One of the highlights so far of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” came at the end of the second season: a climactic, episode-long battle known as Blackwater. Two armies clashed shields and swords over the Iron Throne, that highly desirable, highly elusive symbol of power at the centre of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy world. The two sides brawled at sea and on land. Archers atop the city gates sent showers of arrows into the mayhem below, where warriors lunged, jabbed and skewered each other with swords, spears and spite. In the realm of the Seven Kingdoms, war is the major currency.
What do men going to war need above all? The answer, according to the Emmy award-winning costume designer Michele Clapton, is a decent suit of armour. Last week Clapton, who designs all the costumes for “Game of Thrones”, sat down at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to talk with Pierre Terjanian, a curator of arms and armour. And armour, she argued, contains the warrior inside in more ways than one.
On set her workshop includes a costume studio, an armoury and a “breakdown” department, where her designs are stretched, faded and generally ruined to make them look worn-in. Those designs take their cues from reality rather than from George R.R. Martin's books—where, as Robert Macfarlane writes in Intelligent Life, the costumes are “really rather camp”. “There has to be a good reason why each piece of armour on the show looks the way it does,” Clapton said. “We’re trying to create something that is fantastical, but also sits alongside history.” She dresses the characters in clothes befitting their environment—sturdy pelts and furs for characters in the icy North, for example, and patterned cloths and silks for residents of the temperate port city of King’s Landing. Terjanian backed her up: historically, port cities were hubs of merchant activity whose inhabitants were savvier than their rural neighbours about everything from food and medicine to textiles and armour.
To the discerning viewer, this history is reflected in the way armour differs in quality and design from region to region throughout the Seven Kingdoms. In a bustling capital like King’s Landing, where armourers line the streets and compete with each other for customers, it makes sense to produce many different styles of breastplate, helmet and weapon. So the Lannisters get whole suits of plate armour that completely encase the wearer, and the higher-ups are given majestic breastplates dyed in deep reds and golds, and bulging shoulder pads reminiscent of medieval Japanese warriors. Compare this to Winterfell, the seat of the Starks, which is buried in the hills of the North. Here there’s only one armourer, whose family has been preparing the Starks for battle for generations. He gives them no-frills chainmail and leather with some steel or iron embellishments, shield and helmet. When Clapton designed the armour for the Greyjoys, who live in the Iron Islands—a bleak, calloused region with strong ties to the sea—she waxed the leather breastplates to make them look like they had been rubbed with fish oil, something she imagined the Ironborn would do.
And then there are the Unsullied, the army made up of eunuch warriors. Clapton wanted a silhoutte that would make anyone who put the armour on look formidable. There were practical reasons—the different sizes and statures of actors and extras on set—as well as canonical ones. The Unsullied are elite soldiers, bred for battle and renowned for their discipline and tactical prowess. They’re also slaves, trained to fight as one. More than any other faction on the show, the armour of the Unsullied had to reflect a robotic synchronicity. But Clapton also wanted a touch of class. Rather than blocky shoulder plates, she chose to give them elegant angles. She did the same with the Unsullied’s helmet, which curves slightly downward, like a bird's crest, rather than standing rigid.
Clapton did her job so well that once the actors were in the armour, they began to behave like a real army. “They started acting like a pack—fighting, arguing. I couldn't believe it. They became almost untouchable.”