The secret language of Game of Thrones costumes: what Daenerys, Arya, Sansa, and Cersei are quietly hinting with every outfit in season 7

SPOILER WARNING:If you haven’t seen season 7 episode 4, do not read this article. You have been warned. 

How do you choose what to wear in the morning? Do you plan for the weather, for the people you’re going to see...or to show the world who you are, what you’re thinking, and how you’re going to fool them all? Okay, maybe you don’t put quite as much thought into the symbolism of your outfit as the minds behind Game of Thrones’ impressive wardrobe. But pay enough attention and these exquisite garments can expose their inner thoughts for everyone in Westeros to see - and sometimes even predict the future. I’m going to delve into the messages hidden in characters’ clothing, focusing on Daenerys, Arya, Sansa, and Cersei - and investigating whether we can predict what’s going to happen to them in season 7. 

Why does costume matter?

Clothing is a powerful weapon. It fools people about your motives. It can be used to make a “f*ck-you” statement. It can help someone to blend in or show they can’t be controlled anymore. Above all, Thrones’ dresses and robes allow characters to forge their own identity. But in the worlds of Westeros and Essos, certain clothing decisions can come hand-in-hand with having a target painted on your back. Every choice is a power-play, like Margaery wearing simple dresses in direct contrast to Cersei’s ornate embroidery and metalwork on her gowns. Because she’s young, beautiful, and canny, Margaery is showing that her clothes don’t need to be decked out in embellishments like Cersei to look like a queen. She doesn’t feel a need to imitate her either as a form of flattery. 

(Image: © HBO)

If the idea of clothing being weighted with such heavy meaning sounds absurd, rest assured that it was a very real issue in the past. Historically changing your outfit was a way of showing political allegiances in ways that go far deeper than wearing a red or blue rosette today. Marie Antoinette, the Queen who sparked the French Revolution, outraged the royal court by wearing a simple Chemise à la reine in an official portrait. It was the opposite to the elaborate, ornate gowns worn by the Royal Court, and didn’t include any symbology to refer to the King in any way, meaning it was basically one giant middle finger to the aristocracy. 

Yet clothing can be used to quell political tensions too, however ridiculous that might sound at first: Elizabeth I refrained from wearing jewels and stylish gowns in front of her finery-loving half-sister and Queen of England, Mary I. Doing so made her appear obedient and submissive, avoiding looking like she was a threat to the throne of England (and therefore didn’t end up getting beheaded). 

So in both fiction and nonfiction clothes are used to proclaim people’s intentions. But there’s a massive factor that sets Game of Thrones apart from other costume dramas when it comes to analysing outfits. The world of Thrones is made up of a rich cultural hotpot of influences, with the main costume designer Michele Clapton citing nations ranging from Japan to the Inuits as inspiration for her designs. Thanks to its medieval setting, designers are able to use heraldry (i.e. the sigils used by Houses, like the Stark’s direwolf) to symbolise Westeros’ political landscape. If you look at the embroidery and imagery on main characters’ outfits, you can see a map of each House’s allegiances, enemies, and - most importantly - their power over others. 

Want to see who has power over who? Watch colours and sigils carefully 

Whether it’s small details like Jaime’s over-ornate, definitely over-compensating golden hand (created by Cersei to be able to “caress” and beautify his missing limb) or the unmissable ones that make you whisper “oh sh*t” under your breath (hello, Cersei’s black armour dress), there’s an obvious link between plot and costume design. Think of Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, when the lapel of his black tunic is pinned back to reveal the white underneath -  proving that his hate hasn’t overwhelmed him, and that he’s still good at heart. Clapton loves “to try and indicate the emotional state of characters through their costumes, and also to indicate their influence over other characters and courts. Sometimes this says so much more than words”. 

Take Daenerys, for example. The first dress she’s wearing in Pentos is based on the dresses Viserys would see on sex workers and handmaids in King’s Landing. It put her in a place of perverted submissiveness, with sexual connotations indicating that all Viserys sees her as is a tool to get the Dothraki on his side via marriage. 

Image: Michele Carragher

The same element of control can be seen in Sansa’s wedding dress when she marries Tyrion. Instead of being dressed in her usual colour of purple (halfway between the blue of Winterfell and the pink Cersei used to wear, as Sansa is split between supporting her family and submitting to the Lannisters), she’s outfitted in gold. Resolutely the colour of the Lannisters considering their gold mine at Casterly Rock, it’s also embroidered with a sash that seems to strangle Sansa as it reaches around her neck. Sewn onto the sash are lions attacking direwolves and pomegranates, a crude symbol of sexuality. The overwhelming message is that the Lannisters are controlling Sansa, and exploiting her for all she’s worth. Tying the North to the Lannisters through this marriage, putting a baby in her - as the pomegranates suggest they are planning to - would mean the Lannisters have a claim to Winterfell should Sansa die. Accidentally and tragically, of course. Ahem. 

Any way you look at it, every choice in the way characters are dressed ends up revealing quite a bit about their mental state and even their political strategy - so let’s dive deeper into what we can learn from season 7’s costumes. 

See what they’re wearing; see what they’re thinking

You can take cues from costumes to see what’s going on inside character’s heads, but what about the future? Can costume designers hide subtle clues in outfits to hint to the readers what might happen in the next episode? Well, kind of. There’s not likely to be a massive sign stuck to someone’s chest proclaiming who they’re going to backstab next, but there are more discreet clues about how they’ll tackle oncoming problems. 

Arya: No-one and nobody

Up until now the rebellious tomboy of Winterfell has almost always worn other people’s clothes. Whether it’s selling oysters on the streets of Braavos, on the run with The Hound, or pretending to be Walder Frey, every single piece of clothing she wears is transient, temporary. Season 7 changes that. Promotional images and the latest episode show that she’s in a freshly-made outfit that she’s picked up in Winterfell. Clapton explained that with Arya’s outfit “it’s not about Arya, it’s about the person she’s playing”. This time she’s remaining incognito: noticeably there’s no direwolf sigil, and no decoration that indicates she’s from Winterfell. She’s staying under the radar - and is going to be fighting quite a bit. 

How can you tell? Arya is left handed (or, at least, Maisie Williams is) and her heavy wool cloak leaves her left arm completely free, unencumbered by its weight. Which means she can pull out Needle speedily and fight without having to throw her cape over her shoulder - something whoever designed her costumes is preparing her for. Plus, every piece of clothing is laced together, meaning she can shed bits quickly if she needs to make a getaway and look completely different to escape notice. 

We haven’t seen as much variation in her clothing as we have with other characters, simply because Arya is careful not to reveal too much about her intentions to anyone. Meaning that if she ever has a major change in costume, sit up straight and pay attention - because it’s almost certain that something is about to go down.

Sansa: Not a victim anymore

In contrast to her sister, Clapton explains that when it comes to the Lady of Winterfell, “she expresses herself through her ability to embroider and stitch. Initially we see her try to emulate Cersei in her costumes, and then when that starts going wrong she sort of stalls and her colors start drifting back towards blue. But they’re not quite blue, they’re mauve. Wherever she goes, she’s sort of pulled in each direction”. 

Not in season 7. Since she escaped Ramsay Bolton and came to Jon’s rescue at the Battle of the Bastards, she’s resolutely stuck to dressing in black and grey. Clapton says that Sansa consciously chose to wear darker colours to prove she wasn't going to be a victim anymore. The gown she was wearing when she watched the soldiers of the Vale annihilate the Bolton’s army was a heavy dark velvet, embroidered with a bold design. A direwolf entangled with flowers was emblazoned on her chest proving that she’s not hiding anymore and is a Stark - not a plaything of the Lannisters, or Bolton’s wife, or even Alayne Stone. Sansa has realised that just because she’s a direwolf, doesn’t mean she can’t be feminine too. Despite being abused, raped, and used as a pawn thanks to her gender (being able to wed her makes her a valuable political prize for anyone wanting to claim and subjugate the North), she’s not afraid to be herself. 

There's some symbolism in her long circular necklace that she’s always seen wearing in season 7 too. "The necklace was based on the idea that Arya had Needle,” says Clapton. “At the end of the necklace there’s a point, a spike, which is like Sansa’s smaller version of Needle. It’s a jewelry idea of Needle". This subtle alliance with her sister indicates that Sansa isn’t weaponless anymore - although she’s more likely to manipulate Littlefinger into helping her than pull out a dagger. 

Her newfound strength doesn’t just lie in the colour of her dresses either. Notice that her shoulders in her dresses have become a lot broader, just like Daenerys and Cersei. The women are becoming bolder, stronger, and the broad shoulders that usually belong to men (instead of delicate, rounded shoulders like Cersei’s kimono-esque dresses of the first season) are now their domain. Plus the design of her dresses in the most recent couple of episodes has a criss-cross pattern on the front, similarly to Jon’s leather armour. 

The message is obvious: she’s at war just as much as Jon is. The Starks are now a united front, intertwined just as closely as the crossed pattern on their clothing. Returning to Winterfell has imbued Sansa with a newfound strength, as has Littlefinger’s political lessons. She’s more dangerous than she’s ever been, but in a markedly different way to Daenerys, Arya, or Cersei. She’s learning how to rule and manipulate - so in other words, if she starts to wear mauve again something major has changed. Something everyone should be suspicious of. Especially Littlefinger. 

Daenerys: The prodigal ruler

At last Daenerys is taking her title as Mother of Dragons incredibly seriously. In previous seasons she’s worn clothes to suit the culture she’s ruling: Dothraki leathers, the caged dress of Qarth, or the royal blue of her time ruling Meereen. Now she’s in Westeros and is eyeing the Iron Throne as her birthright, she’s finally wearing greys and blacks - with subtle hints of red - that correspond to the Targaryen House colours. Clapton says that “She was a confused woman, she was wandering ... trying to seek something. And now she's finally got her armor, she's finally got everything, and she can finally echo the style of her brother with the extended shoulders and the red and the symbolism”.

Unlike Viserys she’s earnt the right to call herself a Targaryen, through demonstrating her ability as a ruler of Meereen and her skill on the battlefield with the help of her three dragons and army of Unsullied. Yet the way she dresses in season 7 indicates that she isn’t operating under the assumption that she deserves the throne - unlike Cersei. “You can see in the way [Dany is] dressing that she's almost assuming the power but not quite,” explains Clapton. “The width of the shoulders give her strength, the chain gives her strength. I tried to make the cut of the costumes just slightly more like a uniform and almost less feminine”. 

Everything about Daenerys’ outfit is proving that she’s taking her time in Westeros seriously. She’s dressed almost like a general, wearing the same colour as the Unsullied. As “her army is the Unsullied … we’re trying to blend it all in and make them become a force”, Clapton mentions. She’s not a queen but rather the same as her warriors, with the same drive and determination, instead of sitting up on Dragonstone’s throne and commanding from afar. 

Just remember her role in the Battle of the Loot Train in episode 4: unlike Cersei she’s not afraid to get into the middle of battle. She’s more like Sansa or Arya, who are comfortable with being close to war and even have a not-so-discreet hand in the killing. And although she has her eye on the crown, she’s not taking it before it’s due. “I didn’t want her to have a crown, I wanted her to have a chain. And she has a red sash hanging from it, which is slightly scaled and pleated as well.” In Clapton’s mind, Daenerys wouldn’t allow herself to wear a crown “before it was due”. Instead the chain is a way of showing her strength. It also echoes a military sash, proving that there’s one thing on this Targaryen’s mind - war. 

Cersei: A veteran manipulator 

Cersei is one of the few major players in King’s Landing who is a deft manipulator and chooses her outfits just as carefully as her words. We first meet her in season 1 when she’s wearing pink “to appear more caring”, according to Clapton, with embroidered birds rather than lions - appearing remarkably less intimidating than we’re used to. Her transition to using more metalwork in her clothing is gradual, starting with her early dresses being “lined with a metal gauze to signify her inner strength” and moving onto her famous black and silver dress when she blew up the Sept of Baelor. The metalwork is on the outside of the gown rather than being hidden underneath, showing everyone how strong she is. "I wanted the cut leather that would mirror Tywin’s — it was everything she always told her father she could do, and she can now do it,” recalls Clapton. “So there had to be that strength. It had to be black because she was in mourning, but I wanted the sort of steeliness behind that, the inner strength”.

But the black means a lot more than sadness at her children’s death. “To me,” says Clapton, “it represents a deadness inside her – the overwhelming desire for power at any cost. The multi-layered effect created by mounting the leather onto silver brocade gives a more complex feeling, implying that nothing achieved is ever simple”. With all the people she’s betrayed, murdered, and now tortured (poor Ellaria and Tyene remain in that dungeon, remember), it’s hardly surprising that her dresses aren’t exactly simple. 

But according to Clapton it’s a sign of something else – that Cersei is verging on something new. “[S]he’s attained the throne and there’s a strength in her embroidery,” Clapton says. “It’s actually quite ornate and over the top and that’s a precursor in a funny way – it’s the last gasp before something else, in my sense. It’s a weird flamboyance, but it’s quite hard as well”. What could be coming next for Cersei? She could be heading towards her predicted descent into being the Mad Queen, where she begins to unconsciously mimic King Aerys II Targaryen, who burned people at the stake in fits of cruel paranoia. 

However, she’s clearly not feeling insecure at the moment. That’s not because she’s proclaiming how she feels with majestic speeches - rather you can read into her jewelry to see how she’s feeling. “We use jewelry for Cersei a lot,” Clapton explains. “When she’s feeling insecure … she wears these big, clunky gold pieces to show that she’s a Lannister and important and has status”. In the latest episode, she was wearing a plain black dress with no adornments - a sign that after the sack of Highgarden she’s feeling especially confident. As nothing shiny is hung around her neck or plastered on her fingers, Cersei is feeling especially invulnerable at the moment. Unsurprising considering Daenerys has lost her two most powerful allies. But the Queen hasn’t heard about the Loot Train battle yet...or Jaime’s disappearance. 

What does all this mean for the rest of season 7?

Game of Thrones is unpredictable. One episode you’re certain that Daenerys will reduce Cersei’s forces to ashes, and the next you’re faced with the dead Olenna Tyrell and the two remaining Martells locked up in King’s Landing. Yet peering into the fine details of costume design reveals tiny hints about how the story could unfold, whether it’s in a piece of embroidery or merely a choice of colour. Even wrapping Melisandre up in warmer clothes was a sign that her power is diminishing. 

The same goes for Daenerys: she’s begun to wear a dove-grey sash instead of her red one. The last time she wore whites and greys was during the opening of the slave pits in Meereen, when she was trying to visually remove herself from the situation as she disagreed with slavery so strongly. Is she in denial that her bid for the Iron Throne is going so badly so soon? Possibly, especially since Cersei is so powerful that she already influencing ordinary citizens. Her handmaid in episode 3 was wearing a high-necked black dress, with her hair cut into a pixie crop. Sound familiar? When the servants start to imitate their rulers, it’s a sign that either fear or love is beginning to permeate the lives of commoners. 

The same thing happened when Margaery came to King’s Landing and young girls started to wear blue with their hair let loose - a silent, if subconscious, sign that they wanted her on the throne. To be honest, it’s likely that fear rather than love is a stronger motivating force in Cersei’s handmaid’s case. I don’t think the Lannister even knows what love is at this point. 

Next time you’re looking at your wardrobe, stop. Pause. Consider. Clothes tell us so much about each other, and Game of Thrones takes this to its breaking point. Every new gown, every new bit of armour lets us in on a secret about whichever character we’re watching. Pay attention and you could be able to tell what they’re going to say before the words have left their lips - or who they’re going to destroy. Regardless of who gets to sit on the Iron Throne, let’s hope Westeros’ tailors are still left standing when the dust settles. 

Game of Thrones Season 7 is available via Digital Download now.