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Creating the Seven Kingdoms. Part I: The North

As we promised a few weeks backs, we are going to cover more tv shows from now on, mainly because there is just too much awesomeness in our TV's these days to ignore it. And for the last 5 years, the crowning jewel of TV costume design has been, without a doubt, HBO's Game of Thrones. So it was only logical to start there.

The downside is that there is so much to talk about that it becomes really difficult to decide where to start exactly. G.R.R. Martin's sprawling epic covers many characters and many places, and therefore there's really a lot to pick up from. In the end, we decided that we would take a page out of the author's tactics and split it in several different series of articles to be published gradually. And so, this is going to be the first of many. And we probably should warn you, there will be spoilers ahead.


Game of Thrones, from an adaptation standpoint, faced many of the same problems that Peter Jackson had to face when bringing Tolkien's epic to the screen. One of the most prominent was the fact that the show had to visually build from scratch a world that needed to feel both unique and yet familiar. They needed to create a world the audience would believe it existed at some point in history. "World Building" is essential in fantasy pieces, as we've seen in our Lord of the Rings series (read here), and that's why we decided that it was better to talk first about how the costuming conforms the different regions and cultures of Westeros, before diving into specific characters.

The Seven Kingdoms are, effectively, by the time the story begins, eight kingdoms integrated into one: the North, the Iron Islands, the Riverlands, the Vale, the Westerlands, the Stormlands, the Reach and Dorne. And each one of them has a distinct culture and set of traditions, as well as different characteristics and climates, and therefore, the inhabitants of each region need to feel and look different, the same way it would happen in any given real country.

This monumental task was laid at the door of the costume design department, which meant that they had to find creative ways to communicate culture, climate and beliefs of each region through their traditional way of dressing whilst making them differentiable between them and yet similar enough so they would feel like they belonged to the same world. This first series is going to be dedicated to see exactly how they did that. And inn this first part, we will be focusing on the homeland of our most beloved family; the Starks.

But first, let's have a brief look at the woman behind the designs; Michele Clapton. She's worked in both film and TV. Her best known work, aside from Game of Thrones, is her work as a costume designer in the TV mini-series Sense and sensibility (2008) and The Devil's Whore (2008) and Werner Herzog's Queen of the Desert (2015). She has been nominated numerous times and won quite a lot of those nominations. As for her work in Game of Thrones, it has earned her five nominations for Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Costumes for a Series, one for each of the five seasons she has been at the head of the costume department, and she has won two of these nominations (for season 2 and season 4). So it's quite easy to see why the whole of the Game of Thrones costume department turns up such good work.

Now, with the basics out of the way, let's dive into the rich and complex world of the costumes of Game of Thrones.


The Starks are the liege lords of the Westerosi region known as the North, which covers a vast set of territories encompassing everything laying between the Neck and the Wall. It's the biggest of the eight kingdoms by far, and the coldest one as well.

It's defined by being a hard land; cold and hostile. The low temperatures, even during the long summers, and the hard rocky land means that nothing can be grown on it, which rules out agriculture and farming as a means of survival. Its inhabitants, therefore, live out of the hunting game and whatever they can get by themselves. And so, this cold, inhospitable land breeds tough and resourceful people that make do with what they have. They are simple people, deeply rooted in ancestral traditions that have long died out through the rest of the Westerosi Kingdoms.

The Starks are the main representatives of this culture of survival and tradition, and so, it will be through their costumes that we will take a look at how the designs aimed at transmitting all that deeply necessary basic information.

The cold and damp climate is the first factor that needed to be taken into account. Each culture dresses more warmly or less depending on the climate they are exposed to. It's an unbreakable rule. Because of this, when we see a character dressed warmly, we immediately think that it's because he or she is in a cold place. It's a connection made instantly by our brains. So clothing can actually be a great tool to convey a specific climate to the audience. And because the weather of the North is such an integral element to build the character of the Starks and the North itself, their designs needed to be built around that, first and foremost.

Because of this, all the northern characters are dressed in warm outfits, with a lot of wool and fur added to the mix, as well as a lot of layering, which means that their costumes are never one piece, and instead consists of layer upon layer of cloth in order to keep the wearer warm.

The fur-lined cloak, as seen above, is made an essential element to any northern, both men and women alike. These heavy cloaks give the characters a very sturdy and rough silhouette, making them look more like statues than humans; visually hinting at their archaic traditions and culture as well, whilst still heavily pointing to the audience that this is a very cold land.

It needs to be pointed out that the designer, very cleverly, chose to take advantage of every possible element and use the fur-lined collars to add even more information about the character, and so she chose to use different types of fur depending on the age and status of the character wearing it. In her own words:
The fur collars were meant to be wolf pelts for the adults, the children have rabbit, and the peasants have collars stuffed with sheep’s wool.                                   -Michele Clapton, costume designer-
It's details like that that separate this designs from many other fantasy designs and ground them in their own reality. 

But let's get back on track. It's not only by the extensive use of cloaks and fur that the designs transmit the cold climate of the region to the audience. That notion is also reinforced through the extensive use of padding and boiled-leather instead of heavy metal amor. Why? because metal armor acts like a freezer when exposed to extreme cold, meaning it would not be very comfortable to fight or even walk in. And so, most of the northerners rarely wear armor, instead protecting themselves with heavy wool padding and boiled-leather doublets, and only protecting specific areas, such as head and neck, with amour, always avoiding direct contact with the skin.

This design is not only really fitted to their cold and damp climate, it's also serves as the perfect visual representation of their warring ways. The northerners don't follow the chivalric culture that thrives down in the South, they follow the old ways and, therefore, when they ride to battle, they dress catering to usefulness and comfort and practicality. For northerners, armor is not a way of showing status and power, only a tool of protection. It's not about how pretty is your armor, but about how sharp is your blade. This is meant to pose a stark contrast with the rest of Westeros as we follow the Starks in their journey to the Capital during the first episodes. That contrast is heavily reinforced through the lavish and almost excessive designs for the Southern armors.

As you can see, the northern armors are neither engraved nor decorated in any way, they are as plain as possible, which not only fits the northern character, it brings attention to another important cultural aspect: their lack of resources. Let's not forget that because of the cold and hard land, the North is not a rich or resourceful land. It's actually the poorest of the Seven Kingdoms (except maybe the Iron Islands, that are on a par in soil inadequacy). Because of this, they have to make use with what they have: wool, leather and rough metal.
The Starks have less available to them and are in different circumstances as they live in cold, damp weather. Available to them is wool, leather, fur, and some dyes. They are not ostentatious and are a loving family who are not trying to prove anything.             -Michele Clapton, costume designer-

And while this affects men's wear, it has the biggest impact on women's fashion. The lack of resources mean that most of the female dress is made out of wool and can only use basic dyes: either black or blues.

This glaring lack of resources is also highlighted by another element: not even highborn ladies wear jewelry or gold or any precious metal. Instead, they decorate their dresses with intricate yet home-made embroidery.

This underlines the more homely and traditional character of the North whilst also pointing a finger at their glaring lack of access to certain luxury items. The northerners, as mentioned early, are not fond of ostentation, after all, winter is coming for all, and what matters is survival, not status, so they don't make a big deal out of it.

Another noteworthy element of the northern women's fashion is its silhouette, which actively avoids creating the curvaceous and feminine silhouette that is favored in the Capital. Femininity is definitely understood differently in the North. The main function of women is to nurture and protect, and so their dresses are these wide skirted robes that seem to enfold them in a protecting mantel. 

But let's go back to the climate for a moment. There are even more little details of the design that are directly meant to point at the regional weather, for instance, the necklines. As common sense would have it, northerners don't favor plunging necklines. It just wouldn't make sense. And so, to further protect themselves from the cold, both men and women wear this string-tied necklines that seem to be trying to actively seal the wearer against the cold. And these are, occasionally, wrapped with a cloth as if to tighten that seal.

In the end, it's all about practicality and avoiding freezing to death. Nice and simple. But it would be a mistake to think that the climate would only influence silhouette and materials. It also influences color.

It's actually true that regions with colder weather tend to favor colder colors, whilst warm regions tend to favor more vivacious colors in almost an unconscious way. So this needed to come into play in the design.

And so, the dominant palette for the North is comprised of muted, murky and worn down colors. Of pale browns and muted grays and soft blues, almost as if they were one with the landscape itself in a way, lending the designs a certain visual poetry that becomes the cherry on top for the already impressing design concept.

We have a lot of blues and grays, murkier colors that seemed right for the harsh northern climates. The Starks represent a warm family unit, so the blues of their costumes are rather warm. But within the family, the various personalities are reflected in what they wear. For example, Sansa is in a slightly cooler blue.                        -Michele Clapton, costume designer-

And in the end, all of the aforementioned elements build up to create a perfectly distinguishable and unique look that perfectly reflects the environmental and cultural conditions in which the northerners live and, most importantly, survive.


The now iconic line is more than a wonderfully ironic catchphrase, it's the perfect distillation of the character and culture of the North and its inhabitants. And so is the costume design. Both their simplicity and their practicality match perfectly with a culture that believes that no matter how good everything is going, winter will eventually come back to mess it up inevitably.

That moodier and sullen disposition that is shared by Ned Stark and most of his family, is clearly reflected in the murky tones of their cloths. Whilst their practicality and distaste of ostentation is heavily hinted at through the simple utilitarianism of the costumes themselves.

All in all, these costumes are a masterful lesson in visual design. Despite the common notion, it is much harder to design simplicity and humbleness than luxurious ostentation, because you risk just coming off as lazy. Thankfully, this is not the case at hand, which makes it even more praiseworthy.

Clapton manages to create a visual interesting and recognizable look that still transmits a whole lot of information about the culture that created them. And all with a TV budget (sure, private TV, but still TV). It's world building at its best.


Our plan is to turn this into a long-term series meant to cover all the Kingdoms of Westeros plus the Wall, so it's going to take us a while to complete it. We beg you have some patient with us, because we do promise we'll complete it. It's a Costume Vault promise! See you next time!


To read Creating the Seven Kingdoms. Part II, click here.


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