How Costume Designer Sharon Gilham Designed the Imposing Seanchan in 'The Wheel of Time'
September 4, 2023

Written by Daniel Roman, Winter is Coming

The Wheel of Time season 2 is here at last! Based on the beloved book series by Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time has all the magic, monsters, and mayhem you’d hope for in a fantasy epic. The first season primarily followed a group of young men and women who were whisked away from their sleepy village by the Aes Sedai sorceress Moiraine (Rosamund Pike) to join the fight against the enigmatic Dark One. Season 2 continues that storyline, but the world also grows much larger.

One of the biggest new elements at play in season 2 are the Seanchan, a people from across the sea who have returned after centuries in exile. The Seanchan are a severe people who exude strangeness in Jordan’s novels, from their brutal societal practices to the various beasts they use for warfare. It was important for the show to get them right. We spoke with costume designer Sharon Gilham and hair and makeup supervisor Davina Lamont about how they created the stunning look for the Seanchan in The Wheel of Time season 2.
“When we very first started the project, the Seanchan was the first thing that we had to work on because we were overlapping with the end of season 1. And it was quite a challenge,” recalled Gilham. “It’s a hugely important part of season 2. And we knew that we wanted to create something that was otherworldly, and strange, and weird and mysterious and terrifying. And that doesn’t happen overnight…that takes a bit of time and a bit of process in order to get to that point.”

From a costume point of view, I started as always reading the script and then getting as much background information about the culture form Sarah Nakamura, who is our resident expert on The Wheel of Time books, she’s read all the books many times. And then I would take that information and pick out the points that I wanted to hit on…like the idea of them looking like insects, which I also developed into sort of a reptilian vibe just to make them feel strange and other. And gave the whole culture a color palette, which was based on sort of like rusting iron, because they came on ships…just keeping a color palette in there helps keep it grounded, helps to keep the focus on the costume design.

And then also in the mix is obviously the cultural mix of the Seanchan world, which is Mesoamerican and imperial Chinese. So you’ve got that lovely kind of huge scope to be able to add in the flavors of those cultures and mix it up to make it something completely new.

There were also plenty of elements to the Seanchan look that came about organically through experimentation. “One of the main pieces of imagery that started [the show’s Seanchan] culture started in the leatherwork room, where one of my time were playing with different things you could do with leather, cutting and twisting and folding it,” Gilham said. “And she came up with the twisted leather, twisted metal imagery, which looks aggressive and was then highlighted with gold to make it look like it was sharp.”

It was important that the costumes have a more aggressive look. “The helmets look vicious, you can’t see their faces.”

Then there were the damane, the channelers the Seanchan enslave and force to use the One Power against their enemies. “What if the damane have a stopper in their mouth which proves that they are totally powerless?” Gilham recalled thinking. Those mouth stoppers didn’t appear in Jordan’s novels, but there’s no denying how arresting they are on screen. Gilham said that she used “pre-Incan reference imagery” to develop the damane mouth stoppers, tying them into the Mesoamerican inspiration which was so central to the Seanchan.

The damane are a particularly scary part of Seanchan culture; essentially, women who can use magic are enslaved and tied to a handler, called a sul’dam. The sul’dam and damane then act as a pair, with the sul’dam issuing orders and the damane having no choice but to obey. Hair and makeup supervisor Davina Lamont called developing the sul’dam a “huge process,” and one of her first big design projects for season 2:

It was a lot of [research and development], it was a lot of testing with the scarification that [the sul’dam] had, with the color of blue that they had, with their eye makeup and of course with their hair. So we probably went through a process of maybe a month and a half of constant testing just to see what works and what doesn’t work, and if the blue would work with [Sharon’s costumes] and of course the scarification and what that would like.

The results speak for themselves. The Seanchan are a mesmerizing part of The Wheel of Time’s second season. Lamont and Gilham’s departments managed to capture the essence of the Seanchan from Robert Jordan’s novels very well. “For me it was one of the best collaborative works that we’ve done together, and I think it shows on screen,” Lamont said.

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