Last time we dove into the complex and intricate world of Game of Thrones, we focussed on how the North, and its culture, was represented and reinforced through the Costume Design (read here). Today, we are going to continue our series on world building by looking at how Michele Clapton, the Costume Designer for HBO's multi-awarded show, builds the culture of a kingdom we haven't even seen yet: the Westerlands. Indeed, if last time we focussed on the most beloved family of all Westeros, it's only fair we continue this by focussing on the most hated: the Lannisters.
Originally, we weren't going to focus on the Westerlands, because we've never been there in the show or in the books. But then we started talking, and realized that, you can create a look that reflects the culture of a place, even when you don't get to see the place. In that case, the look of its inhabitants (which is what you, the audience, will see) needs to speak on its own. And that's exactly what happens here.
CASTERLY ROCK AND THE WESTERLANDS
The Lannisters are the Wardens of the West, the ancient Kingdom of the Rock, which lies along the eastern coast of the Sunset Sea, and borders with the Riverlands on the North and the Reach on the South. Despite not being the largest or the most populated or fertile, the Westerlands are the richest of the Seven Kingdoms, mainly due to the numerous mines that pour gold and silver in astonishing quantities.
That extreme, almost obscene, wealth is what defines its culture above all other things. Why? Because this is a region that doesn't need to build a solid agricultural market or worry about sustaining its people, there's always gold to mend whatever famine or plague afflicts them. Gold defines the Westerlands as much as Cold defines the North.
This creates a culture of excess and luxury that stands as a complete opposite to the North. And, in much the same way, the Lannisters, as a family, stand in clear cut contrast with the Starks. Therefore, it will be through them, that we will take a look at how the designs aimed at transmitting all the deeply necessary basic information about this region and its ruling class.
Let's start by taking this out of the way: in their case, the weather is not a defining factor. The Westerlands have a rather mild climate. Which means that they are not forced to protect themselves under layers of wool, and that allows costume to become something more than a mere utilitarian element. Instead, for the Lannisters, costume is a way to demonstrate status and power. Because of this, the whole design for them and the Westerlands is driven by one single idea: it's all about power dressing.
What's that, you say? Power dressing is the term used when clothes and accessories are all destined to clearly state the social status or a position of influence or the wealth of the wearer. Clothing stops being about comfort and use and becomes a tool of dominance. This is very obvious in historical court costuming from the Renaissance onwards. And it's also very obvious with the Lions of Casterly Rock.
One of the most transparent ways in which they use that to visually proclaim their wealth and power is through their armors.
Unlike the Northern armors, that are extremely simple and functional, the armors worn by the Lannisters are radically different; they are richly decorated with gold engravings and colored plates. These are deeply ornate, opulent and expensive armors that are meant to be a statement as much as a protection for battle. Because of this, they are all colored in deep reds, black and gold. And, for the same reason, they all manage to incorporate one (or more) engraved golden lion in it.
These armors are a constant reminder to the rest of Westors (and even the audience); "look at me, I'm a Lannister, I am very rich, and I'm going to crush you if you cross me".
On the designer's part, such show of wealth is meant to underline their pride and the culture of excess in which they live. Having their plates decorated in gold is a literal shorthand for the audience to understand just to what point they actually "shit gold".
And also places them in stark contrast with the northerners and their culture, helping to underline the antagonistic nature of their relations. This is what we call visual antagonism, and a really good way to advance the plot through visuals.
But their pride doesn't stop there. They don't want to only highlight how rich they are; they also want to underline the benefits of being on their side. Accordingly, all their base soldiers are armored in full plate, uniformed armor. And not just any armor: quality, colored metal that has been lined in gold. They even carry shields with gold engravings.
What this is saying, at a visual level, is that they don't only have money to pamper themselves to death, they will also pamper those that stand by their side.
It also conveys a more militaristic view on the world on their part. The fact that their men have a standard issued armor reflects a certain aggressiveness on their part. While the North only rallies his armies when a war is declared, the Westerlands are always ready to strike. Once again, it's all about creating a contrast.
Not only that. The fact that all of the Westerlands' regular infantry always wears the same complex plate armor may serve two additional points on top of that; by giving them a much more uniform appearance, it makes them look like a more disciplined army, and also emphasizes the Lannisters' near-tyrannical control over his vassals.
The Lannister armor is more militaristic, intimidating, sinister – with a Japanese influence that's quite disarming...I loved the opportunity to work on this series, as you're not tied down to any one period. This was so freeing. -Simon Brindle, costume armor supervisor-
So, up to this point, we've found out that the key elements of the Western culture are: luxury, ostentation, power, control and a militaristic mindset. And all those are inferred only through their armor. But armor, though the most transparent, is not the only way in which a designer can choose to reflect those traits.
Fashion, particularly cutting edge fashion, is a good and easy way to differentiate those who have the power (and money) from those who don't. Mainly because it usually is expensive and a tad extravagant.
Accordingly, the designer used a completely different set of influences for the costumes of the Lannisters in order to make them look more fashionable next to their northern enemies. Whilst the Starks favor a more "classic" European medieval style, the designs for the Westerlands lean towards a more Japanese and oriental influence; favoring a bolder cut and a more defined sense of asymmetry and layering.
This is, without a doubt, most noticeable in female fashion.
Here, the designs take clear inspiration from the Japanese Kimono. Which makes sense; female medieval clothing did not put any special emphasis on beauty and luxury, but Japanese clothing did do that. And these designs need to be centered around fashion and style. These two concepts, when it comes to female fashion, are a great shorthand to underline luxury, ostentation and power.
To further emphasize the wealth they possess, the designer used materials as a tool of representation: all of these dresses are made with soft, flowing (and very expensive) silks that contrast heavily with the dyed wool of the northern women. And to make it even more obvious, they added rich, hand-made embroideries on all of those dresses.
All of that creates a visual wealth that helps to quickly link the characters with that wealth.
Another element included in the designs that clearly indicates wealth and status is the billowy sleeves. Why? Well, let's say that they aren't very utilitarian. And, if we focus on real European historical fashion, for a long time, the fact of wearing non-functional/non-utilitarian clothes indicated a higher status. The less utilitarian and comfortable your dress was, the higher status you had.
Brief note; non-utilitarian sleeves are also added to Joffrey's costumes. Those are only there to make him look like a King, but fighting in such sleeves would be a nightmare.
But, that aside, there's another rule they borrow from our reality: cutting edge fashion is not cutting edge unless it's in constant change. That's why the female dress in the Lannister court is constantly changing (while maintaining the same spirit) steadily throughout the seasons.
This are all iterations of the same concept: showing power and status through always wearing the latest fashion. This is a concept that it's as old as time itself, and it's still in use today. That's why it's so easy for us, the audience, to see this and read that these characters are ambitious and dominant and like displaying their power.
It's very interesting to see the designers apply real world guidelines to facilitate our understanding of this world and its culture. And it coats this world with an added feeling of truthfulness.
But right now, through these designs, it still hasn't managed to reflect a couple other characteristics essential to the Westerlands: control and a clear militaristic mind set. And, that's why they added the metal belts.
It's pretty telling that Western ladies wear armor-like decorations; it speaks of their aggressiveness and their violence in a fascinating way.
But let's get back to fashion for a moment. Right now you're thinking, that's a good tool, but it's only applicable to women, right? And that's where you'd be wrong. Men can also use fashion to make a power statement. You need only look at representations of Renaissance fashion to see that.
It's only logical, then, that Michele Clapton also used that to create the visual look of the Western male characters.
Westerland men are portrayed wearing leather tunics that favor the same asymmetric overlapped cut as the female dresses, once again confirming the Japanese influence used to further highlight their fashion forwardness in contrast to Northerners.
Because that asymmetry is a defining visual trait of the Westerlands, it's also created in other ways (beyond the overlapped lapels of their coats) to create a sense of variation. In fact, Joffrey is a great example of that: he never wears the same style of coat as Jamie, but his designs still manage to create that asymmetric feel through an extensive use of capes and sashes.
It's also true, that some of the more "straightforward" characters in the family, do not favor that asymmetry. But that mainly affects Tyrion, and he's a sort of an outsider in his own family, so it's normal, in a way.
But, still, everything else about his designs still ties him to the Westerlands: from the recurrent use of House colors to the extremely detailed and luxurious materials.
As with the female designs, the quality and detail of the materials used in all the male costumes puts further emphasis on their extensive wealth. Notice how every single one of these costumes is richly decorated, be it a female costume or a male costume.
This favoring of "pretty" clothes, even for men, also gives them a certain pompous air that definitely helps the audience to grasp the characters' personalities really quickly.
Before we wrap up, let's take a moment to talk about the color palette. The funny thing is, that, unlike the North, the Westerlands don't have an ironclad palette. It's true that they favor their house colors (deep reds and maroons and golds), especially when they are in a situation in which they want to assert their power, but they vary quite a lot in their general color scheme. A character like Cersei, for instance, wears, throughout the seasons, every color imaginable (except green, if my memory doesn't fail me). This is meant to highlight, once again, their wide resources. With their wealth, they can afford the best materials, the best dyes, the best everything. So it's only logical that displaying that (instead of anchoring themselves with one specific color palette) becomes just another way for them to boast of their never ending gold.
In the end, all the aforementioned elements work because build up to create a perfectly distinguishable and unique look that reflects their mindset and their cultural environment. Which is what makes these designs truly great.
HEAR ME ROAR
Much in the same way as it happened with the Stark motto, the Lannister motto is so fitting to their personality, that perfectly serves as the main guideline to create their visual look. Every single design (be it costume or armor) is meant to be a public statement; a statement of wealth, but also of status and power. Their whole image is a claim of dominance over everyone else. Their whole look is an extension of themselves meant to make you "hear them roar".
By radicalizing their style through the use of non-related sources (let's say that Japanese is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about A Song of Ice and Fire), they create a feeling of cutting edge fashion. Their style is completely unique and different from the rest and that's how they set themselves apart. And not only apart. but above everyone else.
But, the biggest merit of these particular designs is their brilliancy when understanding that the key to these cultures and this family centered around a sense of superiority and constant reinforcement of that superiority. As we stated earlier; it's all about Power Dressing.
It also gives as a proficient masterclass on representing cultures and mentalities. And proofs that you don't need to see the Westerlands to understand them; the traces of the land that are found on the people are as important as the land itself.
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