he was dressed, his squire had laid out his armour, such that it was. Tyrion owned a fine suit of heavy plate, expertly crafted to fit his misshapen body. Alas, it was safe at Casterly Rock, and he was not. He had to make do with some oddments from Lord Lefford’s wagons: mail hauberk and coif, a dead knight’s gorget, lobstered greaves and gauntlets and pointed steel boots. Some of it was ornate, some plain; not a bit of it matched, or fit as it should. His breastplate was meant for a bigger man; for his oversize head, they found a huge bucket-shaped greathelm topped with a foot long triangular spike.”
It doesn’t really make sense that Tywin Lannister would have had Tyrion’s suit of armour with him on the battlefield, since he had no way to know that Tyrion was going to meet him there, and that Tyrion would actually be forced to fight in any battles, but I’m willing to suspend my belief a little bit there. (Even though come on. Am I the only one paying attention?) My guess is that they couldn’t find a way to make realistic, obviously mismatching armour work in a way that wouldn’t suck for the actor to wear. Let’s just pretend that Tywin Lannister was a Boy Scout back in his younger days and taught to “always be prepared,” keeping a spare suit of armour in his travel bag.
“Lord Eddard stood on the High Septon’s pulpit outside the doors of the sept, supported between two of the gold cloaks. He was dressed in a rich grey velvet doublet with a white wolf sewn in the front in beads, and a grey wool cloak trimmed with fur, but he was thinner than Arya had ever seen him before…Clustered around the doors of the sept, in front of the raised marble pulpit, were a knot of knights and high lords. Joffrey was prominent among them, his raiment all crimson, silk and satin patterned with dancing stags and roaring lions, a gold crown on his head. His queen mother stood beside him in a black mourning gown slashed with crimson, a veil of black diamonds in her hair…”
They don’t bother dressing Ned Stark in any finery in the show; this outfit is the one he gets arrested in. What Joffrey is wearing interests me more. What the TV adaptation lacks in coat-stags, it makes up for in his cloak/doublet hybrid. The costume designers finally throw us a bone, as Cersei is also wearing what I like to call her “I’m a Lannister, bitches” dress.
Sansa is in her southern gown. The silk is finer than her other dress, and the wrap style cut with the huge dagged sleeves is one that is only seen in south of The Neck or in King’s Landing. Her hair is also now worn in the southern style, which is reminiscent of Roman hairstyles. However, unlike other instances when she wears this dress, they have added a metal belt to the ensemble. Metal belts tend to be worn by Cersei (she also has one here). Clapton has said she likes to put her in them because they remind her of armour.
“Dany braised [Khal Drogo’s] hair and slid the silver rings onto his mustache and hung his bells one by one. So many bells, gold and silver and bronze. Bells so his enemies would hear him coming and grow weak with fear. She dressed him in horsehair leggings and high boots, buckling a belt heavy with gold and silver medallions about his waist. Over his scarred chest she slipped a painted vest, old and faded, the one Drogo had loved best. For herself she chose loose sandsilk trousers, sandals that laced halfway up her legs, and a vest like Drogo’s.”
Dany dresses in the Dothraki style in the books to show solidarity with her dead husband—they’re a matching pair. In the show, she’s dressed in another Grecian-inspired gown similar to the one that she wears on her wedding day, which brings us full circle. Her choice of a gown also makes her look more like a queen, and less like a Khaleesi (the title referring to the wife of the khal, which is—oh, go watch the show already). But what I find most compelling is the way her dress evokes Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” in the closing shot, with Danaerys naked in the ashes of the pyre and the dragons hanging in strategic places. It’s a lovely visual treat that reminds the viewers that sometimes watching a filmed adaptation can be worth it. Even if there is a sorry lack of rubies.
illustration // Emily Taylor