I’ve always thought that television screens have a peculiar quality to them. They imbue anything that passes through them with some artificiality. No matter the production value of a show, I can’t help but be skeptical of it because it’s being broadcast on TV. Even with Game of Thrones, undoubtedly one of the greatest shows on television, I can’t shake that nagging feeling that it’s all a facade; a fanciful world made of little more than cardboard cutouts.
It seems HBO wants to prove that’s not the case. The company is parading the spectacular props and costumes from Game of Thrones around the world in a traveling exhibition that will run through the fall. I stopped by the show during its time here in New York, and it’s an eerie confluence of worlds. The exhibit is — very intentionally — laid out just like a museum. Props are displayed in sealed glass cases as if they were centuries-old fragments unearthed from tombs by a team of archaeologists. The lights are dim as if to protect these precious goods from UV damage.
There’s no doubt that it’s all a show, but trust me: it works. The craftsmanship on display in these props and costumes deserves this display. While marvelling at everything from spoiled little Joffrey Baratheon’s gleaming suit of armor and Jon Snow’s travel-worn cloak to Jaime Lannister’s severed hand, I couldn’t find a fault. There was no zipper or seam that revealed it all to be a sham.
The exhibit is very intentionally laid out just like a museum
Costume designer Michele Clapton has said that 99 percent of the armor and costumes are made at the show’s studios in Belfast, Northern Ireland by a team of armorers, embroiderers, weavers, dyers, leather workers, and more. They mostly use authentic materials like chain mail, hand-weaved fabrics, custom-made leather, and metals like brass and steel when making the show’s wonderful clothing and armor, and it shows. But all of that effort would be for naught if the costumes and props looked brand new. There’s a separate team with the sole task of wearing down the clothing made for the show. As Clapton told The Hollywood Reporter last year, "You spend two weeks breaking down, patching, dying, repatching. Then you trash it, age it, then trash it again and repair."
Beyond the truly intricate embroidery, the natural wear is perhaps what impressed me the most. Dyes were faded, armor looked as if it had gone through the toils of war, and even the wildlings’ tools looked as if they had spent an eternity in the snow-swept plains beyond the Wall. Fittingly, however, Joffrey’s armor looks hardly used at all.
Considering the effort put into all of these details, I couldn’t help but think of the nameless artists who carved the backs of their sculptures even though they were destined to sit atop the Parthenon, out of sight. With these costumes and props, which are so easily overlooked, there’s a similar sense of pride in doing the job right. Even if we can’t see every link of chain mail and each incredible embroidery on screen, that attention to detail is what makes Game of Thrones what it is.
Game of Thrones: The Exhibition will stop in Mexico City, Austin, Rio De Janeiro, Oslo, Toronto, Belfast, and Vancouver. The exhibit left New York last week, but following stops on the tour will be much larger. For more information, visit HBO’s website.
- The exhibit was laid out just like a museum, with sections for each of the main branches of the storyline. It's the second year for the traveling exhibit — most of the gear shown here is from seasons three and four.
- The Hound (Sandor Clegane) has the most well-worn armor of all. After constructing the armor by hand, a separate team is brought in to properly wear it in. The armor makers go through this process twice: once for the actor and once for the stunt double.
- The particularly regal clothes of King's Landing shows off some of costume designer Michele Clapton's most impressive work. From left to right: Tyrion Lannister, Sansa Stark, Margaery Tyrell, and Joffrey Baratheon.
- Costume designer Michele Clapton herself fitted the costumes, like Tyrion's, onto the mannequins used for the exhibit to ensure that they looked just as intended.
- The detail in the embroidery is truly breathtaking. This detail of Sansa's wedding dress shows just one portion of a band of embroidery that tells Sansa's life story. Here, the lion of the Lannisters battles with the a direwolf, the sigil of House Stark.
- Befittingly, Joffrey Baratheon's suit of armor doesn't look battle-worn at all.
- Even the banners — this one from House Lannister — have been worn in to give the appearance of age.
- The main event was ironically the only object at the exhibit that wasn't used in the show. This is actually a $30,000 replica of the iron throne made out of fiberglass. Surprisingly comfortable, and a cure-all for your Napoleon complex.
- Daenerys Targaryen actress Emilia Clarke is a very tiny person, if these dresses are anything to go by. The pattern on the dress on the left is reminiscent of dragon scales, and the one on the right is prominently featured in the trailer for Season 4.
- Soaring above Daenerys' dresses is one of her dragons, Rhaegal. The dragons in the show are all computer animated, but models like this are used to help the performers act on set.
- Where's the third dragon egg? It was given to author George R.R. Martin as a wedding gift.
- Some weaponry made for the show was also on display, including a crystal sword used by a White Walker (far left) and Jon Snow's sword (the smaller of the two in the middle).
- The weapons have a stunning amount of detail. Joffrey's crossbow perhaps more so than any.
- The helmet of the Unsullied, the army Daenerys frees from servitude in Season 3.
- Daario Naharis, who allies with Daenerys in Season 3, has an... unusual hilt to his dagger (left).
- The complicated relationship between Brienne of Tarth (left) and Jaime Lannister (right) provides one of season three's best story lines.
- Costume designers worked hard to make Brienne's armor look as masculine as possible.
- The team responsible for aging clothes turned Jaime's costume into little more than rags.
- Jon Snow's and Ygritte's costumes have a windswept look to them.
- Jon Snow's cloak even has fake bits of snow stuck in it.
- A number of artifacts from King's Landing, including Cersei Lannister's cloak (right) and Lady Olenna's distinctive headdress.
- Spoiler alert! Poor Jaime Lannister's severed hand is positively grotesque.
- He who wears the pin of the Hand of the King has great power.
- Joffrey Baratheon's oh-so-controversial crown.
- Some more impressive embroidery is shown off on Cersei's cloak.
- Things take a beating north of the Wall. These artifacts look as if they've spent an eternity in the snow.
- Can you imagine climbing the Wall with little more than these ice hammers?
- This leather pouch for the ice spikes is encrusted with mud and dirt.
- Part of the exhibit included an Oculus Rift experience that placed you into an elevator that goes up and down the Wall. The kids in this photo were rightly blown away by the trip.
- If you've never used an Oculus Rift before, it's quite a ride. HBO says that it plans to add real-life physical effects to enhance the experience at later exhibit stops.