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Warning: spoilers below for both the TV series and the books!
Long live the queen — but which one? Game of Thrones might have kicked into high gear with the War of the Five Kings, but as the show approaches its penultimate season (starting July 16th on HBO) the Iron Throne is occupied by a queen: Queen Cersei, the first of her name, who is about to be besieged by threats from all sides. (“Enemies from the east, enemies from the west, enemies from the south, enemies from the north...”) And for the first time, most of her foes are female. (Or White Walkers. Are there any female White Walkers in Westeros? Inquiring minds want to know.)
Thanks to the genius of the show’s costume designer, Michele Clapton, many of the show’s season 7 clues lie in the characters’ clothing. In fact, very few elements of the key players’ costumes — from fabrics to embroideries to metalwork — are chosen without some sort of reason. Luckily for us, Clapton was happy to help strip away the finery and talk about the symbolism underneath as our favorite women get ready for war.
Let’s start with Cersei, who has thrown away all pretense of her Baratheon marriage-alliance and fully embraced her Lannister lineage. She’s always worn the more subtle Lannister lion pendant, but now both her crown and her epaulets feature the lion sigil. With its high neckline and sleek cut, this black tunic is a severe look for Cersei — particularly compared to the days when she wore long, flowing red-and-gold gowns with bell sleeves — but one that nods to the fact that she’s still in mourning. “She’s lost all her children, yet she’s gained the throne,” Clapton points out.
The collar and shoulder pieces are removable, Clapton says, because they’re not integral to the dress. “It’s not something that’s part of her because she’s the queen,” she says. “It’s ceremonial. And it becomes incredibly brittle.” It reveals that Cersei is in a transition period, and her extra armor — an upgrade from her old steel belts and breastplates — tells us that the character’s paranoia is increasing, and possibly shifting. Now, Cersei quite literally needs to protect her neck.
(Fans of George R. R. Martin’s books have long debated who will eventually strangle Cersei. In HBO’s series, a woods witch foresees the deaths of Cersei’s children, but leaves out the prophecy’s little detail about Cersei’s own future: that she will die at the hands of the “valonqar,” or little sibling. Whether or not this event will come to pass, Cersei’s neck armor seems to nod to her fears.)
Something else that’s reflected in Cersei’s season 7 looks? The ghost of Tywin. The silhouette, the fitted sleeves, the leather, and the ankle-skimming hem all allow for more movement, and also reflect her efforts to grab power. Another curious detail: Instead of Lannister gold, Cersei wears silver. A reminder that the Lannisters won’t be able to pay their debts after all?
As Cersei rejects her house colors, Daenerys finally embraces hers — red and black — as she starts to become a full Targaryen. (“Read into that what you will,” Clapton teases.) Sure, it’s just a touch of muted red, but it’s “creeping in” on the embroidery, the scaling, and the pleating on her sash. Just as Cersei now resembles her dead father, Dany begins to resemble her dead brother; note the neckline and extended shoulders. Her outfit also nods to the uniform of her Unsullied soldiers, as she’s now the head of an army. And although Daenerys plans to be queen, she wears no crown. Instead, she wears what Clapton calls “the chain of command,” with dragons’ heads on it. “It’s a precursor to the crown,” Clapton says. “It’s a very symbolic piece of jewelry. It’s a definite statement of intent.”
Instead of parting with her past à la Cersei, Sansa continues to reference it through her clothing, which is a clue to her mindset. In season 7, she wears the Winterfell furs, a nod to her father’s Stark side. One of her dresses features a fish print that reflects her mother’s Tully heritage — although it could also be viewed as the flayed-man symbol from the Bolton banners. “It’s almost like she’s embraced everything that’s happened to her,” Clapton says. “She’s accepted it. She knows she can be independent of all these people who influenced her.” Her costume, then, reflects her gained strength, power, and knowledge.
Sansa has also traded her buckle necklace for a circular pendant, from which dangles a delicate chain ending with a sharp stylus — her version of Arya’s Needle. It, too, could become a weapon. Pay attention to how Sansa’s clothing always features buckles or straps — wrapped around her chest, secured around her waist — as a form of self-protection. “She’s always been enslaved by everyone else, and now she’s completely protected, like she never wants to let anyone near her again,” Clapton explains. This season, Clapton also shortened Sansa’s dresses, so “she’s no longer a victim of hems.” Basically, don’t expect Sansa to sit on the sidelines.
None of the women of Westeros (and beyond) are as adept at changing their identities and appearances as Arya. Many of the characters tend to stick to the same outfit as a show of self-awareness, like Melisandre, or for utility, as is the case with Brienne’s armor. The more secretive Arya, meanwhile, is more likely to be in disguise. So to see her heading home to Winterfell in a muddy brown leather that recalls her father, Ned Stark, might mean that Arya is on her way to becoming herself again. “Ned was the one who got her lessons in swordplay,” Clapton notes. “Ned was her hero. And I love that she came back and she almost wants to be her father. She’s got a nobility to her now.”