Throughout Game of Thrones’ eight seasons, Sansa Stark’s appearance has always mirrored the powerful people she’s tried to emulate — or, in some cases, to protect herself from. At the end of the series finale, though, her hair was styled in a way we’ve never seen it before: pin-straight, completely loose, with no ornamentation aside from a delicate tiara.
As Cheryl Wischhover previously wrote for Vox, Sansa’s style evolution signals her character development. Her outfits and hairstyles are fairly simple at the beginning of the series, a sign that Northerners are less concerned with flashy looks than the Westerosi farther south. When Sansa gets to King’s Landing, though, she begins trying to dress like the fashionable ladies she sees in court.
“You instantly know she’s trying to elevate herself,” Game of Thrones costume designer Michele Clapton told Wischhover. “She’s always had this idea that she’s better — she aspired to be a queen.”
Later in the series, Sansa wears her hair in ornate updos that look similar to Cersei Lannister’s season one hairstyles, presumably in an attempt to fit in with the family that is holding her hostage. When Margaery Tyrell arrives on the scene in the show’s third season and takes Sansa’s place as Joffrey’s fiancée, Sansa begins wearing her hair in a similar half-up, half-down style as the new queen-to-be. When Sansa has to pose as Littlefinger’s niece while in the Vale, she dyes her hair a dark brown that resembles his own — suggesting Sansa was abandoning her Stark roots, at least temporarily. And for a brief moment in the series finale, her hair was in Daenerys Targaryen-esque braids.
As Anthony Oliveira, a culture critic and Renaissance literature expert, points out, the ability to have elaborate hairstyles, in both the Game of Thrones universe and the Tudor period that inspired it, is a sign of power. “Your ability to summon someone who could do complicated hair for you was [important]. That’s why Missandei is such a fascinating character. She evokes this ‘exotic’ character who was shipped from overseas to style your hair — that’s what they did.” (Which raises an interesting question: How did Daenerys manage to get her hair braided after Missandei died? I guess we’ll never know.)
But when it was time for Sansa to be crowned queen in the North, her hair was completely unadorned. This seemingly simple hairstyle says a lot about how far she’s come: She spent her life emulating other people’s forms of dress (and of political manipulation), but now she can be herself.
THEY REALLY SHOWED SANSA STARK'S WHOLE CORONATION, IMAGINE THINKING I WILL EVER SHUT UP EVER AGAIN pic.twitter.com/1tpSl2D8UT— kinsey (@sansascstark) May 20, 2019
According to Oliveira, Sansa’s coronation look is a clear reference to another famous redheaded monarch: Queen Elizabeth.
“George R.R. Martin has talked a lot about how A Song of Ice and Fire is the War of the Roses in England, and the Tudor period is the culmination of that,” Oliveira said. Elizabeth, one of the Tudors, had a “complicated early life” that is similar to Sansa’s.
After her mother, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded, Elizabeth was sent to live with the Seymours, a powerful English house. “She was basically a political pawn, a lot like Sansa, surviving on her wits in court,” Oliveira explained. Thomas Seymour, the brother of Henry VIII’s third wife Jane, later married the Queen dowager Catherine Parr, who was married to Henry VIII.
“Thomas starts sexually harassing Elizabeth when she’s 14. When this gets out — when Catherine discovers it — she immediately blames Elizabeth,” Oliveira said, and rumors begin spreading that the Elizabeth and Thomas two were conspiring to make Thomas king.
“When it’s time for [Elizabeth’s] coronation, she wears her hair down, which is a big, big deal,” Oliveira said. “It signals her virginity: to be unadorned for her, is the ultimate adornment. It says, ‘Screw all of you, I’m in no way sexually complicit or guilty.’ Sansa’s silhouette is identical: the long, flowing hair and the tight hourglass.”
According to Oliveira, the suggestion is that Sansa “has learned the same lessons as Elizabeth.” The parallels are clear: Both Sansa and Elizabeth were orphaned and left to fend for themselves in hostile courtly environments; both were sexually pursued by much older, power-hungry men. And both used self-presentation to evoke power.
“[The showrunners] have been building this throughout: Sansa is a seamstress, she loves embroidery, she’s learned how to be image-conscious,” Oliveira said. “That was Elizabeth’s game. Elizabeth creates the cult of Gloriana, this image of herself as the great mother of the state, the virgin mother of the state.”
Sansa letting her hair down is no denial of power; she’s just changing what it looks like to be queen.
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