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The evolution of Sansa Stark, explained by her costumes

Game of Thrones costume designer Michele Clapton purposely loaded Sansa’s costumes with symbolism.

The last episode of the eighth and final season of Game of Thrones will air on May 19. For the show’s obsessive fans, the end of the series will be bittersweet, and also, let’s be honest, a relief. But hopefully we can all finally admit the following: Sansa Stark has been the most underestimated character of the show.

Sansa, played by Sophie Turner, has had the most interesting, if quiet and subtle, character development of anyone in the series. Ned Stark’s older daughter has gone from an innocent but shallow teen with delusions of royalty to a quiet, resolute leader who has survived more horrific things than you can imagine. Through it all, she’s worn her allegiances and defiance quite literally on her sleeves.

Costume designer Michele Clapton, who created the costumes for most of the series (she briefly departed during season six to design for Netflix’s The Crown), liberally weaves symbolism into the characters’ costumes and accessories. She also makes big statements when the occasion calls for it, like with Daenerys Targaryen’s internet-breaking white fur coat in season seven.

The show has built a world that relies on color and symbols (all those house sigils!) to tell the story, and it’s carried through to the characters’ wardrobe in painstaking detail. Clapton worked with a team of artisans, including embroiderers and armorers, to bring the series’ detailed storyline to life.

Sansa presents an especially interesting case study because she’s had so many influences and absorbed so much from other characters. She also, as Clapton tells me, knows how to sew and embroider and so perhaps has been able, more than any other character, to send extremely personal messages via her clothing. Here’s exactly how her wardrobe and styling tells her story, broken down into four eras of Sansa:

Winterfell and early King’s Landing

In the first season, Sansa is incredibly naive, with aspirations of being a queen and dreams of escaping the chilly, dank castle in provincial Winterfell and presumably, the dirty, shapeless furs she wears there. Conveniently, the show establishes early on that Sansa likes to embroider, so that sets her up for many more seasons of sending stitched eff-yous to various people.

Sansa in Winterfell, season one.
Catelyn Stark, season two.

In the first season at Winterfell, Sansa wears a lot of light blue and gray, nods to both sides of her heritage. The gray is practical and the blue could signify her mom’s family, the Tullys, who live at the intersection of two rivers. Sansa’s mom, Catelyn, was fond of fish clasps.

“You instantly know she’s trying to elevate herself. She’s always had this idea that she’s better — she aspired to be a queen,” Clapton says. The knots you see along the bodice of several dresses are supposed to be little rough-hewn, but with aspirations of something fancier.

Sansa Stark, played by Sophie Turner, in Game of Thrones season one, wearing rough roses.

The stitching on her gowns is heavy on woodsy motifs, and dragonflies show up frequently, as detailed by Michele Carragher, the show’s embroiderer. The symbol appears in many of Sansa’s outfits throughout several of her incarnations, including in jewelry, embroidery, and clasps. Fans have theorized that this is a reference to a tale within the GoT world about the Prince of Dragonflies, a story about a Targaryen and a commoner named Jenny. Like all love stories in Westeros, it does not end well (the Prince gives up his title to marry Jenny and then dies), but young Sansa, before she meets the sadistic King Joffrey and the also sadistic Ramsay Bolton, was a romantic. Regardless, the dragonfly is a creature that is both fragile and known for the unique way it navigates the world, so it’s a good metaphor for Sansa.

After Sansa gets to King’s Landing, when she still thinks she’s going to marry Joffrey, she starts to adopt the elaborate hairstyles of the ladies at court, including Joffrey’s mother, Cersei. As Turner told Refinery 29, this is a pattern: “Sansa’s hair is constantly reflecting the people she’s learning from, or mimicking, or inspired by at the time.” That goes for the costumes too.

Queen Regent Cersei has a huge impact on Sansa: sartorially, yes, but also by helping Sansa realize that the royals are basically a bunch of conniving, sneaky people. She learns their ways, which includes styling heavy draped fabrics with metallic belts and pulling her hair back with a skinny loose twist.

Cersei’s signature look, season two.
Sansa with Cersei styling, season two.

At this point, Sansa basically becomes a prisoner, and her dresses change from blue to mauve. According to Clapton, it’s a color meant to help Sansa avoid scrutiny.

“They kill her father and she hovers around trying not to be seen. That’s when the red of Cersei and the blues of her homeland turned into the mauve. I think mauve is a color that hovers, so she’s in mauve for a long time, trying to be invisible and not trying to express herself, except through her embroidery,” says Clapton.

It fits nicely into the narrative of Sansa surviving by relying on “strategic passivity,” as Vox’s Aja Romano described it. Is there anything more passive than mauve? Apparently not.

Two weddings and an escape from King’s Landing

After Sansa realizes that maybe Cersei is not a great role model and doesn’t have her best interests at heart, she becomes friendly with Margaery, the savvy Tyrell who wants to marry Joffrey to realize her own royal ambitions. Margaery is in competition with Cersei for overall King’s Landing hotness and also as the primary target for Joffrey’s affections (normal mother-son stuff), so it makes sense for Sansa to be intrigued by her. Anyone who can outsmart Cersei seems like a good bet.

Margaery and Sansa in season three, talking about future husbands and how to use roses as accessories, probably.

To hammer home the point, Sansa’s complicated family friend Littlefinger notices that Margaery has become an influencer for an audience of one. “Your hair is different. Lady Margaery wears it that way,” he tells Sansa. But please note that Sansa is still, even in season three, leaning into dragonflies, as seen on the clasp of her totally unassuming and unremarkable grayish mauve cloak.

Sansa was briefly going to marry Loras Tyrell, remember?

Then comes Sansa’s wedding to “the Imp,” Tyrion Lannister, a move meant to humiliate everyone involved but also to forever mesh the Starks and the Lannisters. Clapton designed the gown with a girdle around Sansa to show “how she was entrapped and confused and didn’t really know where she was going or what was happening to her.”

Sansa’s wedding dress is heavy on the Lannister imagery, featuring a lot of gold and a lion’s head on a cloak at the back of her neck, the symbol of the family. You can see some amazing close-ups of it on embroiderer Carragher’s site. She wrote that there are Tully fish and Stark direwolves entwined, with the Lannister lion head taking over to establish dominance.

The sleeveless shape of that dress and the peekaboo cleavage, though? Pure Margaery.

Sansa Stark before her wedding to Tyrion, being assisted by her groom’s lover, season three.

Finally, there is the Purple Wedding, named for the color Joffrey turned after being poisoned. His end came via a jewel unwittingly worn by Sansa, planted, as we find out later, by the Tyrell family matriarch, Olenna.

Sansa’s necklace makes a statement at the Purple Wedding, season four.

Cersei is certain that Tyrion and Sansa had something to do with Joffrey’s murder. Littlefinger — who has started to have the same feelings for Sansa that he had for her late mother Catelyn — conveniently plans an escape, which leads us to her most pivotal incarnation, Dark Sansa.

Littlefinger becomes Sansa’s stylist, season four.

Dark Sansa and Ramsay Bolton

In order to disguise her and introduce her as his niece, Littlefinger apparently brought Sansa some hair dye and a cloak that looks exactly like his. The destination? The Eyrie, to get help from Sansa’s maternal aunt Lysa. Lysa, who has long loved Littlefinger, tries to throw Sansa to her death through the Moon Door because Lysa can clearly see that Littlefinger is into her niece the same way he was into her sister. Littlefinger calms Lysa down, marries her, and then throws her through the Moon Door.

Dark Sansa and Littlefinger, season five.

This Littlefinger cosplay eventually leads to one of Sansa’s most iconic looks, the so-called black crow dress. It has black feathers on the bodice, which extend to wing-like protrusions from her shoulders. Fans have speculated that this was her way of throwing off the various condescending bird names she’s been called — Cersei has referred to her as a “little dove,” and Joffrey’s bodyguard the Hound called her a “little bird.”

But it might be a lot more practical than that, since Sansa would have been forced to make her dress using materials around her. “She’s used raven feathers. We don’t try and suddenly cover her in jewels, because where would she get them? We always try and be realistic about what’s available in any given place,” Clapton told BuzzFeed in 2016 of the dress.

Sansa wearing the crow dress and needle necklace, season five.

Even more importantly, she dons a new accessory that Clapton has called “Sansa’s needle.” A chain links a large bifurcated circle, then hangs at a point. Yep, it is in fact a reference to her sister Arya’s trusty sword, but also a reference to Sansa’s sewing proficiency. “She’s always used a needle to explain what’s going on,” says Clapton, explaining the needle is a link between Sansa’s relationship with her sister and her relationship with embroidery. “Sansa has an epiphany when she wears the black crow dress. From that point onward, although she’s still a victim in many ways, in her head she’s not a victim anymore.”

This powerful look is soon muted again black to grays and mauves when Littlefinger arranges a marriage to the sadistic Ramsay Bolton, who has ensconced himself in Winterfell. Sansa goes back to dull colors but really leans into her heritage. We see fish-shaped clasps on her gowns, including prominent placement on her wedding gown, arguably one of Clapton’s best garments in the whole series.

Sansa marries Ramsay Bolton, with Reek as best man, season five.
Helen Sloan/HBO

“When she wears that dress, she doesn’t yet know how terrible that marriage will be, but there’s this great homage to her parents, who she didn’t really appreciate at the time — a ghostly reminder of Ned Stark with the fur cape and Catelyn with the clasp in the front,” says Clapton. She also told me, back in 2015, that the shape called to mind the statues in the crypt at Winterfell.

Winterfell, redux

Flying away like a dragonfly, season five.
Helen Sloan/HBO

After enough of their mutual torture at the hands of Ramsay Bolton, former Stark family ward Theon Greyjoy, a.k.a. Reek, finally steps up and helps Sansa (wearing her dragonfly clasps again!) escape. She reunites with her supposed half-brother Jon Snow and begins her new life as leader Sansa. She bonds with Arya when everyone assumes they are in competition, brilliantly tricking Littlefinger and putting an end to his scheming forever. According to an analysis by Vox’s Zack Beauchamp, she understood the patriarchal society she lived in.

At the Battle of the Bastards, where her (again, supposed) half-brother fights her current husband, she wears some extremely unsubtle direwolf branding on her chest. There is no mistaking which team she’s on.

Team Stark at the Battle of the Bastards, season six.
Helen Sloan/HBO

Her wardrobe takes on a somberness that befits the situation at the end of season seven. She even breaks out a revamped version of the circular needle necklace, a nod to new Sansa that simultaneously expresses pride in her identity. She always wanted to leave Winterfell and become a queen; now she’s embracing her northern heritage and becoming a leader.

But she is newly protective of herself too. Her clothing becomes “like armor,” according to a 2017 Elle interview. Clapton added elaborate belts and straps to Sansa’s costumes.

Sansa is a leader, season seven.
Helen Sloan/HBO

“She is almost [inaccessible] to anyone; she’s almost strapped down. It’s this idea of being wrapped and unavailable and not feminine. It’s sort of halfway, not masculine and not feminine, it’s just Sansa,” says Clapton.

Speaking of armor, Turner let slip in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that in the last season, Sansa will be getting some real armor for the first time, in a black leather-like material. “I wanted her to have a bit of armor and be a bit more warrior like,” Turner told the publication.

Sansa’s armor.

That armor arrived in season eight before the Battle of Winterfell, and she wore her ring and needle front and center as usual. The armor was made of leather rather than metal, but that was by design. Clapton told me, “It’s not about protection, it’s a statement! Sansa’s armor is a direct reaction to Dany’s assertion of power.”

Before Jon and Dany go off to King’s Landing to address the Cersei problem, Sansa tops off her leather armor with a fur-collared cloak, the traditional outerwear of Winterfell. It’s a nice moment — wrapping up her own new identity in that of her ancestors.

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