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Silk, Fur And Oyster Shells: The Costumes Of “Game Of Thrones”

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

Costume designer Michele Clapton was happy to embrace the challenge designing costumes for the wide variety of evolving cultures and classes that compose “Game of Thrones.” Reflecting back to the pilot episode, Clapton realized she was in for a life-altering experience from the show’s commencement.

“I was absolutely terrified. We were working in the Devil’s Floor in South Africa, and I was working with a crew I hadn’t used before,” said Clapton. “It was completely exciting, but also terrifying. I’m glad it was a slow step; as you grow into it, you realize you have great support, everyone wants to be part of the team.”

Now in it’s third season, “Game of Thrones” follows seven feuding families all vying for control of “The Iron Throne” that will grant them ultimate rule over all. Each family comes from a different region plotted over a map. In addition to the seven pivotal families, there are also communities, nomads and other super-natural forces roaming the land. Fully aware each season would become more complex as battles waged, new tribes were introduced and social caste systems exposed, Clapton worked closely with production designer Gemma Jackson from the start to develop a system that allowed them to create styles, assign materials, and provide authenticity as the series unfolded.

“Gemma and I sat down together knowing it would grow. We wanted to be able to find new places to go down the line,” said Clapton. “We decided to be clear on architecture and climate to help give an armature for all the bits. We studied the map of Westeros and developed flair and flavor to the cultures. The reality of their setting and climate dictated how people would look. These factors helped to define what materials were available to them, and what colors to use.”

Focusing on three key words: “Why” “How” and “Where,” Clapton was able to create costumes that resonated with the reality of each culture. The Starks, for example, wouldn’t use metal in their clothing because the weather is too cold. However, with much time on the women’s hands, there would be very elaborate embroidery. Their culture would trade for jewels, and this would be a show of wealth. The Lannisters, on the other hand, have a wider breath for trading and would have greater access to materials. Their color palette is deeper, focusing primarily on red, highlighting their aggressive nature. Many of the citizens of King’s Landing wear rough cotton outfits.

When creating costumes, Clapton develops ideas from the top level of social standing to the lower levels of society. The fashion of the rich or regal would filter down over twenty years, and be adapted into the style of the lower classes. The prostitutes try to emulate the styles much sooner, however without the same wealth, their fashion tends to be a bit gaudy. Just as with modern culture’s desire to follow trends and emulate high fashion, the ability of lower rung characters who are able to emulate the court costumes makes for a more cohesive, believable society.

Clapton maintains believability in the costumes by using authentic materials and fabrics that would be available to the people of Westeros. With the HD cameras, she has found using authentic material is necessary to maintain believability – fake furs, for example, would read poorly on camera, so real furs are used. The materials, including raw silks, are dyed and printed in their workshop. The costumes are not mass produced, rather they are made by hand to ensure there are no modern technologies that may affect authenticity. In addition to all costumes being made by hand, each piece of material has to be aged by hand.

“With the HD cameras, we have to go through the process of adding sweat, dirt, and dust very carefully so it doesn’t look like it was applied by hand,” said Clapton. “We’ll gather dirt and dust from the location and a team works on doctoring the material.”

In season three a large amount of fabric was re-used. Costumes were taken apart and fabrics re-dyed. Clapton was very excited to recycle the material; in addition to being thrifty, she felt reusing materials such as furs added an additional life to them. Furs are common amongst the Night Watch and the Wildlings, and many of the characters being introduced have been engaged in battle or long journeys. The reused material reflects a realistic wear to the fabric.

While Clapton overseas all costume creation and has the final review of everything before it goes on screen, she is reliant on a team that spans multiple locations to get all the work done. She has two assistant designers who’ve worked beside her since season one who assist with everything from finding fabric and embellishments, as well as outside crafts people, including Italian armorers who have been invaluable for their contributions to the battle scenes. Another 180 people round out the costume department.

“It’s been a great family; all but three members of our team will be returning for season four,” said Clapton. “I’ve enjoyed watching trainees who have really had a great chance to shine and grow as designers. It’s been absolutely a pleasure to nurture someone’s creativity.”

Although Clapton feels proud of all the costumes in the show, she especially enjoys the creative freedom that comes with designing the outfits worn by the Wildlings. This tribe of outcasts live off the land and incorporate their kills into their wardrobe. Clapton found a way to twist fabric and make it rubbery to resemble guts, which is worked into their fur coats. Because the Wildlings don’t have metal for armor, they use material they find along their journeys, such as oyster shells. She also really enjoyed creating costumes for Marjory and Cersia, two women engaged in a bitter jealousy at King’s Landing over the actions of Joffrey. She’s being telling their emotional stories through the clothing they where.

Another favorite over the course of the series has been Daenerys Targaryen. Her costumes have evolved as she has grown and tried to find her own identity. When first introduced, she was dressed the way her brother dictated. Once she was married to Drogo, she adapted to the skins and jewelry his tribe wore. After arriving at Kath in season two, she work silks and materials found there, but still maintained a male sensibility to express her authority. In season three, her character has returned to wearing the blue of the Dorthraki. She is now becoming her own woman, and beginning to develop her own style.

Once season three wrapped, Clapton jumped at the chance to participate in working on the feature film “Before I Go to Sleep,” a psychological thriller being shot in London. She felt the change of pace was refreshing after a season of working in Westeros. She looks forward to returning to season four of “Game of Thrones” and the challenges that lie ahead.

“Gemma and I will really have to go back to the map and look at where we are,” said Clapton. “We keep spreading out farther and farther, it really will be a challenge.”