Be warned this series is intended for people who are up to date on the TV series! It contains spoilers for previous seasons, and also covers distressing content experienced by the characters on screen.
It’s season 8 and Cersei Lannister earned her crown as one of the last great Game of Thrones villain standing. She outlasted her scheming advisor Little Finger, Roose and Ramsey Bolton, and her erstwhile “frenemies” the Freys, the Tyrells, and the High Sparrow. She even outlived an army of the undead. And she outmanoeuvred many of the good guys too. We take a look at the Queen in the South’s dastardly style evolution.
Season 1: “Everyone who isn’t us, is an enemy.”
In the first season, Queen Cersei began as an ambiguous character. While she is treated with distrust by Ned and Catelyn Stark she is idealised by Sansa who looks to her as a model of queenship. Cersei wears her hair princess style – the Lannister “golden” hair is key to a major plot twist in this season and much is made of she, her twin brother Jaimie and her children’s blonde hair and the dark family secret behind their golden good looks. Her hair is generally worn loose with Rapunzel-style braids – she frequently dips her head hiding behind her golden hair like a veil. This symbolises the way Cersei uses her family name, wealth and femininity to obscure her more sinister machinations from others. Her status and her gender also make it necessary for her to conceal her true desires and motivations. Unlike her husband and Ned Stark she cannot operate publicly – a Queen is expected to be a-political and subservient to her husband’s plans.
As is the case with many high-fantasy quasi-period pieces characters do not wear visible makeup. However on-set makeup artists use several techniques to convey character. Cersei’s skin in the early seasons is fresh glowing – soft brown mascara and brown pencil are applied to the upper waterline while lips are left fresh and hydrated. In the early seasons Cersei’s character, while complex and dark, has an essential humanity. Her motivations – fear for her children, her life and her family are understandable even if her circumstances are not. This is reflected with natural hair and makeup and the organic tones and soft fabrics of her wraps.
While rumours and mysterious deaths surround her she carries herself with modesty. She dresses in washed out reds, pinks and blues and soft, pliable fabrics. She is reserved in keeping with her status as mother to a royal brood and submissive noble wife. The folds of her wrap dresses indicate the secrets she holds close – her disappointing marriage, her long standing affair with her twin and the paternity of her royal children. The long daggered sleeves into which her hands frequently retreat also hint at hidden strength and a lethal nature that emerges as seasons progress. Despite these hints, Cersei’s priorities in this season are as a mother – determinedly working to prepare her son to rule. It is only when Ned Stark’s investigations threaten to reveal the truth that she is forced to act.
Season 2: “You’re a woman now – do you have any idea what that means?”
Cersei’s tutelage of Sansa Stark is one of the most revealing relationships of the Game of Thrones’ universe. Both women enter the second season having had their hopes dashed – Cersei has freed herself from her husband and thwarted her greatest opponent Ned Stark. Far from revelling in her power she now finds herself patronised by her father and brother Tyrion, who want to plan a second marriage for her. She is also struggling to control her volatile son who treats her with increasing disrespect. Meanwhile, Sansa’s fairytale dreams have come crashing around her – her sociopathic fiance murdered her father and is at war with her family while she is kept as a political hostage in King’s Landing. Ironically while she torments Sansa she is often the most honest with her, she shares her fear of Joffrey and her contempt for her late husband “Permit me to share some womanly wisdom with you on this very special day, the more people you love the weaker you are… love no one but your children, on that front a woman has no choice.”
In this Season, Cersei’s clothing becomes more opulent – she is seen resplendent in Lannister red. She also begins to wear her hair back – with her husband gone she has less to hide.
As the threat of an invasion by her late husband’s brother Stannis looms, Cersei’s costumes incorporate metalwork around the waist. This begins with belts and in the final battle extends to a complete breast plate. The metal work around the upper body demonstrates how Cersei has weaponised her femininity and fertility along with her continued guardedness about the wellbeing of her children. Furthermore, it underscores the extent to which all female bodies are battlefields in Westeros – events of the second season revolve around questions of heirs, wives and birthrights.
Less obvious details are the birds that embroidered on Cersei’s gowns. At court, spies and outsiders are referred to as “birds”. Varys’ spies are frequently alluded to as “little birds” and Littlefinger, the crown’s duplicitious advisor takes his sigil as a Mockingbird. Birds symbolise otherness and untrustworthiness in Westerose – those who do not wield the direct power of kings, and the nefarious means they use to access it. Cersei aligns the plight of women at court with this language of otherness. She continuously refers to Sansa as a “little dove” suggesting she sees in Sansa a caged animal – to be pitied while kept on a short leash. When Tyrion conspires to send Cersei’s nine year old daughter Myrcella to Dorne as part of an arranged royal marriage Cersei wears a gown thick with embroidered birds. This costume choice underscores the entrapment of all noblewomen, from Cersei who was sold to a man who didn’t love her to her daughter, a mere child who must leave her family to marry an unknown prince. Rank does not protect wealthy and noble women from being traded like chattels and it is something Cersei deeply resents.
Season 3: “You’re a clever man, but you’re not half as clever as you think you are.”
In Season 3 Cersei is faced with challenges closer to home. Her influence on Joffrey wanes as his infatuation with Margery Tyrell grows. As Queen Regent Cersei’s influence is limited by the power she can exert over her son. Margaery poses a threat – a more adept political player than Sansa she has her own agenda and as an older woman is better able to manipulate Joffrey’s affections than the naive pre-teen from the North. She is also protected by the wealth and respectability of the Tyrell family – something the Lannister’s desperately need. Far from abandoning the metalwork of the previous season Cersei’s armory becomes only more ornate. She tells Margaery Tyrell “You might find a bit of armor quite useful when you become Queen, perhaps before…” – despite the Lannister victory at the Battle of Blackwater Cersei has become only more guarded. The presence of the Tyrell’s and her father at court means her behavior is under greater scrutiny than ever. Along with increased metalwork her gowns become heavier, more modest and more regal. She moves away from the plunging drapery of previous seasons to a stiff brocade cowl that extends from her neckline like a wall. The self protective symbolism is heavy.
Season 4-8 “I shall wear it like a badge of honour.”
By the end of Season 5, Cersei is childless. While her enemies have been destroyed, she has lost her last surviving child with them along with her pride and reputation. She has also lost the belief that her male family members or her Lannister name will protect her. Her father who she feared and revered has died at her brother Tyrion’s hands. Her beloved twin Jaime has been changed by his experiences in battle – he is no longer physically able to protect her and his loyalties are compromised. Most importantly he is unable to match her grief for their children. Cersei has suffered the murder of two children and the suicide of another. Their father Jamie never publicly owned them as his own children, or formed close relationships with them. It is the first time Jaimie cannot share what Cersei is feeling and she finds herself alone.
When she is wrapped in a Lannister cloak at the end of her walk of atonement in Season 5, Cersei has been publically stripped of her secrets. The walk becomes a mockery of the wedding ritual that was meant to keep her safe – the bridal walk in which the wife is draped in the cloak of the groom’s household for protection. Cersei’s crimes are known and she is returned to the “protection” of her family knowing full well their inability to deliver it. It is the last time she will seek refuge in the Lannister name. We see her take the throne in black – it is a mourning for her son and last heir but also a rejection of her father and brother’s who have failed her.
Cersei’s wardrobe transitions from opulent reds to a militant mourning garb. The change to black shows that she no longer aligns herself with any house, only with her own personal sorrow and rage, while the militant flourishes including leather and armor demonstrate a thirst for vengeance. In the first Season Cersei told her husband she would wear the bruise he gave her “like a badge of honour”. Likewise in the latter seasons she wears her worst injuries. When she was forced to make a walk of atonement The Seven (a religious cult in Westeros) shaved her head to teach her humility. Cersei keeps her hair cropped close to signal she cannot be shamed. It also demonstrates that as crowned queen and the “first of her name” she serves no patriarch – no husband, father or son will overrule her.
Cersei’s makeup also subtly shifts. A fuller coverage foundation is applied to Lena Heady so no natural skin shines through. This makes her seem less human – her lips are also a washed out nude color. Her face is drained of color in a manner that suggests that the understandable, humane part of her has died with her children. She once told Sansa that her children were the only people she allowed herself to love. And the part of Cersei that has survived after the only love in her life has died is less predictable than ever.