'Game of Thrones' Costume Designer Says Wage Inequality for Below-the-Line Workers Worse in the U.K.

Michele Clapton - Publicity - H 2018
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“I don’t know what it is in the States, but I think in the U.K. we’re less well-paid,” said designer Michele Clapton.

It’s common knowledge in Hollywood that, for all the talk of fixing pay discrepancies and gender discrimination, some of the most underpaid and underserved crewmembers are those in the costume department. Unfortunately, this seems to be an international issue.

“I don’t know what it is in the States, but I think in the U.K. we’re less well-paid,” Game of Thrones costume designer Michele Clapton told The Hollywood Reporter on Friday before she spoke on a panel about her work at downtown’s Fashion Institute of Design and Marketing. Clapton adds that, especially now as a celebrated name in the industry, she stumps for the wages she wants for herself and staff. “What really worries me or upsets me is — and I guess this is always going to happen — if I say no to a job because the rate’s not good, then someone else will say yes. We have a union, but it’s nothing like it is here and it does need to be stronger.”

The timing of Clapton’s presentation and comments was particularly apropos. This weekend also sees the presentation of the Creative Arts Emmys, where the Thrones designer is nominated for her work on the hit HBO show. Although her work on the juggernaut series has garnered her one gold statue and one other nomination for outstanding period/fantasy costume for a series, limited series or movie, this year’s nod comes with an interesting plot twist. The TV Academy has now split that category so that the two genres are no longer considered one and the same.

Clapton says that “in some ways, it’s great because it gives more people an opportunity to be celebrated.” She does wish the Academy had gotten more, well, creative, when it comes to deciding which awards are given out now versus at next week’s much showier Primetime Emmys celebration.

“Crews like hair and makeup and costumes work with the actors and it annoys me that we’re not at the same event as them,” she says. “I don’t want the [Primetime Emmys] to get to be too big, but I think costume and makeup are between the two worlds and I think we should be linked in with the actors.”

That isn’t to say Clapton has failed to find her own ways to gain attention for her work. Like many costume designers, she has parlayed her association with a hit show into a fashion collaboration. But while most of her peers stick with clothes, she has worked with jewelry designers Eliza Higginbottom and Yunus Ascott on two collections.

“I came from fashion, quite a long time ago, and the reason I left fashion is because I hated the business side of it,” Clapton says matter of factly. “I know some people have done it very successfully, but it’s not for me.”

So, now she does the sketches and lets others worry about the bottom line. Plus, as HBO allows her to use these designs and others on the show, she’s ensured a piece of the increasingly valuable and common merchandising tie-ins that come with blockbuster productions — a key point, as costume designers are notoriously left out of these exchanges even if the T-shirts, makeup and other products are based on their work.

And Clapton is no stranger to her designs, however innocuous she might find it, going viral. Who can forget the time she mentioned that a simple stop into an IKEA to buy a lamp resulted in the purchase of a black rug that became a character’s protective pelt?

“Designers, we often take things and we often switch them into something else,” she says. “I did it because it made absolute, practical sense” because there’s so many people to costume on that show and, as it is, each principal character has his or her own costume cutter because the designs are so intricate. Clapton’s ability to adapt will also be seen in the upcoming The Secret Garden, for which she and her design crew went all Maria von Trapp and turned some French bedding into linen dresses.

As to her favorite Thrones costume? This question was posited to Clapton during the panel. Right now, she favors the white fur suit that Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen wears toward the end of the most recent season. It’s a lot more grown-up and extravagant than the simple goddess-style dress she wore at the beginning of the series.

But, Clapton teases fans: “When we see her now, she’s starting to wear the colors of her brother” Viserys, (Harry Lloyd) who perished when he got too cocky. “What does that say about her?” she leads us to wonder.