Emmy Award-winning costume designer Michele Clapton moved from 'Game of Thrones' to a very different period piece.
With every successful production, preparation is the key. But this may be no truer than in the costume department. After all, camera moves can be changed and experimented with on set, but costumes need to be designed, created, fitted, and "buttoned up" long before any cameras start rolling. And the costumes can make or break the believability of a project, especially in a period piece where inauthenticity could throw the whole thing off.
But it’s not just about how things look. As we learn from this enlightening interview with Emmy Award-winning Game of Thrones costume designer Michele Clapton, costumes can play a major role in storytelling and character development before any dialogue has moved from script to screen. Clapton moved from the challenge of the massive, fantastical GoT production to an entirely different creative exercise: How do you add new depth and personality to a well-known slice of history? For her work on The Crown, Clapton dressed a young Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip, and Winston Churchill, among others. The Netflix Original series follows the current queen’s ascension and reign.
“The first season of Game of Thrones was a nightmare.”
In a new video from the BAFTA Awards, Clapton breaks down some scenes from the series that earned her one of the British statuettes and shares advice from the field. Watch the whole thing or read our top takeaways below.
1. It's never too early to start prep
One of the mandates Clapton established from the get-go was to “not just copy” historic references. But that doesn’t mean that she didn’t have to deeply understand the references in order to riff on them, and that required early prep. She started meeting with series director Philip Martin and production designer Martin Childs as early as eight months before they started working on the series in earnest, to discuss “scale, palette, and what we wanted to say.” She even worked on another film while those ideas and concepts were marinating.
2. Include actors in your designs
Part of the prep, of course, includes having assistant designers do “nitty gritty research” down to the cufflinks. But then it’s time to add her own touch. One way Clapton personalizes the work once the overall look has been established? She gets to know the actors and what they bring to the table.
“It’s very difficult to start the creative process of the actual designs until you really know the actors, because so much of it is what they bring to it,” she shares. The actors don’t want to directly mimic the real-life people who they are portraying; as such, the costumes embody some of the actors’ traits. “Once you start fitting with them, something happens,” Clapton reveals.
Clapton also takes input from the actors themselves. Part of the magic is in how the costumes fit on the actors, but part of it comes from how it makes them feel. “They’ll go ‘Oh god, this really makes me feel more like the character,’ and it's a development.”
"With costumes, you're trying to suggest something that isn't said."
With public figures such as the royal family, there are only so many liberties that can be taken. When it came to events that had been in the public eye and for which direct historic references exist, such as the queen’s coronation and wedding, “attention to detail was as close as we could possibly make it,” said Clapton.
Ensuring authenticity in the public moments where attention to historic detail is paramount because it allows Clapton and her team liberties in private moments. “By making those really good, then we can actually play with the other areas and just try and visually express the personality,” she said.
3. Use costume as a storytelling device
Expressing character personalities—especially those of figures who audiences think they already know—is one of Clapton’s main goals. "The plotting of costumes in scenes is often the most creative part," she said, "because you're trying to suggest something that isn't said, and it can sort of sway people's understanding of a character."
Costumes play an even more significant storytelling role in The Crown than in other series. This is because, in stereotypical British fashion, the characters don’t always express their true feelings in words. Thus, visuals can express new dimensions of the script. In the video, Clapton reviews a scene in which Elizabeth is on holiday with her new husband, and he learns that her father has died and she will take the crown at only 26 years old. A servant is helping her change from casual dress to funeral wear.
“I think it's quite interesting,” Clapton observes, “the undoing of the buttons and the stripping away of the layers underneath. The underwear is purposely very simple. It’s something that women of the time could relate to…and the fact that that is there and doesn't change, and then slowly she's almost repackaged…the wrapping of her is happening almost without her consciously being aware of it.”
Thus, inThe Crown, the biggest transition of the queen’s life is told almost entirely through a costume change.
4. Embrace the empty room
The blank page is daunting for any screenwriter, and so is what Clapton calls “the empty room” for designers.
“It’s always the same when you’re starting a big series,” she says. “I can remember the first season of Game of Thrones was a nightmare because no one really knew the scale and how to deal with that scale. It’s always difficult and you start the show with an empty room.”
Still, filling that empty room is what makes the job exciting. For a costume designer, that means that “you're going to create everything that's seen on the show.” With the help of early prep, lots of conversations with the other creatives on the show, and a good crew of assistants, Clapton ensures that the work is “very fulfilling.”