The elaborate look of Game of Thrones is one reason it’s won the devotion of fans worldwide—and costume designer Michele Clapton is one of that look’s stewards. The three-time Emmy winner, whose TV credits also include Netflix’s The Crown, has overseen the characters’ evolution through clothes from the first season. For my cover story on Thrones (whose seventh season premieres July 16), she spoke to me in March about some of those transformations and what goes into making the costumes for the biggest show in the world. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation.
In The Crown, there are historical references that are fairly explicit. Westeros does not exist, so what were the initial references you drew on to create a coherent look?
Initially I did read the books or at least some of the books to get an idea, but speaking to David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss, the co-showrunners], they were quite clear they didn’t want it to be too fantastical, though I think the pilot was probably a little bit more so than the series ended up being. So just having discussions with them, it was very much about just creating this reality. It makes it differ from fantastical stories people have seen before—is that it should make sense.
We just sort of talked—okay, we have this huge story that will go on for hopefully a very long time. But initially it’s really confusing, so how do we give it a code? You do that with color, with architecture, all of these things. As long as you create that code and stick to it, you then can explore, you can go anywhere within that area! So you look at the climate, and you look at what’s available, you look at how they would create their costumes, what dyes there are, what materials there are, what they’d need to do…
By setting those rules, it gives you parameters so you don’t go wildly off. It actually all makes sense and comes back. In a funny way you restrict yourself by giving yourself that area. Do they trade? Yeah, they do a bit, but not much, so they have to stick to their wool. It was that sort of thing. Someone, I can’t for the life of me remember who, gave me some great advice early on which is to plan every area—even if you just sketch in lightly “one day I might go to Old Town,” what would that be? You work out that you don’t use all your directions and ideas in one place, so you have somewhere to go when you finally come to the final place. Which was just brilliant advice and I think that’s what made it so successful, that’s what made it so coherent throughout is we always stick to that.
Characters’ stories have evolved really interestingly over time. What are examples of ways you’ve consciously evolved a character through wardrobe?
Sansa’s a really good case-in-point. When we first see her and Arya and establish them in the first episode, we see hopefully in their character traits, just something about them, how they wear what they wear. It’s the same style of costume but it’s the detail in how they wear that. For instance, when you first see the family lined up Sansa immediately stands out in paler blue—something that’s been thought about. Something that almost has an aspiration to get away from this muddy, grimy sort of place. I wanted to establish that and then we go into a dank castle with not much light and not much entertainment so what do they do? They do embroidery. They decorate their clothes because that’s what women do in the evenings, I decided, in this castle. But again you see the way Sansa’s pieces are embroidered quite beautifully and Arya’s are quite roughly done. So I tried to establish that quite quickly.
And then Cersei comes and has a wonderful dress. And that was the funny thing that was always missed, I had all these tied knots and she was supposed to represent pre-puberty girls and so when Cersei asks Sansa that that’s why there’s this confusion, because “It’s my knotted dress, you should know this,” it was the idea of giving messages. Costume is important to Sansa—she sees it as a way of communicating with people, to show her aspirations. And we very quickly see her develop. She starts to adapt—she has certain people she’s impressed by. She’s sort of, on her journey, we see her playing with her knots at the joust when instead of being knotted they’re curled into roses and slightly more low-cut, and then slowly moving away from colors as she, I suppose, tries to follow Cersei. And then there’s that lovely moment when she realizes her father has been killed and she sort of freezes in time and from then on she’s trapped. It’s a stillness and then slowly we see her almost visually trying to go back to the way her mother dressed but she can’t be seen to be doing that because that would create a conflict in her situation.
There’s always a movement, particularly in Sansa, where you always see which way she’s being pulled. Her wedding to Tyrion where she has a girdle that wraps around her body which tells a story of entrapment by the Lannisters, which I thought was important, and a stamp on the back of her neck that stamps her as a Lannister. And forward we see her move up to the Aerie. And then, finally, she almost finds herself and becomes dark Sansa and she sort of finds herself, she’s pulled away from all the other influences and tries to establish herself as a strong woman, I guess. She still uses her skills learned in Winterfell, made out of things that she would find near her. It’s sort of the area she’s in. And then she’s influenced by Littlefinger, so you see her dressing a bit like him, and adapting his coat style—anyway, it just goes on. Finally, now, she’s back at Winterfell, and her wedding to [Ramsay Bolton], she actually has elements of her mother, her father, all those pieces, being back at Winterfell, and the colors again. You can see the arc of where she’s going. Arya, in contrast, starts in the same place but you see very quickly in her journey, it’s the last thing she’s thinking about, it’s not important to her. Now she’ll move forward again.
I try to tell stories through the characters and certain characters move more in their costumes to tell their story whereas others, by not changing, tell their story. One doesn’t change or one does and it actually almost heightens the difference in them. I spend hours designing costumes, so much of my time is spent plotting the route. What would she wear in this situation and how can we get here there elegantly from this situation? Plotting the costumes is so important and so essential to the story for me, especially in a show like Game of Thrones, where you’re constantly shifting to other people’s stories, so it’s knowing when to move them forward. On TV—people go to see films in the cinema, sometimes, but rarely see them a second time. On a series, people go back and have another look, and each time I like the fact that they can go back and actually see something else. “I noticed the action, but I didn’t notice Sansa was wearing the brooch!” I find that quite fulfilling, really.
You have two goals, it seems: You want people to be able to situate themselves at a glance, given that airtime is limited, but you also want the costumes to be rich and rewarding and have levels to which they can respond over time.
Detail is important, and it’s so important now because TV is so huge, and HBO is so precise. And so in the past, if you got away with a paper crown or a cardboard crown, you couldn’t get away with that now. The detail and the quality of that detail is just incredibly important. It has to be believable.
I find craft so important and so inspiring, and often when I first started, I was slightly unaware of the breadth and depth of craft. Through designing Game of Thrones, I’ve become aware of so many incredibly skilled people and actually they almost helped me develop the costumes—I might have an idea of how I could tell a story, like the knots on the front of the dresses of Arya and Sansa. Let’s keep them to wools and very minimal silks and not use beads and not get too clever, make it quite simple. I learned about the sophistication of stitching and beading. In the same skill area, it gets to a complete extreme with Cersei, it leads to a point where it can go no further. Which I think is quite interesting and important for following episodes. And then also metalwork: I hadn’t designed armor before I did Game of Thrones. I worked initially with one armorer, who then became unavailable for season 3, and then I started working with an Italian armorer, and he makes everything by hand, leatherwork, metalwork, and it’s extraordinary. To be able to draw an idea and say, well, I’d quite like to start here and to actually see someone handbead, for instance, Jaime’s hand, and hand-decorate it… If you as a designer realize almost anything can be made, it enables you to be much more extravagant in your design.
Everyone works with each other and it makes for a really coherent design team. And then we have breakdown which again is another skill in itself. It’s amazing how they can take something that’s been beautifully beaded and looks stunning but has no life—and then give it life, give it character, make it relate to the character who’s wearing it, what they do, where they’ve been. It can be quite trashed… but it needs to be! And it’s heartbreaking to destroy it, but that needs to happen. And to be bold enough to do that, breakdown is one of the key crafts there. For all the beauty of the embroidery and the armor, it would be nothing without having been broken down. It makes it real clothing, and that’s the essence of Game of Thrones. It’s supposed to look real and relate to the person who’s wearing it in the place they’re wearing it.
What do they do to break it down?
It can be any manner, usually obviously, we think about where they’re traveling from, where they’re traveling to, what event has happened that just happened to them. If they had a fight or battle, we’ll find out where that is, we find out the earth color of where we’re going to be filming that, and we’ll get notes from stunts saying “There’s going to be a cut here, and then he’s going to tumble, and he might hit a rock,” so for particular characters we’ll age and break down according to the scene. But for others, like Arya, she’s traveling further, everything gets grimy and layered and it’s not just a bit of black painting on some brown panes, it’s really working the grease into the neck and thinking where it would get most worn—along the elbows and the knees—it’s that.
You get these beautiful boots and we have to break them down! But then when you see them, they’re so much more beautiful because they’ve got character. Sometimes we even print dirt onto things. And if something, for instance, the Knight’s Watch are supposed to wear black. How’s that going to happen? The clothes are all donated. Are they really going to dye everything all black? We put a big cauldron in a scene and we’d have people tossing things in, and the whole idea is that sometimes it gets a little thin, the dye, so you get something that looks a little lighter, sometimes the green comes through, which then enabled us not to have black clothing but clothing that’s black-ish. Which I think is so much more interesting than everything just dyed black, which would never happen. They have natural dyes, it wouldn’t be possible to do that. So you try to work it into the script, which actually aids you when you want to break things down.
When you get the breakdown of the season, how long do you get to start designing, and do you triage the jobs at all?
Once I get the breakdown, obviously I have the breakdown for [season] 8, the overview, and so I now start thinking about it, though I won’t start it… I usually start about 10 weeks before we begin shooting. I usually have meetings with my assistants I design with, I will start just musing. I will have conversations with David and Dan about the process as well. For the key people, I usually think about how many looks they’ll need to get through each season, and then also are there any new characters or new armies or new places to visit. And really we don’t usually get the shooting schedule until much closer to filming and it usually changes hugely, so that’s tricky. But you try and make sure you have the crew you need specifically for each character: The embroiderer, and so on. I know that Daenerys’s dresses will take the longest. I’ll just get the general concepts, I’ll show David and Dan, obviously Emilia [Clarke], it will start the development of it—I might start them all together!
But then, at some stage, we’ll realize this is going to be the dress that’s going to come up first, so we’ll turn our attention to that, but the whole time, Sansa last season, we try to develop the looks at the same time so we can see the development, but we then have to prioritize whichever one it is. Each look might take three or four different people at different stages to work on it, so we’ll work on the fabric development and see how the colors go and if we have to do stitching, and we’ll work with the furrier to see if we have to weave any fur. (We mix fake and real fur, we try to use fake as much as we can.) Then we look at the breakdown and see how that particular fabric might break down or what would be the effect if we do certain things to it.
The same with the armor—I knew some pieces of armor were going to take quite a long time to develop. So we’ll start with that and have people working on that, and know we need another 500 of that because we know there’s going to be a big battle going, so we’ll have people hammering studs and working leather and that will be happening in another corner. For five designs, there might be 10 different ideas that you pursue for a while and realize maybe that’s not the way to go. And then also we have overseas, because we work in Spain, so we’ll have to have our crew there and they have their own breakdown scenes, so working out what could they do locally to relieve some of the pain in Belfast. It’s a huge organization and the only way I’ve learned to deal with it is delegate. If you try to do everything yourself, you can’t. It is having ideas and actually being free enough to actually give these ideas to other members of the crew and let them pursue and develop it and come back and say, this is okay, take it in this direction.
At the height of it, how many people are working in the costume shop?
Probably somewhere around between 80 and 100. You have to imagine each truck has four to five people on it, there’s a wardrobe assistant who goes out and there’s a picture from either myself or my assistant designer of how this should be worn, I’ll be there on the first day with a costume. Each actor has someone who looks after them, they dress them, they go through how the dressing should look and then they look after this person on set. There’s a process they have to go through. And then we also have the same setup in Spain, we have a supervisor, we have an assistant designer, we have the truck, we have the breakdown people, we have the extras people who dress the hundreds of extras which is another whole area. So that’s where the numbers become so high, because you may have 20 people working on the big scene in Spain and you may have 15 working on this scene in Belfast. The hardest thing is deciding where to be. Sometimes there’s a wonderful scene in each country, and I’m saying, I don’t know where to be! I usually go to the place where I think there might be a problem.
I love the pace once we’re filming because you start knowing exactly what needs to come next. I did travel back and forth about eight times this time which was ridiculous. You do two days there and you have to rush back, you start in London and you have to turn around and rush back. That becomes quite exhausting. But I have to trust my crew as well. There’ll be a Skype call sometimes or something so I can approve over Skype. Of course, there are moments when you say “Oh, why did that happen, I didn’t want it like that!” But you have to learn to go, OK, I’m really disappointed, but what can I say, I wasn’t there, I can’t be there, so, I have to accept it wasn’t as I like it. But it happens really rarely and it’s usually a really good communication. Usually because I haven’t told someone something I should have.
Can we talk a bit about the giant set-piece episodes like “Battle of the Bastards” or “Hardhome”? There seems to be just a huge lift in terms of the volume of extras. How does it all get done?
It’s planning. When I have the outline—say there are 500 in that scene, you figure out you’re probably going to need 700 costumes, and so you try and pre-plan. Some of that stuff we will make samples and then send them out to be made at a factory and then get them back in time and you can dye them and age them. We can mass-make and then treat them when they come back. Going with armor, we’ll make all the prints for stuff and as many as we can in house but at some stage we might say, OK, we have 150 of these, we need to send them out, and we send them out and get them made at a different company. And that’s planning, it is trying to foresee something.
You get used to almost judging what you need. And that’s it. I have a supervisor and an assistant and they will push those things along. It’s not something as a designer where I need to think about those numbers as much. I need to design it, I need to decide how it should look, but I choose the people to make sure that happens.
We’ll know who’s involved, and we’ll know which armies, and there’s endless meetings, and we say, how much of these will we see, and will they die, and there are endless meetings about this and we’re constantly adjusting, but you know that’s going to be a big scene and you gear up for that. And you make sure you’re getting all the elements in place and that’s all you can do. And at some stage, you might think, well, actually, you can’t have 500. You’re going to have 480. There’s always a sort of—because we have so much stock now, we can always just shift the look of a few of them and, if you’ve got 500 and 20 that look slightly different, you don’t see it in a mass of people. There’s an element of that as well.
I want to talk a bit more about Cersei’s costume story. The opulence, the inky blacks, the velvets—she must be particularly fun to dress.
Oh God, yeah, I’ve really adored her. And she played such games with costumes and she’s so literal in her wearing of them. When she’s battling with Margaery, who wears less and less to show her youth, Cersei wore more and more and more ornate dresses. And then obviously when she becomes queen, I knew instantly she had to wear something that reflected her father. She doesn’t have to try and use her femininity anymore because she’s there. She’s always thought she was as good as any man and I wanted to show that. Back at the beginning when she was my little bird, she was a caged bird, and that’s why I always embroidered birds on her dresses along with lions.
There’s Daenerys, Cersei, Arya, and Sansa, and it’s really interesting four different women—I’ve really loved tracking their journey as they become more and more important and their journeys get closer and closer. We’ll see where they end up. I quite like the strength in women, and Cersei gets stronger and stronger as we’ve moved through the last few seasons. There’s a defiance in them, and that’s why they’re some of my favorite people to do.