In honor of the return of HBO's Game of Thrones to our screens this past summer, and as an apology for our extended hiatus, we are going to dive back into the complex visual world of Westeros once again. Previously in this series, we've focused on how the North (read here), the Westerlands (read here) and their respective cultures were represented and reinforced through the detailed Costume Design. And, today, we are going to do the same by looking at how Michele Clapton, the Costume Designer for HBO's multi-awarded show, builds the culture of the Reach and the Tyrell family.
The Reach, just like the Westerlands, it's a region that we've barely physically seen on the show until very recently. And, because of it, most of what we know about it has been inferred through their visual style and the sporadic dialogue exposition. Which, in turn, speaks very highly of the incredible work done by the Costume Design Department when it came to projecting information regarding the Reach and its rich culture, about who they are and where they come from.
HIGHGARDEN AND THE REACH
The Tyrells are the Wardens of the South and Lords Paramount of the Reach, a region that extends as far as the Sunset Sea to the west and as far as the Blackwater Rush to the north, standing as the second largest Kingdom in Westeros. It also happens to be the most fertile region, blessed with vast blooming fields of crops that flow with grain, fruit, and wine, turning the Reach into the breadbasket region of Westeros.
This is possible thanks to the region's temperate climate (very close to what we understand as a Mediterranean climate, as described by the books) and the presence of the river Mander, that waters most of the region. In turn, it's that abundance of fertile terrain that allows the Reach to be one of the most heavily populated and rich regions, only second to the Westerlands with their Gold Mines.
And, even though that wealth and fertility are essential to their identity as a culture, it's the old traditions of Andal chivalry that truly define them. During the Andal invasion, prior to the Targaryen conquest, the Andals settled in vast numbers on the Reach, where their chivalric traditions and their religion, The Faith of the Seven, took strong roots. Because of that, the Reach stands as the cultural heart of the Andals in Westeros. As such, it has a fully developed culture of sophisticated manners and ancient traditions: of knights and ladies, of chivalrous acts and love poetry.
So, if Gold defines the Westerlands and Cold defines the North, what does defines the Reach? Easy enough, it's Culture. Their easily available food supplies and consequent steady flow of currency through commerce has allowed them to focus on keeping, nurturing and cherishing their Culture. And that is heavily reflected in their general style of life.
But things aren't quite so simple in their case; the strong focus on their ancient culture and their strategic economic power leads them to the conviction that they should stand higher in the Westerosi ranks of power, and so, Ambition also becomes a trademark of their family and the Reach's ruling class and what they stand for: Growing Strong.
Because of all that, in this case, the task of the Costume Design was even more tricky and had to walk a very thin line between spelling everything out and not being clear enough.
With that out of the way, let's start by looking at the most obvious information the costume needed to get out of the way: climate. As we mentioned in our breakdown of the Stark's Design, the climate is not only a defining aspect of each culture, but it's also a factor that is very easily integrated into costume. And so, the Reach's warm weather is quickly implied through various design choices. The most obvious of those, undoubtedly, is the lack of sleeves and backless gowns for the Reachwoman as well as the numerous cutouts in their costumes.
There are other reasons behind that design choice, but we'll get to them later. Let's keep our focus on climate for a bit longer. Because filling the costumes with cutouts and extensive skin exposure is not an option for the elderly and most men in a pseudo-medieval society. So, the designer chose to reinforce the idea of a warm weather for those groups through her choice of fabrics.
Most of the Reachmen and Reachwoman are dressed in light, breezy materials, that don't stick to the body, and, therefore, allow a certain breathing room for the wearer: soft linens and breezy silks make most of their costumes. This also creates a certain weightlessness that is often associated with warmer climates.
Last but not least, their costumes generally present a rather warm and soft palette, which is made up of a wide array of soft teals, purples, pale greens and muted golds, more commonly found in warm climates than the ice-blue and browns of the North.
Which brings me to my next point; the Tyrells don't seem to use their house colors in their Costumes, completely avoiding wearing the vibrant green and bold gold of their sigil.
Why is this significant? Because they are the only Westerosi Great House to intentionally avoid wearing their house colors. And that, in itself, it's meant to be a political statement.
Which leads us to one of the two defining aspects of the Reach and the Tyrell's: Ambition.
They willingly chose to wear softer colors in order to seem more gentle and, therefore, less overtly threatening. By not strolling around in bright, bold regal green and gold, like every other Westerosi House, they are actually making a statement: we are not interested in furthering our House. Which, in itself, is a great way of visualizing their subtle approach to power.
The only exception to this is found in Loras' sparring and battle outfits. This is actually the only instance in the first four seasons when a Tyrell is seen wearing bold green. But it's only logical, as in battle it's actually good for them to appear threatening.
If you are still not convinced of how intentional this choice was, notice that after Tywin's death when the Crown and the Lannisters become dependent on the Tyrell's financial and military support, they actually shift their visual style. They do not need to pretend to be uninterested in power, and so, their palette finally embraces their banner's proud Gold as Margaery, her ladies, and Lady Olenna cover themselves in gold colored gowns. Thus visualizing the political thread they pose with a much more aggressive and threatening palette.
This is a political strategy embedded into costume more than a cultural one, but it's worth exploring to understand the Tyrell character.
Politically speaking, they are presenting themselves as the political alternative to the Lannisters, and that is very cleverly reflected in their costumes not only through their choice of avoiding their house colors but also, and very cleverly, through their extensive use of symmetry. If the Lannisters favor stylish asymmetrical clothing, the Tyrells champion the exact opposite by dressing in perfectly symmetrical styles.
And to hammer home that contrast, notice how while Cersei's costumes are heavily layered and almost armor-like, shielding her, whilst Margaery's costumes, with the plunging necklines, large cutouts, and completely exposed arms create the exact opposite effect. Cersei hides behind her clothes, and Margaery instead chooses to expose herself. A very nice and metaphorical way of showing to the people at King's Landing that she has nothing to hide.
This also allows her to expose large amounts of skin, which not only helps cement the idea that the Tyrells come from a warmer weather (as mentioned earlier) but also helps cement the idea that she uses her sexuality and femininity as a political tool in itself. Presenting herself as a young, delicate and alluring girl, she avoids being perceived as a player in the game, even though she very much is.
[Cersei's] armored corset is to show power, but then Margaery undermines her with the girlish, revealing simplicity of her new dresses. It's a dangerous game. -Michele Clapton, costume designer-
In turn, Lady Olenna also uses style and clothes to manipulate how the other players perceive her. She dresses like a frail old woman and creates an image of frailty that helps her avoid being seen as a political threat until the moment she wants to be noticed. There is, after all, an advantage in being underestimated.
It happens to be a great way to show the family's pragmatism and subtle ambition as well as their way of approaching power and how to get it. And it's all centered around a very simple rose/thorn dichotomy: look like an enticing flower and hide the thorns beneath it.
So, if the Lannisters use power dressing to reflect just how powerful they are, the Tyrell's do the exact opposite, preferring to highlight other traits through their image. More specifically, they want to highlight the idea of fertility and prosperity.
How do they do that? Through decoration. Mainly through embroidery. All their costumes are completely covered with embroidered motifs of flowers and nature, constantly highlighting the Tyrell's connection to the Kingdom's plentiful food.
Those motifs are also found in their jewelry and even their armor. And all of them are there to reinforce the idea they are the charitable family that is feeding the kingdom. The numerous flowers and nature-related decorations create a narrative where the Tyrells and, by extension, the Reach are nurturing, stable, harmonious and full of life. As opposed to the violent, war-focused, and vengeful Lannisters.
That idea can also be seen in their embrace of femininity through delicate gowns with full skirts and flowing materials. Like a mother that takes care of her children, the Tyrell will take care of the kingdom.
In the end, they are using all these elements to create an image that allows them to present themselves as a viable and even kinder political alternative, thus weaving politics into costume in an almost seamless way.
So, now, with that out of the way, let's focus on the other essential aspect of the Reach's culture that needed to be integrated into the Costume Design: chivalric traditions. So let's briefly define it: the notion of chivalry in Westeros is almost directly lifted from the real medieval notion of chivalry. It's a stiff code of conduct for knights that prioritizes honor, bravery and the protection of the weak. A code that over-romanticizes death on the battlefield and pushes forward the idea that knights should always be carrying out daring deeds of valor and courage. It is a fantasy that covers up the harsh realities of war.
Because of that, this particular understanding of knighthood had to be, unavoidably, reflected in the men's battle and tournament armors.
Because of the symbolic importance placed on the act of battle, their armors are made to reflect that. They aren't only worn to protect the knights wearing them, they are a statement themselves.
The Reach's armors are lavishly decorated and heavily ornate with filigree decorations of nature-related patterns almost to the point of excess. They are not designed for comfort. They are meant to create the image of the perfect chivalrous knight.
Also, probably because the close ties between the Andal chivalry and the real medieval tradition of chivalry, the Knights of the Reach wear armors that are heavily based on the Classic Western European style of the XV and XVI century.
This, in its turn, is also used to reinforce the pre-established contrast with the Lannisters, whose armors are highly reminiscent of Asian armors rather than European ones.
Last but not least, and also pertaining to battle wear, the considerable wealth of the Tyrells and the Reach isn't only reflected on their beautifully ornate armors, but also in the fact that they can equip their regular infantry with full plate armor, just like the Lannisters do, but something that no other family in Westeros can actually achieve.
A stark reminder that despite their subtle opposition of Lannister power, they are not so different when it comes to their political ambitions and financial power. They just happen to approach the topic from very different prisms.
Growing Strong, the motto of House Tyrell, might sound as the weakest of the Great Houses when compared to the roaring Lannisters or the Baratheon fury. But there is hidden strength beneath the meekness of these words, just as there is determination and ambition beneath the apparent kindness of the Tyrell.
Their charitable and poised exterior is a well-crafted façade meant to avoid confrontation in favor of more productive moves. And that is perfectly reflected in the Costume Design through avoiding using their bold and aggressive house colors and an incredible attention to create a clear stylistic contrast with the very aggressive Lannisters.
All while still maintaining the essentials of the Reach's chivalric culture and their connection to nature and fertility.
By representing both sides of their personality: culture and ambition, Clapton highlights the complexities of the family as well as their inherent duality in a highly creative and effective manner. Once more, it's world-building at its best.
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To read Creating the Seven Kingdoms. Part IV, click here.