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Tuesday 10 April 2012

Game Of Thrones: Unwashed Northerners, royal conspiracies, and decapitations all round.

This post contains no plot spoilers.

I began watching Game Of Thrones recently -- mostly because I was promised cute baby dragons, and I love cute baby dragons -- and I think this poster more or less sums it up:
No one is safe. This show has the highest body-count I've ever encountered. Luckily I didn't get very attached to any of the characters until several episodes in, thus saving myself a lot of decapitation-based heartache. Because the folks of Westeros really like their decapitations. It's like head-severing is their national sport or something (their second-favourite activity being incest).

The costume design in Game Of Thrones doesn't blow my mind, but it definitely fulfills my criteria of costuming following characterisation. The source material itself is a real gift: a combination of historical and fantasy-based costumes, the two main costume design crowd-pleasers both in terms of awards and audience recognition. I haven't read the books so I can't speak to the authenticity of the show's visuals, but my guess is that the show differs significantly from George R. R. Martin's original vision. There isn't a great deal of overlap between costume/fashion experts and revered High Fantasy greybeards.
Jaime and Cersei Lannister.
This isn't going to be a review of Game of Thrones, or even a rundown of the costumes therein. That would probably require an entire new blog all to itself. Suffice it to say that there are several kingdoms, and each has its own style. Pictured above are Cersei and Jaime Lannister, aristocrats from King's Landing where people tend towards the fairytale-Medieval/Mediterrannean Europe end of the spectrum.
Daenerys Targaryen, the Khaleesi.
Khal Drogo and his wife the Khaleesi are their counterparts in the Dothraki kingdom, which culturally seems to be based on the Mongol Empire but costume-wise bears no resemblance to it whatsoever. A lot of their costumes share more with the mixing-pot of modern urban "tribal" (ugh) styles than anything else, and seem very impractical for people who spend their lives trekking across the steppes in the blazing sun. My discomfort with this cultural/racial confusion is exacerbated by the fact that for the first couple of episodes the Dothraki characters are portrayed in a way that comes across as rather racist considering the fact that they're the only society in Westeros that isn't closely inspired by Medieval (white) Europe.
The constantly-shirtless Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo.
There are no heroes in Game of Thrones, which is just as well since I'm fairly sure the final episode will end with the last surviving character beheading themselves, thus allowing the dragons to take their rightful place as apex predators of Westeros. However, the Stark family (headed by Eddard Stark, AKA Boromir, AKA Sean Bean) are as close are we're likely to get, although my loyalties may have been influenced by the fact that they're the underdogs, they have super adorable pet wolves, and they're from The North. As a Scottish person I'm practically obliged to side with impoverished people who live in an ice-bound hellhole and are constantly oppressed and belittled by their despicably clean-haired, well-spoken rulers. Oh, and the Starks are also my favourites in terms of costuming, although for a very specific -- some might say, idiotic -- reason.
Eddard Stark.
Eddard Stark looks almost indistinguishable from Boromir in Lord of the Rings. His role and character, too, are not dissimilar, although Sean Bean really only has one setting and that setting is "angry Northern man who can't wait to get into a fight about something". Like the rest of the Stark men and Northern lords, he wears a lot of armour and fur and leather in colours that won't show the decapitation stains, and generally gives off the aura of a person whom you wouldn't want to stand too close to because they haven't washed in six months. Actually, one of the pleasantly surprising details in Game of Thrones, for me, was the fact that people really are Medieval levels of dirty, at least in the North and among the peasantry. Except for a couple of the noblewomen, everyone from Winterfell (Stark's kingdom) has genuinely revolting hair, and although this doesn't pass my ultimate benchmark of historical filmmaking, Lots Of Rotten Teeth, I certainly appreciate it.
Catelyn Stark, wife of Eddard Stark.
But my love for the Winterfell aesthetic stems not from the realistically unwashed hair but from the bizarre drawstring collars sported by many of the Northern characters. I don't think I've ever seen anything like this in a historical TV show or movie, or indeed in real life, but it's incredibly practical for people who live in a very cold climate. Although most of the men wear too much leather and armour for us to tell what's underneath, I think this is a unisex item worn by most people in Winterfell. One baggy linen undershirt drawn tight around the neck, then either another similar shirt over the top, or a more formal/fitted jacket or dress over the top. My favourite example for this is Catelyn Stark, because like her husband her costumes are fairly uniform. Her children dress up for feasts and formal events, and her daughter Sansa's style changes quite drastically when she travels to the far more refined (and warm) King's Landing and is exposed to Southern fashions, but Catelyn is unchanging.
Catelyn Stark and Cersei Lannister.
Catelyn herself isn't from the North by birth -- she married into it -- and her slightly neater style reflects both that and well-organised personality. But even though she's high-born and is the matriarch of a great dynasty, she appears relentlessly practical compared to the glamourous Cersei and the courtiers of King's Landing. Her wardrobe is all subtle, worn greys, greens and blues in tough fabrics, and no matter where she travels she's always wearing the un-dyed Northern undershirt.
Sansa Stark, eldest daughter of Catelyn and Boromir Eddard.
The undershirt is evidently a traditional item as well as a practical one, because when Sansa, Catelyn's oldest daughter, goes to meet the Queen at a feast, her formal dress includes a silkier version of the high-collared undershirts peeking out from under the neckline. I'd be interested to see where this style comes from, although my best guess would be Inuit sealskin undershirts and parkas, which are usually tightened with drawstrings to keep out the elements.
Arya Stark, younger daughter of Catelyn and Eddard.
I couldn't finish this post without a mention of Arya Stark, one of my favourite characters from season 1. Although her older sister Sansa developes into be a fascinating character in later episodes, Arya is awesome from day one, albeit in a slightly cheesy fantasy-hero kind of way. She's a tomboy! She wants to learn how to use a sword and never wash her hair, just like her brothers! I'm a sucker for all that stuff. Plus, she's a major proponent of the Northern undershirt, wearing them almost all the time. People make her wear dresses on a couple of occasions, but it doesn't seem to be a high priority for the Starks to dress her "like a girl", thus proving them to be some of the least-awful parents in Westeros. And, in the end, some of the least politically sound. While Sansa quickly learns to fit in amongst the Southern gentry, Arya, Eddard and Catelyn are all far too straightforward and practical to bother about appearances, and are further disrespected as a result.


  1. I'm rather pleased w/ myself, because before you mentioned the collars in the ext I stopped on that first picture of Catelyn Stark to ogle her great-looking drawstring collar to my heart's content.

    (I haven't watched and probably won't watch the show, so your post is the first inkling I've had that not only Boromir is in it *g* but SARAH CONNOR is there too!)

  2. go to the making of site on HBO. there are vids with the costume designers explaining choices etc. HBO believe in full-service geekery.

    But oh yes. props towards costume designers who remember that most of these outfits would have shirts underneath. (once had to make full Tudor for a Blackadder group. including all the bloody underwear to make it sit right. :weeps softly:) And yes, definite flickage in head regarding the Dothraki costumes.

  3. I would never have noticed the collars without you pointing them out! But I have to talk a little about GoT geography. The Dothraki wedding feast was my least favorite bit of the season, because the random "exotic" cultural and casting mishmash, yeah, seems pretty racist to me. In the books the Dothraki have an over-the-top violent society, yes, to the point that I almost didn't find it believable, but it does seem to be based on the Mongols.

    Anyway, I think your points are totally valid, but have to nitpick: Daenerys and the Dothraki are the only people we see in season 1 who are not actually in Westeros. They're on Essos, which is another continent. Westeros is a continent-sized analogue of Britain, with bits of continental Europe mixed in. So the North is Scotland, and I think you could make a good argument that the Stormlands where the Baratheons are from is Wales. The South is more European: I think of the capitol as more French and the area south of that, which we don't see in the first season, as Spain. Parts of the first book/series are based on the War of the Roses and in that frame of reference the Targaryens (dragon people) are Normans. They are descended from the old empire of Valyria (essentially Rome), which used to control most of Essos. Essos is pretty much Eurasia, with the Dothraki Sea located in Central Europe and a bunch of southern coastal cities with Mediterranean and North African flavor. I think my point was that technically there are lots of other non-white people on Essos, we just haven't seen them on the show. And yeah, the show has done a bad job with representation.

  4. oh! i genuinely thought that Westeros was the name of the world and/or that everything took place in Westeros, the continent. i suppose i'd probably know better if i ever watched the credits-sequence map, but i always skip that.

  5. i should go and watch some of those! i watched a short video with the chief costume designer, but nothing else. :)

    well, it's good to hear that the blackadder folks were dedicated...?

  6. :DD

    sarah connor IS in it! although i haven't actually ever seen any of the SCC. she's BRILLIANT, though. one of the very best actors in the show, if not THE best.

  7. God damn it. I just wrote a whole long post about the races of Westeros (and the othes) to try and explain how at least the books aren't racist (though characters in them are) and it's just unfortunate that the Dothraki don't get enough screen time for them to be seen as a developed fantasy ethinic group (and are also innitally perceived by Viserys as "uncivilised" and Daenerys as "alien") so they do come off as appearing racist. I hate that, as I'm an avid fan of the books, but I cannot write out the whole post again. Just know that there are a variety of ethnic groups throughout the Known World (which includes Westeros, Essos and Sothoros - map available here which includes people of ever skin colour I can think of (including the Valyrians who are white, silverhaired and violet eyed), but sadly very few of them are going to get any screen time as the story mostly takes place in Westeros and have you have noted, is predominately white (there is an ethnic group of people to the very far south, in Dorne, who are described as being slender, with olive skin and dark hair/eyes, who may make appearences in later seasons).

    I absolutely love your comments about the under tunic, and thank you for pointing out Sansa's silk one, which I totally hadn't noticed. I would totally recomend reading the books, because as well as being fantastic fantasy books with a lot of really well developed cultures and great characters (a LOT of misogyny - as you have already seen - but a historically appropriate one, and I think there is definitely argument for there being feminist characters). There is a lot of description of the clothing (and the FOOD) in the books, and visuals are actually very similar to ones described in the books. GRRM was on site during a lot of the production of the first series, and writes one episode per season, so a lot the details in the series are, if not from his own mind, at least kosher. I don't know an awful lot about historical costumes, so I don't know of GRRMs descriptions are accurate historically, but they seem at least inspired by real historical costume (I think you will personally like the bits about on of the female character's armour)

    Also, some of the scenes in the book are better - particularly that AWFUL scene of Daenerys/Drogo's wedding night, which is a lot less rape-y, though Daenerys is 14 in the books :s. Long post short, the books are awesome, you sound like you would enjoy them.

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