“By night all cloaks are black.” – Jojen Reed, A Storm of Swords
The end of Game of Thrones is near, my fellow bannermen, and soon we will be living in an endless winter that is life without Lyanna Mormont and her dry Northern sass.
Game of Thrones drips with symbolism in even the most minute details—the show’s creators clearly inject every scene with several layers of visual meaning. One of the most interesting examples is the use of color to convey a story. From the very first episode of season one, the creators use color to build a plotline in ways both obvious and subtle.
If we look at three of our still-living female characters (Cersei Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Sansa Stark) we can see a shift in the color of their clothing that mimics their paths—and the path of the show in general. Despite their disparate experiences, all three of these characters’ costumes are now drained of color, and they almost always wear all-black or nearly-black… Could this denote their rise to power, or the sorrow they’ve faced, or is this symptomatic of the entire show’s shift towards darkness?
Let’s flesh this out, but beware—when you play the game of tones, you either win or you dye (send me to the wall for that pun, I beg of you).
Cersei LannisterHover or tap the color gradient to explore each season
Cersei Lannister’s journey is one marked both by a dogged desire to claw her way to the most powerful position in Westeros and her ignorance of the consequences of such a persistent pursuit. Initially, Cersei wears colors that denote her status as Queen—she’s closer to power than the entire realm but robbed of any true taste of it because of her gender, so her clothing is muted and passive. Her treacherous ladder to true power ends with her ascension to the Iron Throne (wearing all black), but her children’s’ corpses lay beneath the bottom rung.
At first Cersei wears solely muted pinks, soft blues, and the gold of house Baratheon, with some Lannister red creeping in (see Seasons 1 and 2). Pink, notoriously associated with femininity in the Western world, denotes tenderness as it’s the softer cousin to red’s fiery passion (and a nod to the fiery Lannister red we all know lurks within her).
Pink is known to have a calming effect. Curiously, Cersei wears this color in situations where she is utilizing her secondary position of power while still trying to remain fairly innocent. In a conversation I had with Casual Films’ Kat Smith, film creative and GoT fan, she suggested Cersei’s color choices in early episodes are an attempt to “gain the court’s favor by playing passively.” The most vibrant color she wears in the first season is a bright emerald green, worn immediately after Robert’s death (that she orchestrated).
As she gains power in King’s Landing throughout Seasons 2 and 3, Cersei’s muted wine reds intensify into hyper-saturated blood reds. John LaRue, graphic designer, data visualization enthusiast, and creator of this badass Breaking Bad color infographic, told me that “red is a color she wears when she’s most fiercely loyal to her family, as the Lannister sigil is bathed in red and gold.” Cersei’s clothing fades again into soft mulberries during Margaery Tyrell’s rise to power in Season 4. After the death of two of her three children, Cersei dons black in mourning, but returns occasionally to faded reds and pinks, mostly when her power is checked or when she’s in the presence of her brother-lover, Jaime (see the end of Season 5 into the start of Season 6).
Cersei’s destruction of the Sept of Baelor, murderous rampage, and the subsequent death of her last remaining child, Tommen, sends her into a chasm of which she cannot return. And chasms, like Cersei’s clothing, are dark black. She has not worn a color other than black since the second episode of Season 6.
Daenerys TargaryenHover or tap the color gradient to explore each season
Daenerys Targaryen’s color journey represents the path of an exiled woman, leagues away from her home country, who is attempting to find her footing as the “true” leader of Westeros. She seems to adopt the clothing that fits either her status or her surroundings, shifting between the light colors of virginal bride-to-be, the saturated colors of the mysterious lands she travels through, and the browns of her adopted people (the Dothraki), before settling into her color identity and her title as Targaryen Queen of the Andals and the First Men (and all those other titles poor Missandei has to say every time she’s introduced).
The first time we meet Daenerys in Season 1, she is wearing blush pink to denote her sensuality—after all, she is being used as a sexual pawn to ensure the loyalty of Khal Drogo and his Dothraki to her brother, Viserys. Her second outfit is a grey-lilac that is entirely sheer, exposing her body. Until she begins to wear the browns of the Dothraki, showcasing her desire to assimilate with them, Dany only wears light pastels.
After the death of Khal Drogo and the birth of her dragons, Dany travels to the colorful city of Qarth, and her clothes reflect this movement (Season 2). She mimics the clothing and colors of the Quartheen, wearing rich golds, saturated blues, and pinks. Dany attempting to rule across the narrow sea among slavers and gladiators is a Dany clad in stately royal blues that gradually shift to whites, denoting her mental and physical separation from the people she is attempting to rule (see Seasons 3, 4, and 5). After she is briefly taken hostage by another Dothraki horde, where she returns to earthen tones, Dany shifts to wearing exclusively black (Seasons 6 and 7). When we spoke, LaRue mentioned that black “can denote power and authority,” something Daenerys finally has in the Seven Kingdoms. As the last Targaryen alive and finally on Westerosi soil, Dany wears mostly black, with the occasional Targaryen red and shimmering silver thrown in to mimic the scales of her dragons. The only outlier is when she goes beyond the Wall to assist Jon in his fight against the Night King, dressed in white, a color that represents the absence of color and mirrors her to the Night King and the climate in which he thrives (RIP Viserion, baby).
Sansa StarkHover or tap the color gradient to explore each season
A prisoner for virtually the entire series, Sansa Stark mirrors the colors worn by those she either admires or those who are her captors.
“I think there’s a lot to what you say about Sansa and her superiors or mentors,” says LaRue when referencing her tendency to mimic colors and styles. “Sansa has often been used as a minor piece in the larger player’s power games, and that meant that her style has always been reflective of whomever held her down at the time,” Kat suggested. Sansa initially wears colors worn by the Starks, then shifts to the colors and styles worn by Cersei Lannister, then to Margaery Tyrell, then to Petyr Baelish, all before settling on deep black— a shade worn by the men who led before her.
Sansa Stark is only thirteen years old when she appears in the first episode, and she’s wearing ice blue, a color worn by many women in Winterfell. For most of her initial journey, Sansa wears soft colors (light blue, mauve, pale green) to emphasize her girlishness (as Cersei so bluntly points out in Episode 1, Season 1, Sansa has not “bled yet” implying she is both ideologically and sexually pure). After wearing pale colors in the style of Cersei Lannister, she begins to wear more saturated clothing when she becomes friends with Margaery Tyrell, who exclusively wears deep blues, greens, and golds (Season 3).
In Season 4, Sansa wears gold embossed with red during her wedding to Tyrion Lannister (Lannister house colors) and deep purple during the wedding of Joffrey to Margarery (some colorful foreshadowing, as Joffrey’s face turns that exact shade of purple after he’s poisoned). Then, while on the run, she dyes her hair black and begins to wear colors that reference both Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish and her home in Winterfell. She wears Winterfell white during her horrific wedding to Ramsay Bolton, and since then (Season 6) she wears only black. She is now the Lady of Winterfell and is ruling in Jon Snow’s absence, so Sansa’s turn to the dark side has a double meaning—it represents the horrors she has faced as a perpetual prisoner and victim of abuse that has left her drained of her color, as well as her ascension to power.
Fade to Black
For John LaRue (and others who utilize color to tell a story, invoke a feeling, or signify a brand) black is frequently used for “mourning and death, power and authority.” Certainly these women all have reason to mourn, but they are also all in positions of great power. If you look at the clothing worn by the powerful men in Westeros, they almost exclusively wear black—for Kat Smith, “black primarily symbolizes absolute power rather than death itself.”
However, the entire realm seems to be fading to black, which could signify a unification in the face of almost certain frozen zombie-induced death. “The people of the Seven Kingdoms are afraid to stand out,” said Kat, and rightfully so, because with winter comes dullness and darkness, and anything light or colorful will jar the senses. “The living armies are the black pieces on the chessboard of the GoT landscape and the White Walkers are the white,” Kat suggested.
If you look at the colors that we feasted our eyes upon during the first few seasons, you’ll see a major shift away from fantastical, dazzling worlds and towards dreary, dark realities. Season 5 Episode 1, entitled “The Wars to Come” offered a design challenge for cinematographer David Franco, who told Slate about his conversation with David Benioff and David Weiss regarding the episode’s look and feel:
“I said ‘How dark do you wanna go?’ and [they] said ‘As dark as you can.’” Around Season 5 is when you truly see the affects of the show’s shift towards darkness.
The most colorful houses were the Martells and the Tyrells and both have been erased from the annals of history (by Cersei, wearer of black and bringer of death). Melisandre, the red-priestess introduced to us in Season 2, wore ruby reds that have gradually deepened to black-reds; from head to toe she has lost saturation. We no longer see cities like Qarth or Dorne or large groups of colorful characters like the whores of Westeros (RIP Shae’s petally purples and Roz’ teals and greens). The Throne Room at King’s Landing used to have a stained glass window, light seeping in, and Gold Cloaks standing guard—Cersei’s Throne Room is dark and dreary, and her protectors wear black from helmet to boot. The night is indeed dark, my friends.
As a whole, Game of Thrones has become darker and drained of saturated colors, representing the fantasy world’s shift towards darker times, and a blurring of allegiances when faced with an army of undead freezer monsters. These soldiers threaten to throw the realm into a perpetual winter in which our favorite characters face almost certain death. The female characters, once defined by and draped in their femininity, have ascended to power by way of a treacherous path that is littered with bodies, and so they don black. Ultimately, black represents a myriad of themes that are all at play in these final episodes—the realm is mourning, winter is coming, and the game of thrones is simply a game, and a silly one in the face of the White Walkers, so unity is necessary.
After all, all men must dye, right?