Game of Thrones season 7: Costume designer Michele Clayton talks female power dressing, war and 'The Crown'

Michele wanted Cersei's character to look brittle and empty in the new season

The Emmy award winning designer behind Game of Thrones, Michele Clapton, has developed an increasingly impressive repertoire in the past few years. As well as taking the reigns on the HBO blockbuster, the British costumer has worked on The Crown, Queen of the Desert starring Nicole Kidman and Robert Pattinson – and is currently working on set of the Mama Mia prequel.

The designer has faced one of her biggest challenges yet, highlighting through costume the descent of Westeros into Winter. We sat down with Clapton to talk about the new season, and the thought process behind some of her most famous creations.

The show is known for its strong female characters, do you purposefully try to empower women through dress?

"For the female characters I think what I wanted to do was try to resist the urge to dress them all the same. They are neither male nor female, they are a character - its more likely the world created in Game of Thrones has pushed them to be more feminine or more masculine, rather than that's just ‘the way they dress’. I’m lucky as a costume designer I’ve never been stopped doing something ‘because i’m a woman’ so I’m happy that i’m able to get that voice through in their dress. All the characters are strong or weak and they can demonstrate all these different facets to their characters through dress. I enjoyed that straight through from Gwendoline to Dany, you couldn’t get more extreme yet they are all in their way powerful and feminine, but there’s variation. We can demonstrate there’s more than one way to show femininity.”

A lot of fans have noticed - in particular - the development of Cersei’s character through costume. Where did you draw inspiration for her new steely new aesthetic?

“The reason I moved away from Fashion and onto TV is because I love taking inspiration from the story. That leads you in the direction you want to go - you read the script, and you plot the journey. I’m here to show you what the characters want to say about themselves, what messages they give out… sometimes they want to give out those messages and sometimes they don’t. Its about trying to visually tell the story of what is going on in these people’s lives, and equally what is going on around them. When I dressed her in birds, I wanted to show everyone how she’s a trapped bird, it contrasted so well with her calling Sansa a little bird. And now, particularly Cersei, she’s in this position she’s always wanted to obtain and she’s begun emulating her father a little. I mean with Cersei I wanted to show this brittleness to her. So I started adding these jagged edges and points to what she was wearing. I’m trying to give clues to their situation, to subtly show when the characters are feeling strong, when they are feeling weak.

I guess we all subconsciously give out messages with the way we dress.

“We do! when we want to be taking more seriously we dress in a powerful way - when we are in a situation where we don’t want to be noticed too much, we try to choose more neutral colours. I try to look at human nature, and I try to dress the characters for the circumstances that they are in. Cersei now she’s just closing down, she’s alienating herself. I wanted this season to close down colour-wise, except that Dany now she’s just getting a little bit of red coming into her costume, she’s finally claimed her throne… well, she's on her way to claiming her throne.

We have season 6, where winter is finally here. Has that created a new challenge for you in dressing the characters?

“I mean, the first thing I thought when reading the script was ‘why would Cersei be in a red silk dress right now?’ ‘why would Dany be in a long white dress?’ its a time of war as well as winter. In these kinds of situations people are much more functional, and its like what we were saying before. Those two women are dressing now because they want to be taken seriously, they want power, so they are dressing powerfully.

Michele Clapton has worked on some of the biggest TV shows of the moment - including Game of Thrones and The Crown (Getty)

But in the costumes of everyone else this season, i really tried to join them all together palette-wise. Everyone is really after the same thing, its all about petty squabbles. In past seasons I used colour to highlight the differences between motivations of the characters – so the pretty silver and blue of the Tyrell's, versus the imperial bold reds and gold's of the Lannisters. Whereas now, i’ve had the opportunity to strip that all back.”

So the war is sorting blurring the lines for us as an audience, we’re not really sure who we’re supposed to be rooting for. Did you take any inspiration from real life conflict?

“The scene with the Dothraki following the defeat of the Lannister's, where we have them wandering over the battlefield and taking things off the dead bodies. I really liked the idea of them taking their coats and wearing them – it was something seen during the soviet invasion of Azerbaijan. By the end of the war it was hard to determine the difference between the Bolshevik’s and the democrats, because they’d stolen each others clothes. Whoever was winning stole the best coats. And I love this, you have the Dothraki taking their coats and armour – and although the armour isn’t particularly useful, the coats keep them warm. I tried to look way more into behaviour – wanted to show that they were taking useful items from those they killed. Though you have these two sides that are so different, I wanted to show that blurring of lines. In war we’re all the same. "

Any new characters you enjoyed working with this season?

"Euron Greyjoy actually, he’s such a strange, twisted character. I loved the idea of him sort of flashing his slashed leather jacket like some sort of madman, but then he’s got this sort of swagger to him. He’s there to get under Jamie Lannister's skin. The leather jacket is us veering away from the classic ‘slash front’ of the grey joys armour and just sexing it up a little bit. Its very 1980’s rock-star. You want to have that swagger in there because he’s a complete looney. I think the other thing was I really wanted him to be attractive, if he’s going to woo Cersei, there’s no point in sending someone in there with a wooden crown and sloppy costume because then Jamie wouldn't’t feel threatened. Jamie’s always stuffed in his armour and isn’t very playful and then you have this man who is everything he can’t be. And Pilou was so into it, he definitely brought it to life – he was rocking that look!"

How has jewellery factored into the costumes in season 7?

“Well with Cersei again, I wanted to add these pieces of almost jewelled armour – whereas with Dany, she’s wearing a chain across her body as almost a chain of office. A chain of intent. We designed the pin first which is with three dragon heads and then its supposed to move to be the backbone of a dragon, and each piece of chain is supposed to be a separate part of the spine. The chain is there because she can’t wear a crown, because the only crown she wants to wear is the crown of Westeros. But its there to show her status, she’s a ruler… particularly to these new Westeros visitors like Jon Snow... and its there to impress them. It was there to be strong and defiant and motivational.

She’s always used jewellery, from the time she wore a slave collar to show her united front with the slaves and then as we advance she gets bigger and braver and it becomes less about Essos and more about her house and being a Targaryen. The more she connects with her family the more she adopts them into her costume. Plus we can use the chain for a sash of colour, and it has loops where we can loop things through - i didn't want to use a cloak but it still had to look official and grand. "

Your approach to wedding-wear has been quite a stark example of this move away from gender stereotypes

“Well for Sansa her first wedding dress is about the lack of identity. It isn’t hers, she’s represented in no part of that dress, its a Lannister creation through and through. When marrying in Winterfell I think I wanted to demonstrate this hope, she’s hoping this will all work out fine. She’s hoping that because she’s home and she’s about to marry she’s still hoping it won’t be that bad… and it was actually worse than her first. Theres some pride there, pride in her house, pride in her journey… she’s almost like the Queen of Winterfell and she sort of hoped that it might be ok. Its so silvery and white and optimistic. Then with Margery I wanted to include all these pretty flowers of her house, but with an edge. So I used silver thorns all over her crown and dress, because actually at her wedding she’s demonstrating, though she looks sweet and pleasant and beautiful, she’s actually dangerous.

I guess weddings in Game of Thrones are always quite cynical so I never design them thinking ‘wow this is the happiest day of her life’ its usually like ‘so how is this event going to scar her today’ Its never going to be a white lace dress, put it that way. I think the only time I went with that was the Red Wedding , we had Roslin Frey wear this white pretty delicate dress, but it hung sort of lifeless, there was still some sadness and death in it.

In Game of Thrones, costume and politics seem to weave together, is there an example of a character you really like to demonstrate status with?

“Well yeah you have little finger who’s such an unpleasant man, he’s unpleasant because he only had a little house but he wears this sort of grand chauvinistic coat while in Winterfell – so much so that he stands out. He’s still not thinking about winter he’s thinking about improving his status. We took a little inspiration from a mocking bird –he clings to the finer status. Its important to some of the characters how they demonstrate their position.

Where there any real characters in politics or history that you drew inspiration from?

I think you can compare it to modern day politics, as well as historic conflicts like the war of the roses or whatever, but I’ve also been looking into studies on how people react to winter and war and conflict and how messages are sent through clothing and I tried to create something a little bit more organic. When i started working on [Game of Thrones] I always worried that what fantasy as a genre, costumes are too fantastical, you can have someone wearing a wonderful over-the-top dress but I wanted to be realistic, I wanted there to be a reason why.

Daenery's cross-body chain is to signify a position of office in the absense of a crown

Its actually really funny because I did the Crown last year, and it was very funny because it was the same thought process. You know, apart from the key references like the wedding ball or the Coronation that had to be just so, exactly as it happened, absolute replications – sometimes we had to match the footage. But the rest of the time it was the same process, it was storytelling, what do we think this person is feeling like, what is their relationship with this person like and who are they frightened of. It goes across everything you do! I’m on Mama Mia now for gods sake and its still the same process, how does this person want to be in this and what are they trying to say. i’m going slightly mental at the moment, seventies dancing…. I do fantasy wars at night and the n 70’s dancing during the day.”

So The Crown and Game of Thrones, what drew you to these two massive tv shows as opposed to films?

“I do think in many ways with television over so many episodes you get more freedom to tell a story, television is becoming more respected, getting bigger and bigger budgets its completely changed the genre. The people – the actors,writers,directors becoming attracted to these shows are fantastic, and that's why its so exciting to work on. I enjoy film but I think we’re becoming to appreciate to limitations of story in comparison to TV, we have way more time to explore multiple characters and various arcs. You’ll have a little indy film which can be amazing – but the market for the middle film seems to have dissipated. The Crown was way more like 5 feature films back-to-back and we were using as big film crews as on most films, I had a much bigger crew on that than I currently do on Mama Mia.

Catch the Season 7 finale of Game of Thrones tonight on Sky Atlantic in the UK (streaming on NOW TV)