My name's Freyia, and I'm Team Sansa; especially of late. A tough cookie and high-born beauty, Sansa Stark's style is all wound up in her character narrative. She may be quiet, but Sansa is complex and her incredible personal journey is visually mirrored by her heavily symbolic costumes — created by dream team costume designer Michele Clapton and embroiderer Michele Carragher.
The poor little dove has been through some seriously horrible stuff so far in the Game of Thrones world of Westeros, and it's high time we started to celebrate her feminine strength! After all, Sansa witnessed, firsthand, her dear father's execution by beheading, was in an abusive relationship with an absolute psychopath (cue King Joffrey), married off to a man she found repulsive against her will (cue Tyrion Lannister, who was at least kind), before being accused of murder and married off again to perhaps the most violently cruel man in the whole of the Seven Kingdoms. Enter the dark Ramsay Bolton days.
Amongst the plethora of reasons Game of Thrones keeps us hooked, though, is its ability to use costume in conjunction with character development. And from her early days dreaming of King's Landing from afar to her current position as prisoner in her own home, Sansa's sartorial development has been metaphorical the whole way through.
We meet Sansa, a good-girl rich kid, happy in her Northern castle home, engaging in some serious sibling rivalry with her younger, tomboy sister. Sansa is presented as a spotless angel in comparison to Arya Stark's costume of dirtied attire and a muddied face. A perfect sewing student and all-around lady, Sansa is a beautiful feminine object in the patriarchal world of Westeros. Everything is pretty peachy for our Northern lass at home with her nearest and dearest.
Sansa is costumed in the moody blues and greys of the North, which are embroidered and embellished with leaves, florals, and other woodland motifs. Natural-inspired 3D flora adorn her necklines, but are never ostentatious. Fabrics are roughly woven and rustic, and she is warmed by heavy, dramatic capes swathed in wolf fur. Even her evening wear is made from modest woven cloths (which she made herself, may I add!), visually connoting the harsh and down-to-earth DIY lifestyle of Winterfell, both practically and symbollically.
Sansa Stark's braid ties her hair away from her face, for practicality more than anything else; the rest is worn loose, tumbling, and youthful, red like her Tully mother's. She may be a high-born, and begin her journey a simpering princess type, but it is visually obvious that she comes from a world where winter is most definitely coming.
Note that, with the coming of the Lannister royal family, Sansa's "stark" (hehe) garb takes a turn for the new. The pale blue dress, pictured above, looks brand new, as if made especially for the royal visit. The heavy, knotted embellishment, typical of Arya, Cat, and Sansa's Northern style dresses so far, shrinks back to a garland of roses. Shift style, simplistic cuts of the North also suddenly take reference from the Southern styles, as her sleeves grow wider in an attempt to impress her princely crush, Joffrey Baratheon (cough, Lannister). All Sansa cares about at this point is making the best impression on her betrothed, and it comes through in her attire.
The troubles ahead in Sansa and Joffrey's relationship are not just foreshadowed by the direwolf bite spat between the prince and Arya/Mycah in the scene this dress features, either. The contract between the pair's costumes is a subtle, visual warning. Joffrey's oxblood red ensemble and Sansa's sky blue one are optically opposed. In color theory, two colors than have no corresponding relationship to each other are referred to as "clashing" (even if they are visually pleasing). These ocular clash and direwolf bite incidents combine as harbingers for the horrors to come between the two.
Also notice, this is when Sansa's dragonfly, wings, and butterfly symbolisms are born. Game of Thrones embroidery and animal motifs, especially with the female characters, employ subtle clues to the characters' narrative evolutions. Sansa's "spirit animal" motif is applied to her costume over and over as her character and story develop.
There are many theories about the Stark girl's flighty, winged creature crest, from Sansa's moth ring to her embellished gowns. Cersei calls her "little dove," and winged creatures are traditionally symbols of beauty and fragility. However, I feel that Sansa and her symbolism are far more complex than this. Moths, dragonflies, and butterflies are metamorphic creatures that, despite their visually flimsy allure and delicate nature, evolve and grow as they shift and change. I feel like they are a very apt metaphor for Sansa Stark, who, through her pain due to her fragile place in society as a woman, is never broken entirely. She only evolves and grows as she shifts and changes through self realization.
It is also discussed that the story of The Prince of Dragonflies — a Tagaryen prince who gave up the throne to be with his love — influenced Michele Carragher's choice for Sansa's personal emblem. Sansa's obsession with courtly love, which is dashed time and time again, is mirrored in this tragic tale.
As Sansa settles into life in King's Landing, the blue of her Tully heritage, and the greys of the Starks — which symbolize her political status — are slowly replaced by a pale pastel pink or purple. Some people have noted that, in scenes during which Sansa is vulnerable as a girl, rather than in scenes in which she is used as a political pawn — she is dressed in this sugary and flimsy shade. Think the scene in which Joffrey makes her look at the severed heads of her father and septa, in which she is dressed in pink (personal vulnerability), versus the scene in which she begs for mercy of her father, in which she is dressed in blue (political vulnerability).
The style of her attire begins to take on more of a Southern design. Her Northern linens give way to thin, stiff silks as her dresses take on the wrap, almost kimono style of the South. This is obviously practical in terms of climate, but also shows her new alliance with the Lannisters as she awaits her marriage to Joffrey. She also begins to wear her hair in the fashionable styles of King's Landing, at first to fit in and attempt to win back the fleeting affections of her bratty and sociopathic betrothed.
As she witnesses the horror of her father's unjust execution and is tormented physically and emotionally by the new King, her costume becomes as ambiguous as her demeanor. Visually, she is the perfect Southern lady, and her forced behavior is an attempt to live up to this. We can clearly see her begin to crack under her perfect veneer. Some viewers criticized her for not speaking up and acting out, but in my opinion, her silence was her means of survival. The dragonfly is pupating still, waiting for her time to emerge.
Season 2 sees brave Sansa humiliated and scorned at the hands of the new and hateful Lannister King. She is beaten, her clothes torn from her back, almost raped in a crowd rebellion against the crown, and threatened repeatedly by Joffrey; and yet she soldiers on.
Sansa begins to neglect her previous fancy regalia. At the beginning of the season, Sansa adds gilded belts to her delicate dresses, and adornments to her hair. This slowly becomes less of a priority as she witnesses the little power she had slip through her fingers as a hostage of the crown. Her Southern up do's cascade down to show her newly grown long tresses. She makes little effort, but although her face is often scarred or bruised from the domestic violence she endures, her strength only seems to grow.
Until this point, Sansa's high-born status has allowed her to frequently change her beautiful gowns. Now, Sansa is forced to re-wear the majority of her courtly dresses, although often in different ways. This shows she is no longer a priority to her hosts. She is no longer a lady of privilege, but simply the King's pawn.
Her gowns and housecoats become more simplistic again, heralding the North. As a plaything for Joffrey's power complex, she makes no effort to impress him. She folds inside herself and becomes a living, broken doll. In the privacy of her room, she reverts back to the blues and greys of her family heritage, which are modestly embroidered again with flowers of fragility and her lush, nature-filled homeland. Perhaps this is the only place she can connect with her memories of home; the only place she can feel safe.
It is visually ironic and disturbing, then, that she wears a nightdress — which is very similar to the first costume in which she is depicted, sewing with her now murdered septa, Mordane — that she begins menstruating, and her body is completely owned by her enemies. This is the last time we see her wear the delicate cold blue of her past.
As the war with the Baratheons wages and the Battle of Blackwater Bay brings on a siege to King's Landing, Sansa's misery and pessimism are displayed in her new mournful dresses. This dark brocade dress is downcast and draped with sadness. The sorrowful purple, dramatic length, and drooping sleeves have the elegant, lamenting beauty of a funeral dress.
Throughout season 3, Sansa bites her tongue. She is a powerless hostage now, with no power or claim to her name, now that Joffrey has chosen Maergaery Tyrell as his new betrothed. However, the clever Stark is not blending into the background just yet. As actress Sophie Turner puts it:
"I really like the fact that [Sansa] is quite a silent character. If she had spoken up in court at any point she would have gotten herself killed. She is being compliant with the people she hates just so that she can bide her time and then she can actually get her own back."
This quietness is visually portrayed in Sansa's demure King's Landing gowns, as her robe-like dresses are modest and reserved in their shape. The mournful, monochrome purple colors become her palette of choice, a subtle hark back to the cold colors of her past. This purple becomes symbollic of Sansa's sense of self. Elements of gold in the brocade's weave subtly adorn the purple fabric in loosely natural patterns, symbolizing the Lannisters hold over her. No longer a "girl" in the eyes of society, her clothing has grown up to long, sweeping styles fitting a lady at court. Gone are the pastels of her girlhood, and delicate silks.
Sansa's dragonfly motif is back in an understated and beautiful manner, subtly empowering her character's esteem; showing she still has some life in her. Gilded and intricate wings that resemble maple tree samara seeds fasten her bodices as clasps; her old dragonfly necklace glitters her throat. The fabric in the costume above's woven pattern, combined with the dress's winged sleeves, even give her attire the air of a dragonfly itself.
Poor Sansa gets her five minutes of courtly love, as she spends her days walking the gardens of the palace with her new betrothed, knight Loras Tyrell. We see a flash of her girlish optimism again, which is reflected in another purple dragonfly gown. (If only she knew Loras liked boys!)
The fantasy is, however, short lived, as she is forced to marry Tyrion Lannister — to both of their dismays. Sansa's wedding dress, pictured above, is awash with symbolism. The purple/gold balance of her previous Southern dresses this season, favors gold in the wedding gown's brocade. The Lannister gold envelops her personal purple symbolism entirely.
The embroidered trim that crosses Sansa's bust-line and collar is heavily embroidered with Lannister lions, bringing down the direwolves of the Starks, and is awash with heavily sexualized, ripe red pomegranates. Sansa Starks' wedding hair is wound up in pearls in Cersei-friendly fashion. She is utterly captured by the Lannister family. But all is not lost yet...
It seems more than a coincidence, then, that Michele Clapton clothes the Stark heroine in a gown entirely her chosen shade of purple, adorned again with samara-like dragonfly clasps, at Joffrey's doomed wedding. As the unknown vessel of his death — as unbeknownst, she carried the poison jewel about her neck for Olenna and Littlefinger's master assassination plan — Sansa is finally a dragonfly about to emerge again. Free?
As a fugitive runaway in the Eyrie, rescued by Littlefinger, Sansa's costume returns to the mournful brocade robe of her hostage's garb. (Perhaps the only dress that Littlefinger could smuggle onto his ship for her to change into?) Only now she wears the dark, dramatic hooded cape of a woman in disguise. Sansa is inconspicuous again, but not for long...
After finally putting her learned manipulation skills to the test to get Littlefinger and herself out of some serious sh*t, covering up the murder of her love-crazed aunt Lysa, Sansa is finally ready for revenge. She emerges from her quiet cocoon in a fabulous Westeros-Goth dress, like a beautiful crow.
As Jennifer Vineyard of The Cut says, "Sansa’s makeover at the end of season four was... about using found materials — in her case, feathers from message-bearing ravens, to deliver her own message about a change in personality." Sansa has visually and metaphorically picked up all her pieces and become self-sufficient again, using manipulation, of textiles and cloth, or minds and emotions, as her tool. Michele Clapton reminds us that Sansa makes her own clothes "so it was a very deliberate decision of hers, to change and say, ‘I’m not going to be pushed around. I’m going to take charge... It’s her chance to take control... When she comes down the stairs, she’s playing with it like, ‘This is me, taking control of this situation.’”
Clapton also points out the eldest Stark's handmade necklace, which has a long spike at the end of its chain. Clapton calls this Sansa's "needle," drawing parallels to the name of her sister's beloved sword.
It is interesting to note that the character of Lady Stoneheart is left out of the TV series. Lady Stoneheart, in the Game of Thrones novels, is the reanimated corpse of Sansa's mother, Catelyn, who sets off on a journey of revenge to those who have wronged the Stark family. Perhaps this new dark Sansa is a nod to her mother's absent character and malevolent quest.
Sansa the survivor has most definitely entered the Game of Thrones.
Season 5... So Far
Season 5 so far sees a newly headstrong Sansa Stark aided by her tough girl, Winter-ready ensembles. Her traveling cloak almost matches Littlefinger's completely, showcasing the two as equally matched in the games of manipulation. We witness Sansa make curt jibes at both the Boltons' and Ramsay's rejected lover Myranda aided by her dark wools, warrior-like accessories, and fur trims.
As an aside, I couldn't help but notice that Sansa's purple wedding dress — which to me symbolized her emancipation from King's Landing — is worn again here as she takes to the road with Littlefinger. Only now it is dyed an inky grey-black, like her once Tully-red hair. I feel this dress symbolically "sets" Sansa's newfound strength like black amber.
Sansa's suffering at the hands of new husband, Ramsay Bolton, is even more horrifying, then, because of her visual switch from black strength to white delicacy. As jilted lover Myranda washes Sansa to prepare for her wedding, she notes the black dye washing out to reveal her red tresses. Her armor of self protection is rinsing away to reveal her vulnerability, signified by her Tully hair.
The crow black feathers of vengeance are replaced by a cape of pure white fur wings, and a thick winter wedding dress. Cersei's mocking term of endearment "little dove" comes to mind, in a gruesome reference to the sadistic rape scene to come. I'd also like to point out the silver creatures that button the gown. I cannot be sure, but they look like insects. Wingless insects. A sad image of Ramsay tearing the wings from Sansa's symbolic dragonfly, perhaps.
Let's hope this week's torture at the hands of Bolton is Sansa's last, and it will be her final baptism of fire. All of us on Team Sansa are crossing our fingers that the crow will rise again.
Images: HBO; Giphy