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The evolution of Daenerys Targaryen, explained by her costumes

Dany is influenced by the cultures and geography of her surroundings and is always ready to escape from wherever she is.

Daenerys Targaryen — or Dany, as I and her other former friends used to call her before her behavior became completely unreasonable — probably has the flashiest look on Game of Thrones. Complicated platinum braids that have spawned a zillion impossible YouTube tutorials! J. Lo-style belly cutouts! And who can forget the internet-destroying white fur coat? But like all the costumes on the show, nothing is an afterthought and everything is loaded with symbolism, as the show’s costume designer Michele Clapton has shown over and over.

Daenerys, played by Emilia Clarke, has undergone a transformation in the eight seasons of the show, and it’s evident in her outfits. But her influences have been different from those of other main characters. Sansa Stark’s looks always hewed closely to the influential individuals within her small world, and Cersei Lannister’s personal experiences and family pride always informed hers.

Daenerys’s clothes have been determined by the geography and cultural signifiers of those around her, not to mention her need to be able to hop on horses and dragons with a moment’s notice. She’s traversed continents and has the dusty hems to show for it. But will she be queen of the Seven Kingdoms? Only her outfits will tell, as they have done reliably through what I have broken down into three eras of Daenerys.

Belonging to other people

When we meet the Targaryen siblings, Viserys and Daenerys, they are hiding out in Pentos, trying to keep a low profile so King Robert Baratheon doesn’t come after them. Viserys arranges for Dany, who doesn’t particularly seem to care about thrones, to marry Khal Drogo, leader of the Dothraki, so that they will loan him some warriors to help him attack Westeros and reclaim his throne.

Dany is very young and innocent at this point, and her diaphanous, silky dresses accentuate it. But, she is also not at all in charge of her life or her body, as evidenced by this translucent “viewing” dress she wears to meet her future husband.

Pre-Khaleesi Daenerys, meeting her future husband Khal Drogo in this kinda see-through dress in season one.

The empire-waist wedding dress she wears soon after has the same palette and flowiness, but that doesn’t last for long.

The traditional Dothraki wedding horse processional?

She’s only 13 in the book when she’s married off. While we presume she’s older in the show, she really did not want to be married. But then Dany decides she likes Drogo and that whole “sun and stars” sappiness starts. Partially because of pragmatism and partially to identify with her new tribe, she starts dressing in Dothraki fashions, wearing a fish skin top that Clapton told me in 2012 reminded her of dragon scales. Foreshadowing! Either way, she embraces her new boho Dothraki lifestyle and becomes khaleesi, akin to queen in that community.

BuzzFeed also notes that this is likely where those famous braids started. In Dothraki tradition, the length and ornamentation of a warrior’s braid connote victories; Dany’s braids have become more elaborate through the seasons and she conquers more territory.

Daenerys, in a pre-braids Dothraki look with Jorah in season one.

Then Khal Drogo dies, comes to life, is catatonic, and dies again. Dany wears her wedding dress while his pyre burns, tosses her supposedly fossilized dragon eggs in there, then walks into the fire herself. The next morning, Ser Jorah Mormont, the exiled Northern lord who pledges loyalty to and also falls in love with Daenerys, finds her in the ashy rubble wearing what is her most iconic outfit of the whole series: nothing except for three baby dragons.

Baby dragon statement accessory, season one.

Dany then gathers a bedraggled and loyal band of Dothraki and decides to go looking for money to get herself to Westeros and claim the Seven Kingdoms. (Please recall she had her brother killed by pouring a scalding molten gold “crown” on him.)

Khaleesi Coachella, season two.

She ends up in Qarth, where she wears the prettiest gowns and talks to the creepiest guys. Like typical city people, the stylish citizens there don’t want to deal with the bumpkins and their country fashions, so she has to look the part. Of note, the book A Clash of Kings describes Qartheen women wearing their gowns with one breast bared. It’s frankly shocking, in light of the gratuitous nudity embraced by the screen version, that this wasn’t adopted for the show.

Qarth is pretty, also creepy, season two.

But Dany has an important wardrobe moment in Qarth, which carries on through the rest of the series. She decides to wear a coat style favored by the men in Qarth over the more diaphanous gown, with her Dothraki trousers and boots underneath. “She needs to have a strength to her but also vulnerability,” Clapton said. She later told me that she always put Dany in trousers even under gowns “because in her psyche, anything might go wrong and [she’s always thinking], ‘I might need to run away ... I like that sense of, ‘I can play this [queen] but underneath, I can run.’”

Pants are always practical, season two.

Speaking of running, Dany escapes from there and starts on the next leg of her journey, to Astapor and Slaver’s Bay, ultimately ending up in Meereen. Thus begins her blue period.

Becoming a queen, at least in her own mind

Dragon claw, not Italian horn, season three.

As Daenerys begins the process of freeing slaves and gathering her Unsullied army, she dresses in Dothraki khakis and boots under blue dresses with a dragon-like texture, complete with an unsubtle dragon claw necklace. The dress is repeated over and over in seasons three and four.

”I like to put blues on her because they’re a reference back to Khal Drogo and the Dothraki, because blue was their special color. We decided [in season one] that it was a rare natural pigment available to them in their region, so it’s sort of her weird tribute to him,” Clapton said to me in 2013.

Dany also begins to show homage to the slaves she has freed by copying her handmaid Missandei’s metal collar that designated her as a slave.

Wearing the slave collar, season three.

Things change a bit when she meets (the first, less hot) sellsword Daario Naharis. Entertainment Weekly notes that the cutout dress was a way to tell the smitten Jorah that she had slept with Daario. “It had to look effortless, yet the structure to do this with so little coverage has to be so precisely cut,” Clapton told EW. Second only to the baby dragon moment, this is her nakedest look ever. That belly hole just screams vulnerability.

Dany-has-a-boyfriend-dress, season four.

This marks a turning point in her wardrobe, particularly in color choice. She tries to rule over Meereen — a very dusty place, mind you! — wearing a slew of white, cream, and dove gray dresses. She also continues to wear Missandei’s cross-neck halter style, as was the fashion in the region. But the Dothraki blue is relegated to the back of the closet as she tries on more queenly gear for the first time.

”Now she’s got this sense of power and also a sense of immortality,” Clapton told me in 2015. “I wanted to give this rather untouchable [quality] to her. The idea behind the white and pale gray is the sense of removal, a removal from reality.”

The definition of impractical outfits, season five.
Helen Sloan/Macall B. Polay/HBO

She also starts to show a liking for V-neck gowns fastened at the top, for a very relatable reason. “It’s almost like it’s revealing, but at the last minute it’s not. It’s held together. She wants to be attractive and appealing, but at the same time she wants to be in control,” Clapton said.

It’s also a time where her dragons are getting bigger and so is her dragon jewelry. It’s a sign of her growing sense of power and identity. She’s always incorporated Targaryen dragon symbolism, but never as blatantly as she does during this time.

We know. You have some dragons. (season five)

An almost-queen, at least for now

But then it all goes bad, and Daenerys escapes an assassination attempt thanks to Jorah and a dragon. She ends up stranded in Dothraki country again, likely regretting her light-colored choices. One costume anomaly here is that in subsequent scenes with her Dothraki captors, her dragon necklace is suddenly smaller and missing wings. “Dany was in the fight pits — where she didn’t want to be — so I put her in this column dress of almost white with a silver necklace, which visually removed her from the dirt and the fighting. And then she has to flee and I wanted the wings (on the necklace) to come off so she’d be left with less of a dragon,” Clapton said at ComicCon, per USA Today. Okay, it’s a stretch, but who are we to question?

Macall B. Polay/HBO

After she burns some things again, Dany emerges wearing a much more pragmatic palette of khaki-colored leather, with a double pearl ring on a cord around her neck. This ring is the subject of some contention and debate among the fandom. You’ll recall that she dropped this same ring in the Dothraki Sea as a breadcrumb for Jorah and Daario to find her. But who gave it to her?

According to various wikis, Clarke said in an interview that appears to have gone missing from YouTube that it was Dany’s mother’s ring and she’s worn it consistently since season one, though this is never explicitly stated in the show.

Wearing the ring, season six.

It should also be noted that Clapton left the show during this time to design costumes for The Crown, and April Ferry took over for most of season six, with Clapton returning for the last episode and the remainder of the series. So things look a tiny bit different this season. Brown takes over as Dany’s prevailing palette, though her dress style remains consistent. It’s a very transitional color, setting the stage for her most spectacular onscreen costume moment.

This is the correct look to be giving Daario 2.0, played by Michiel Huisman, season six.
Macall B. Polay/HBO

She forges alliances with House Tyrell, the Greyjoys, and others, starting the last leg of her long journey to Westeros. Once she lands in Dragonstone, her family’s old stronghold, her style begins to converge with those of the other major female leaders, Cersei and Sansa. Everything gets darker and more militaristic, and Dany even pulls out one of her favorite silhouettes for her ocean crossing, the deep V with a strap.

Return of the deep V, season six.

As Dany is establishing her presence and meeting her various allies (and nephew/lover, Jon Snow), she finally embraces her Targaryen house colors, red and charcoal. She’s dipping her toe into her heritage and announcing her power in a more concrete way. “People used to say, ‘Well, why doesn’t she wear red?’ Now you do finally start seeing it creeping in through the scaling and embroidery on her dresses. It’s just a touch,” Clapton told Insider. The silhouette of strong shoulders and angles also mirrors that of her brother Viserys, as Clapton explained to Vanity Fair.

Channeling the terrible Viserys, season seven.

Dany also starts wearing a dragon chain across her torso, meant to be a stand-in for a crown, which she can’t wear yet because she’s not officially a queen. “I liked that she’s wearing everything she can to show her status but she can’t wear the crown because it’d be wearing it before it was due. You can see in the way [Dany is] dressing that she’s almost assuming the power but not quite. ... The width of the shoulders give her strength, the chain gives her strength,” Clapton told Insider.

Once Jon Snow gets himself into trouble with his half-baked idea of trying to capture a wight, the zombified beings coming from beyond the Wall to attack humanity, Daenerys decides to go help him, choosing an outfit that damn near broke the internet.

The white striped fur coat was one of the most difficult garments Clapton’s team had to create, from a technical standpoint, as she told me recently in an interview at Fashionista. But the color itself is dripping with symbolism. “I felt like this was her dressing to rescue someone because she felt for them, rather than as a move to acquire more power. It was a romantic coat; it was something she wanted to wear that she’d be noticed in. She was like a descending angel. It was nothing to do with her personal gain. And it was very practical, because she’s riding a dragon,” she said.

Tyrion, looking very dull in comparison, season seven.

Which brings us into the new season. I have questions! Dany once again pulls out this spectacular coat, except it is now streaked with red — zoom in and study the original one extensively and there is no obvious red in it. Did she get a new coat? Dye it? Is it like a mood ring that changes color, except the closer she gets to the throne, the redder it gets? I have no idea, but it looks great, and hopefully the whole thing will turn crimson.

What lucky minion got her other fur coat? (season eight)
Helen Sloan/HBO

It seems to be getting there by episode four, when Dany and Tyrion attempt to bargain for Missandei’s life. That obviously did not work out well. But the red tufted coat is almost as red as Cersei’s Lannister version and provided a nice visual comparison of competing queenly crimsons.

Daenerys loses Missandei, wears a red coat.
Helen Sloan/HBO

Dany is obviously distraught after that, taking to her room for two days, until she finally lets Tyrion in. I can hardly recall a hair of her elaborate braids out of place in eight seasons, barring a few isolated events like that time she walked into Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre and came out naked with dragons. But here, her disheveled hair is sending a pretty direct message via a very old trope — there must be something wrong for a woman to no longer care about her appearance. It’s stereotypical, yes, and also a superficial image of grieving and possibly even depression, but the message is clear: She is becoming unhinged.

Dany needs a deep conditioner.
Helen Sloan/HBO

Daenerys ultimately takes a shower and puts on a uniform of scale-embossed leather with her usual dragon chain, then proceeds to burn up King’s Landing. Will we ever see an actual crown on her head? Doubtful.

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