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The evolution of Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister, explained by her costumes

Cersei Lannister’s costumes take her from fantasy queen to battle-hardened ruler.

The final episode of Game of Thrones is upon us, but it will not include Cersei Lannister. From the first season when we saw her toying with every character like a cat with a mouse, she was a fan favorite, villain or not. But now her reign has come to an end.

The chances of Cersei Lannister making it out alive were never great. Vegas oddsmakers were even taking bets on not just her death but who exactly would kill her. (Congrats if you wagered on “someone/something else” besides Jaime, Arya, or Tyrion.) It ended up being the weight of her own ambition — and, uh, the weight of the entire Red Keep falling in on her and her beloved brother/lover, Jaime. In the end, hers has been a hell of an arc to watch, and her character was one of the most complex on the show. Is she a heartless villain and sociopath? Is she worthy of empathy? Kinda yes to both.

Through it all, Game of Thrones costume designer Michele Clapton has reflected Cersei’s experiences and family history through her elaborate costumes, on which every detail is strategic and meaningful. Cersei tells us a lot about what’s happening in her life through her wardrobe, just like her favorite punching bag Sansa Stark does.

“Cersei has always spoken a lot through her costumes, often because she didn’t have a voice. On Game of Thrones, you have to say so much in so little time. I use costumes on Cersei to get across her mood and how she’s feeling visually,” Clapton told Elle in 2017.

Cersei, played by Lena Headey, has done some truly terrible things. She watched coldly as her brother pushed a small child out a window ... because the boy caught them having sex. All three of her children with Robert Baratheon, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, are actually the product of her incestuous affair. Or rather, former Lord of the Seven Kingdoms, as she convinces her other lover to kill her husband by giving him too much wine and letting a wild boar finish him off.

That’s just the first season — her atrocities go on and on. And yet!

Cersei and Ned Stark in happier times (season one) when Ned still had a head.
HBO

She’s also had many injustices and indignities heaped on her. Her father, Tywin Lannister, didn’t really love her, viewing her as a marriageable pawn and baby-making machine to increase Lannister power. She was conscripted into a loveless marriage to an alcoholic king who pined for Jon Snow’s dead, secret, real mom. All three of her children died tragically. She was forced by religious zealots to walk down the streets naked. By season eight, her only companions are a large zombie who tortures people and a creepy guy who lives in the basement.

Cersei is not like Sansa Stark, whose behavior and wardrobe often emulates those around her. Circumstances, her Lannister loyalty, and her own, often terrible decisions shape Cersei and affect her clothes, hair, and bearing.

Here’s what her costumes tell us about her character, broken down into three eras of Cersei:

Queen consort and queen regent

When we meet Cersei in the first few seasons, her style is traditionally feminine: flowing, wavy hair and colorful gowns, often worn kimono-style. Her sexuality is a source of power for her, because it’s the only power she has at that time. While she has little sexual power over her husband, Robert Baratheon, she has a great effect on Lannister men: her brother Jaime, and her first cousin and true fuccboi Lancel, whom she uses to help her kill Robert. With Robert’s death, her son, Joffrey, is installed to the throne, bringing her closer to power.

Cersei and Tyrion Lannister (season two) before their sibling rivalry went beyond mere arguments about who is Dad’s favorite.
HBO

Lena Headey makes the case for compassion toward Cersei, telling Time in 2017, “As we’ve grown to know her a bit more, we see that she’s a woman surviving in a really s–tty world desperate to be heard, saying something seven times when a man says it once. ... With Cersei and Jaime, we’ve always talked about it — Cersei’s always wanted to be him. Therefore, for her, that relationship is completion. There’s been an envy, because he was born with privilege just for being a man.”

We see her wearing red, a Lannister signature and generally a power color, a bit in the beginning, but once Joffrey is installed on the throne and she starts feeling more powerful, the color shows up more consistently. Clapton told Entertainment Weekly that this is when Cersei started to “emphasize her Lannister power.” We also start seeing armor details on her gowns, which at this point she still wears as decoration, like this sternum armor corset:

Cersei and Littlefinger, possibly scheming (season three).
HBO

During this period, she wears huge lion heads on everything, the symbol of the Lannister clan. It appears on her necklaces, belts, and epaulets. You can see it twice on the above look, in both her choker and her armor. Even the embroidery, as the show’s embroiderer Michele Carragher says on her site, becomes more armor-like. Cersei is a Lannister, hear her roar.

Things start to get interesting in season three when Margaery Tyrell comes to Westeros to marry Joffrey. She is young, attractive, a favorite of the citizens, and a threat to Cersei’s power, because they both want to use Joffrey to their advantage. “When she’s battling with Margaery, who wears less and less to show her youth, Cersei wore more and more and more ornate dresses,” Clapton told Time.

Thus begins one of the best sartorial periods in the show, especially for fashion nerds.

“Margaery’s in great competition with Cersei. It’s almost like a fashion fight between them, which is quite funny,” Clapton told me in an interview for Fashionista in 2013.

Margaery Tyrell (season three) loves a risqué top.
HBO

One particular tidbit that Clapton also told me at that time is that she had been inspired by an Alexander McQueen funnel-neck gown worn by Bjork, likely the one on her 1997 Homogenic album cover. The silhouette first appeared on a dress briefly seen on Margaery, but Clapton reprised that same funnel neck again and again on gowns for Cersei; it became a power signature for her throughout subsequent seasons.

Bjork on the cover of her 1997 Homogenic album, wearing an Alexander McQueen dress.
Elektra Records
Cersei, season 3, wearing a funnel-neck gown inspired by Bjork’s.
HBO

The peak of the Cersei-Margaery aesthetic battle came at the Purple Wedding, in which Joffrey and Margaery wed and Joffrey was then poisoned to death. But first, Cersei marked the occasion by piling on the ornamentation.

“Many of the court are now dressed in Margaery’s style to show the support she enjoys. A few older women still follow Cersei’s style, which is another thorn in her side. ... Cersei’s dress is heavily embroidered with Lannister imagery. It’s a dress of weight and power,” Clapton told me in 2014.

It is the first time we see the huge triple Lannister lion’s head statement necklace, which appeared several more times in following seasons. Clapton told Vulture in 2016, “When she’s feeling insecure, like with Margaery, for instance, she wears these big, clunky gold pieces to show that she’s a Lannister and important and has status.”

At the Purple Wedding, in season three.
HBO

But Joffrey’s death is the start of a cycle of constant loss, grief, and trauma for Cersei, which leads to some somber wardrobe changes.

Mourning the death of Joffrey (season four), one of the most hated TV characters ever.
HBO

Grief and shame, shame, shame

Shortly after Joffrey’s death, Cersei loses her father at the end of season four, thanks to her brother Tyrion surprising their dad on the toilet with a crossbow. While Tywin was not a caring and supportive father, she still loved him. The color pretty much goes out of Cersei’s wardrobe, which turns drab and dark.

Cersei walks with Oberyn Martell (season four) before the Mountain smashed his beautiful head.
HBO

She starts dressing in black, and we see that triple lion head necklace a lot, as well as a reprise of the funnel neck. Cersei’s youngest son Tommen is now on the throne, but he’s a mere kid. She’s grieving, but she’s also asserting her power.

Cersei (season five) breaks out her best funnel neck and biggest necklace for Tywin’s funeral.
HBO
HBO

Then comes the darkest time of Cersei’s life. First, her daughter Myrcella is killed in retaliation for Cersei killing Oberyn Martell. Then she is arrested by the High Sparrow, because Lancel (yes, the same one who used to sleep with Cersei), radicalized by religion, confessed their affair and snitched about Cersei’s relationship with Jaime.

Cersei imprisoned (season five).
Macall B. Polay/HBO
Cersei before the walk of shame, shame, shame.
Macall B. Polay/HBO

Cersei is arrested and put in a shapeless, dirty prison gown; then her hair is mercilessly sawed off. Long hair has always been seen as a symbol of feminine power and sexuality, so cutting it is an attempt to strip Cersei of those things which she has always weaponized. It’s the most vulnerable we’ve ever seen her. Most cruelly of all, she is made to walk naked down the street, where she is jeered at and injured by onlookers. The Cersei that comes out the other side is hardened.

The Lannister queen

Upon regaining her power, Cersei’s first order of business is to blow up everyone who has wronged her. In the season six finale, she engineered a wildfire explosion that killed Margaery and a chunk of the Tyrell family, the High Sparrow, and Lancel. For the occasion, Cersei wore one of the most militaristic outfits we’ve seen her in yet. It also gave rise to one of the best GIFs ever, turning Cersei into the Rihanna of Westeros. (Wine glasses have always been an accessory for her, but this really put one front and center.)

Her smugness is short-lived, because shortly after Margaery dies, Tommen jumps out his window, leaving Cersei childless. However, this also allows her to officially ascend to the throne. At her coronation, she wears a stripped-down Lannister lion crown. Clapton also subtly switched up the length of Cersei’s dresses, making them more maneuverable. “We’ve shortened her dress so it makes her less vulnerable. She can move and she can be a little bit like Dany in a way, because it’s not quite as restrictive,” she told Insider.

While Cersei has always channeled her father in various ways, she now outright copies him in her style, leaning into tight, black perforated and quilted styles. Although Clapton told me that her coronation dress was meant as an homage to Tywin and also to mock him a bit.

Raiding Dad’s closet, season seven.
Helen Sloan/HBO
Twyin: bad father, good dresser?
HBO

She also embraces high necklines, almost like a Westerosi turtleneck, and extreme structure. “The style of her dresses are [like] armor. She is untouchable — she no longer has to use her sexuality to procure what she wants. She has to some extent become androgynous. She finally has what she always wanted, but was it worth it?” Clapton said to Entertainment Weekly.

Some hypothesized that all those armored turtlenecks possibly a reaction to a prophecy in the books that never made it onto the screen version of the story. Maggy, the witch who foretells that Cersei’s three children will die, also tells her: “When your tears have drowned you, the valonqar shall wrap his hands about your pale white throat and choke the life from you.” The good people at Vanity Fair broke down the details of this theory (including who the valonqar might be). Taken with all the high necklines she’s wearing, it was pretty compelling. Ultimately, though, no turtleneck could save her from all those stones.

A sneak peek at Cersei’s season eight wardrobe.
Helen Sloan/HBO

Speaking of androgynous, Cersei’s hair remained short throughout season seven. I like to think that she chose to embrace the crop and reclaim it as a different kind of power. (Just look to Brienne of Tarth for support of powerful women with short hair.) Because time is apparently meaningless, with the show taking massive liberties in season seven, we’ll never know if the cut is her choice or just that there hasn’t been enough time to grow it back.

The last wardrobe-related challenge for Cersei? A pregnancy.

Cersei, the latest royal to cradle her bump.
Helen Sloan/HBO

Keeping all that structure is going to be tricky with a growing baby bump. But alas, that ultimately isn’t going to be a problem.

Cersei Lannister’s last outfit.
Helen Sloan/HBO

Cersei’s last outfit was appropriately Lannisterian and ticked all the house codes (as they say in the fashion world): red, gold, lots of lion’s heads. She died as she lived, covered in symbols of her family’s power.

Now let’s pour one out for Cersei, with a glass of her favorite vintage. She was fun to watch.

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