Sansa Stark in Costumes: From Northern Girl to Dark Sansa

Sabina Stent
TV Game of Thrones
TV Game of Thrones HBO Fantasy

From the sullen 12-year-old redhead girl in the North, dressed in girlish colours and fabrics, to the darker-haired young woman who’s been around the block and is now clad in grown-up furs, Sansa Stark has undergone one of the most significant sartorial evolutions on Game of Thrones. Not only have her clothes changed as she’s changed locations, tried to fit in with the locals and according to the company she keeps, but they’ve also switched up in reflection of her psyche.

Sansa’s clothes have evolved significantly as she’s taken on life’s harsh lessons — imparted via generous doses of trauma, disrespect, abuse and humiliation — and reveal volumes about her allegiances, headspace, and intentions. Sansa has emerged a cunning, and hardened, young woman who can play the game as well as her tormentors. It’s no surprise to hear her sister, Arya, declare her the smartest person she’s ever met, in Episode 1 of Season 8.

Let’s take a look at the costumes vital to understanding Sansa Stark over the eight-year run of Game of Thrones as the series approaches its end.

Northern Girl

When we meet Sansa in Season 1, she is a girl of 12 from the North, the coldest part of the Seven Kingdoms. Snow is prevalent, and the harsh winters are reflected in the clothing worn by men and women of the region. Northerners live closer to the Wall than other Westerosis — nearer to the threat of what lies on the other side — therefore, for both men and women, practicality is a major consideration, more so than decorative elements. Even a king’s clothing is decidedly less ostentatious than the gilded garms of the Lannisters in the south.

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Sansa (right) in the pale colours of youth -- and the banners of House Stark.

In George R. R. Martin’s book, A Clash of Kings, when Sansa’s brother Robb becomes king, his crown is described as a distinctly unelaborate symbol of his reign: “Of gold and silver and gemstones it had none; bronze and iron were the metals of winter, dark and strong to fight against the cold.”

Northerners need to be warm and well-equipped at all costs, especially the men in the Night’s Watch, who wear heavy furs (most often from the animals they have killed) to keep out the cold, and dark colours to retain the heat. An early passage in the first book reads: “He [Waymar Royce] wore black leather boots, black woollen pants, black moleskin gloves, and a fine, supple coat of gleaming black ringmail over layers of wool and boiled leather.”

It goes on to emphasise the clothes, how “his cloak was his crowning glory; sable, thick and black and soft as sin.”

Sansa, like Northern women, wears her hair down to keep her neck warm, and dresses without fuss — a simple necklace is about as accessorized as Northerners get. This is not to say they lack refinement. Indeed, they favour intricate embroidery over lavish displays of trinkets. Sansa, a skilled seamstress herself, is often seen embroidering fabric, and likely has a hand in embellishing her dresses with some subtle detail to appear more stylish than the rest of her family.

“Raised as a lady, Sansa possesses the traditional feminine graces of her milieu, with a keen interest in music, poetry, singing, dancing, embroidery, and other traditional feminine activities.” — A Dance With Dragons 

Colours, too, are also hugely significant throughout the course of the show. While the Starks favour a warm blue as their family ‘uniform’ to symbolize their close familial unity, often with some brown to align with the direwolf the House adopts as its sigil, Sansa wears a cooler blue than her family, signifying her aloof manner and desire to flee the North. She is curt with her mother, Catelyn; more introverted and guarded than her younger sister, Arya. She is very self-aware, yet slightly cautious, acting and dressing as she expects any self-respecting young woman and would-be future queen to do.

Much is made about the new dress Sansa wears to the tourney at the mid-point to the first season, obviously altered to impress in the presence of her future mother-in-law, Cersei Lannister. In the book, the outfit is a gift from Joffrey, described as “a gown of pale purple silk and a moonstone hair net”. Lannisters are frequently noted as wearing — or surrounded by — crimson (something we’ll explore below). While in the book the long sleeves of Sansa’s dress conceal the injuries the abusive Joffrey has inflicted — the bruises on her arms — in the show, this signals the first time Sansa has broken free of her usual attire. Her neckline is broader, and her sleeves are bell-style, an indication of the fluctuations in her personal circumstances that have been set in motion.

King’s Landing

When Sansa arrives in King’s Landing, her appearance begins to take inspiration from Cersei. She starts to wear her hair, once loose and braided, in a more typically southern style: hair up off the neck because of the heat, and, in Cersei’s case, woven around her head, almost like a crown, to emphasise her regality and importance. She is attempting to mirror Cersei, who she views as a powerful woman. In the words of Game of Thrones costume designer, Michele Clapton: “A lot of people said her costume doesn’t fit. Well, of course it doesn’t! She’s a young girl trying to copy someone. Not everyone wears things brilliantly or beautifully, or has the access to do that. I think it’s really important that some things don’t fit. Some things are slightly odd.”

Sansa Stark, Game of Thrones
Sansa Stark with King's Landing hair, and ill-fitting clothes.

In front of the viewer’s eyes, Sansa is becoming a young Lannister queen-in-waiting. It’s especially apparent after the arrival of her first period. It’s the final time we see her wearing that specific shade of blue, which is then replaced with purple — closer in colour to the Lannisters’ crimson and further away from Stark blue. Sansa’s life is being taken over by the Lannisters; the two family colours are intermingling with her impending marriage to Joffrey.

Following her father Ned Stark’s execution at the end of Season 1, Sansa continues to dress like a “real southern lady” — as her Septa once said — in Season 2, refusing to wear mourning black lest she offend her sadistic future husband. Sansa’s mourning manifests itself in other ways: her dresses start to appear too large, emphasizing her weak position in the brutal court, including her submission and suppression. This comes to a head when Joffrey chooses to have Sansa disgraced in the presence of the court, by having her clothes ripped from her body. As the fabric of her garments lies in swathes around her, she appears even smaller. Humiliated but refusing to play his game, Sansa retains as much nobility and dignity as she can muster in the most degrading of situations.

However, due to the shock which leads to a sudden realisation, Sansa experiences a shift; a return to roots — and chooses to re-align herself with her family. In particular, she starts to ape the appearance of her mother, Catelyn. Her hair returns to its Northern style and her clothes to Stark blue — a shade most similar to the hue her mother wears. Sansa’s return to her family serves as a strong signal that despite being in Cersei’s presence and remaining at King’s Landing, she is still a Northerner, always a Stark.

Although she’s no longer aligning with the Lannisters, Sansa is still taking specific cues from those around her. This time with Margaery Tyrell who, by agreeing to marry Joffrey, has freed Sansa from his grip. In a 2017 interview with Refinery 29, Sophie Turner explained how this also translates to Sansa’s hair: “Sansa’s hair is constantly reflecting the people she’s learning from, or mimicking, or inspired by at the time. When she’s Cersei’s prisoner, and she’s kind of absorbing all her manipulative techniques, it’s reflected in her hairstyle, and when she’s finding the spirit of Margaery in herself, she wears her hair like Margaery.”

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Sansa begins to mimic Margaery's style -- and also note the winged insect clasps and necklace.

The two young women become friends, and as a result, Sansa begins to wear her hair in an adapted version of Margaery’s style, who she views as an older sister. In Storm of Swords, there is a chapter devoted to Sansa’s dress fitting, which is ordered by Cersei: “You are a woman now,” she says, “and should not dress like a little girl.”

It is worth remembering that Sansa is still 14 years old at this stage, somewhat naïve, and still childlike despite tragedy — as well as, for now, unworldly. While Margaery is closer to her in age, she is more experienced in the ways of the world, and more attuned to manipulations of power. Sansa is temporarily, but not totally, free from the Lannister rule.

Dragonflies

In Season 1, Sansa can be seen wearing a dragonfly necklace and ring. There is no detail given about these items of jewellery in the show – no indication whether they might have been gifted or of her personal history with the item. She can be seen clearly wearing the necklace around her neck at the tourney, and this can be read as her trying to fit in with southern style.

“The dresses are light and breezy, and everyday jewellery is mostly flimsy filigree, in contrast to the tough old North,” notes one fan on Quora. “The dragonfly necklace and rings go with this theme. Sansa is trying to imitate her new companions in KL.”

However, the accessory’s inclusion serves as a possible reference to a character within the books but not in the series. Duncan Targaryen, also known as Crown Prince Duncan, fell in love with Jenny of Oldstones, a girl with no social standing. After abdicating his position on the throne, and therefore relinquishing his royal duties, he acquired the nickname ‘the Prince of Dragonflies’. Sansa’s romantic idealism and interest in old songs and legends make her necklace not only a symbol of her fantasies but a token of one since past. Of her desire for her own great love story and yearning to marry her “one true love”. In turn, it’s also symbolic of fate, and of the past being revisited, or having repercussions in the future.

Sansa and Littlefinger
Sansa wearing the dragonfly necklace, and Littlefinger wearing the mockingjay pin.

Interestingly, the dragonfly symbol in the tourney scene takes on a new significance juxtaposed with the mockingjay pin Littlefinger, seen next to Sansa, is wearing. As another Quora user points out, it’s a foreshadowing that Sansa, represented by the dragonfly she wears, will ultimately outmaneuver her predator, Lord Baelish, who is represented by the mockingjay he wears — events we watched play out in Season 7 — since birds are rarely able to catch the more agile dragonfly.

Later, in Season 3, Sansa is also seen wearing a butterfly necklace. All winged insects signify metamorphosis, and while this may be a coded message for the changes she will go through as the series progresses, winged creatures taking flight is a metaphor that can be applied to Sansa’s desire to leave the North and, in the early seasons, marry Joffrey further south. But Sansa is still evolving, and has not been spared just yet from more hardship, if the early signs from Season 8 are anything to go by.

Lannister Lions

Also in Season 3, Tywin Lannister demands that Tyrion marry Sansa in what could just be the most mutually opposed marriage of the show. Tyrion does not want to marry Sansa — a child in his eyes — however, Sansa is aware that this will be the Lannister union with significantly less emotional and physical abuse. Her dress is a big, weighty affair, as opulent as the ceremony, embroidered with the sigils of both Houses, the Lannister lions and Stark direwolves. It contrasts vividly to other wedding dresses we have seen on the show, which, as well as being in keeping with House tradition, serve on various occasions as symbols of love, wealth, power, and location.

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Sansa at her wedding to Tyrion.

The simplicity of Lyanna Stark’s wedding dress, for example, dispensed with trimmings to highlight the romance between her and fellow elopee, Rhaegar Targaryen. So, too, Talisa‘s gown at her pared-back nuptials with Robb Stark. Both looks contrast greatly with Margaery’s appearance at her wedding to Joffrey — elaborate and detailed — signalling a desire to be seen on her part, rather than a sign of Lannister dominance. Sansa’s dress differs again from what Daenerys wore to marry Khal Drago — a structured, yet flowing, Grecian-style gown to mark her position as a Dothraki Khaleesi.

The dress worn by Sansa at her union with Tyrion, despite depicting Lannister lions and Stark direwolves on the fabric, does not symbolize a harmonious unity between the families. Instead, it solidifies the battle for Lannister supremacy over the young bride and her family, with the lions dominating the wolves, and the heavy dress weighing Sansa down. She has no means of escape from this scenario.

Sophie Turner told Vulture: “That’s how she survives, you know? Sansa has had to do everything non-verbally. She’s never been allowed to speak up or say anything. She’s learned to never say what she means. She’s always had a bit of a façade, so that’s just the way she plays the game, I suppose. That’s how she’s had to adapt to this cruel, cruel world.”

Towards the end of Season 4, Sansa spends time with Littlefinger at the Eyrie and witnesses firsthand his Machiavellian machinations. She is both deceptive here, and deceived, and she both literally and figuratively cloaks herself. She learns of her sexual power over Littlefinger, much to the chagrin of Lysa, her aunt and Littlefinger’s lover, and even covers for his murder of her. The result? Her clothes, and even her hair colour, start to meld with his as she begins to identify with him and show her allegiance. It’s the emergence of Dark Sansa.

Dark Sansa

In 2016, Sophie Turner, speaking to Vulture, emphasized how most of Sansa’s actions on the show in series have been non-verbal: “When she changed her outfit, that was just the first hint that she was ready to start playing the game. That was a mild version of Dark Sansa, and now it’s really starting to feel like there is a dark side to her. She’s playing the game now, and very ruthlessly. When she wants something, she’s going to go out and get it.”

In Season 5, Sansa’s hair is now almost black, and she is often wearing a cloak similar to the one worn by Melisandre. By this point, Sansa has travelled through Westeros and encountered various styles of dress, choosing to adapt and modify according to her preferences. She emerges cloaked in black with raven feathers and furs. There’s certainly a strong element of Sansa wanting to portray a certain image and to appear tougher, and more powerful — something that ramps up going into Season 8.

Her wardrobe here, as ever, is a signal — never more so than when she plays Littlefinger at his own game. Their near-identical outfits suggest that she can play at his sport of manipulation as well as he can, and she is likely doing it here. The look is dramatic; imposing. The chain-style necklace implies she’s his prisoner, even more so after she is manipulated into an abusive marriage to Ramsay Bolton. On the eve of her marriage, Sansa is seen in a layered white gown complete with white fur shawl. While the layers offer her protection from the elements — and serve as barriers to Ramsay — the colour references her family’s northern roots and the pale colours of the Stark sigil. We have not seen her dressed in these lighter shades since she was last in Winterfell in Season 1, a signal that, while still a Northerner, she has been hardened since. When she eventually confronts Littlefinger about his abuse and trickery she tells him: “You freed me from the monsters who murdered my family, and you gave me to other monsters who murdered my family.”

It is the final signal that she is done with the mind games and is returning to her family.

Wolf Dress

In Season 6, Sansa makes herself what has come to be known as the ‘wolf dress,’ a dark dress with wolf embellishment on the chest. Now reunited with Jon, she presents him with his own wolf-fur cloak, complete with leather straps etched with the direwolf sigil. The clothing is a uniform, a unity between non-blood siblings claiming their positions of power, and signifying their insistence on seeing themselves as equals. It is a powerful gesture, not only symbolically but in GoT lore, too.

“I made it myself. Do you like it?”

“I like the wolf bit.”

“Good, because I made this for you. I made it like the one father used to wear.”

The wolf, the symbol of the Stark House, has always been at the forefront of the show. Wolves are loyal, fierce, and travel in packs. They are often found in colder locations, much like the North. The loyalty of the animals to one another, who live and travel together in packs, echoes the close bonds of a family that has remained loyal to one another despite distance, the passage of time and what may have come to pass. This was signalled in the show’s first episode when they took in the litter of puppies Ned discovered with Jon, Robb, Bran and Theon: “One for each of the Stark children.” Jon’s all-white direwolf, Ghost, the “runt of the litter”, has stayed loyal, by his side whenever possible. They are the two outsiders of their respective families, and are meant for one another.

Sansa’s wolf, Lady, the gentlest of the pack, was executed in place of Arya’s hound, Nymeria, after Cersei insisted a pup was put down for biting Joffrey. Ned did the deed himself — he thought it best under the circumstances, and would spare the animal prolonged torture and upset. Lady’s terrible fate served as a warning for the entire Game of Thrones saga: the gentle ones never go unharmed. Sansa’s entire journey has told that story. She was a naive child with grand, romantic ideals; one who lacked the same fire as her younger sister, Arya. She has gone on to be treated wickedly by man after man throughout the show. Having emerged a harder, tougher person, she now has power, and a renewed connection to her family’s wolf sigil that serves as a reminder of Lady, too.

But let’s not overlook the folkloric meanings of wolves around the world. The national emblem of Chechnya features a wolf and in the country’s folklore, Chechens are said to be “born of a she-wolf”, the animal symbolizing strength, independence, and freedom. In the Book of Genesis, the wolf symbolizes flocks of enemies, while in Scandinavian tradition, wolves represent warriors, or even the symbol of Odin. Light and dark, evil and just, the Stark direwolf represents all the attributes of a Sansa whose darker streak shows no sign of abating. She is a warrior in pelted armour. As she says in the seventh episode of the penultimate season: “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.”

Always a Stark 

In an interview with Marie Claire in 2017, Clapton made some interesting points about the use of colours Sansa is now choosing to wear in Season 7. “Blacks and dark greys,” says Clapton, “are used to show how she was repressed by the men in her life following her father’s death, first at the hands of Joffrey, then Littlefinger, then Ramsay, and it serves as a warning to any man who wants to come near her.”

While her cape, continues Clapton, is Sansa honouring her father Ned, “and her desire to take on more of a leadership role at Winterfell,” her plaited hair and look is very reminiscent of her mother.

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Season 7 Sansa in Ned Stark-style cape.

Her outfit screams that she does not want to be touched, the leather detail crossing over her torso serving as a warning to keep away. In the words of Clapton, it is significant because “this is her taking back control of her body.”

“I designed it to wrap around over her side-laced dress to represent the absolute removal of any possible physical touch,” adds Clapton. “Her dresses are also tightly laced on, incredibly difficult to remove; it’s a message to Littlefinger.”

This is interesting when it comes to her accessory, a metal ring on an oversized chain that is not unlike a wedding ring. This tool, the token that Sansa once craved, is now her weapon, her very own Needle. It has brought her to this point in her life, and she is not going to be violated and any longer. Indeed, it’s also not unlike a No Entry sign. As she informs Littlefinger in the first episode of Season 7, prior to his execution: “No need to seize the last word, Lord Baelish. I’ll assume it was something clever.”

At this point, Sansa does not have a suit of armour. But she is every inch the warrior and in a Season 8 tease, Turner told EW: “We like the idea of it being very protective and she buttons herself up. I wanted her to have a bit of armor and be a bit more warrior like. She’s like the warrior of Winterfell.”

As Season 8 unfolds, we’re looking forward to seeing Sansa’s warrior side come to the fore.

Catch Game of Thrones Season 8 on Sundays in the US and Mondays in the UK.

Sabina Stent
Freelance arts and entertainment writer. Holding out for a third season of Agent Carter.