‘Queen’s Gambit’ costumes make us want to toss our leggings

By Danielle Braff

Beth Harmon was facing a “sudden death” of sorts.

The fictional chess star overcame her childhood as an orphan, she battled her addiction to pills and alcohol, and she managed to make it into the world championship in Russia. The problem now? She had spent all her money on clothing and couldn’t afford her $3,000 trip to the biggest game of all time.

“You could give me the black dress,” Beth’s friend suggests on an episode of “The Queen’s Gambit.” “Or the purple one.”

Beth laughs and declines both offers.

In a field dominated by men, thick glasses and ill-fitting white button-down shirts, Beth Harmon is a sudden style idol. Yes, she’s a character developed from Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name and now outfitted by Gabriele Binder on a hit Netflix series. But somehow, she may be able to broker an introduction from the chess world to the fashion world, an unlikely yet beautiful pairing.

“At first look, chess is not stylish and fashionable, but the players make choices on what they wear and why they wear it,” said Binder, speaking over Zoom from her home in Berlin, dressed in a simple black shirt from the waist upward, with no accessories. And these choices are important, she believes. “It brings them good luck or gives them a good experience.”

“The Queen’s Gambit” takes place in the 1960s, and at that time, there were only a few female American and Russian players who were in the major leagues. Binder looked back at the ways the men dressed, and they had a “geeky, nerdy fashion.” The women’s looks were similar. Beth, played by Anya Taylor-Joy is anything but nerdy. And this may be a game changer. As it were.

“Chess will never be the same,” said Cathleen Sheehan, a professor and the acting chair of FIT’s Fashion Design MFA program in New York. “This story brings international glamour, humanity and relatable history to the game of chess. Each time the scene changed, I found myself excited to see what she’d be wearing next.”

Inspired by Edie Sedgwick, Jean Seberg, Pierre Cardin and Balenciaga, Binder created a dizzying array of looks that take Beth from her orphan days in Kentucky through her chess tournaments in Las Vegas, Paris and Moscow. No fewer than a dozen of her outfits contain geometric patterns mirroring the chessboard, but Binder would never do anything so obvious as to print a chessboard onto a top or a skirt.

Instead, for example, Beth tiptoed into the chess world with a simple checkered sleeveless dress over a fitted white button down that doesn’t veer far from the style at the time. She was trying desperately to find her own way in the fashion and chess scene — and her outfit reflects this, Binder said. By the time the series finishes, Beth steps out in a white wool coat paired with a white hat totally on point for a chess queen.

There’s also the makeup, which helps transform Beth from an orphan into a high glam chess starlet, reflecting her state of mind along the way (like a floating eyeliner look to underscore a hangover). “It was exaggerated makeup to support that she’s really besides herself, not fitting into the idea of a chess player,” Binder said. “It was a kind of, ‘This is me, and I’m fragile.’”

Fragile, yet chic.

Jennifer Shahade, a two-time U.S. women’s chess champion, and women’s program director at US Chess in Philadelphia, said she always saw the game as a glamorous sport. Shahade was able to party with her peers on rest days; she left the country for the first time at age 15 to play a world youth championship in Brazil; and she celebrated her 16th birthday in Iceland for another chess excursion. It’s a side of chess that those on the outside of the game don’t necessarily ever get to see.

“The glamour fed into my work ethic and vice versa,” Shahade said. “The overlap between chess and glamour is not new, but this is the first time I’ve seen it depicted so brilliantly onscreen, which takes it to an even higher level of imagination.”

While this may not be the first time chess has entered the fashion scene, this may be the largest move it has made.

In 2005, Alexander McQueen did a chess-inspired fashion show, during which a chessboard was projected onto the floor and each model represented a chess piece. Then, at New York Fashion Week in 2010, G-Star, the brand from Amsterdam, featured Magnus Carlsen, a grandmaster, playing a chess match before the runway show. G-Star also created an advertising campaign around Carlsen.

Still, fashion and chess never really gelled. The World Chess Hall of Fame teamed with the St. Louis Fashion Fund in 2018 to challenge newbie designers to create stylish chess outfits. Spoiler alert: Grandmasters continue to sport their usual simple black suits.

“Although top grandmasters dress up much better than let’s say 15 years ago, there is a way to go for U.S. top players like Fabiano Caruana and Hikaru Nakamura to be recognized as a style icon,” said Lennart Ootes, a chess photographer and broadcaster in Amsterdam. “Chess has been featured in countless movies and commercials as a metaphor for strategic decisions, but you will hardly see a chess player on a red carpet.”

Now that “The Queen’s Gambit” has arrived however, it appears that chess is having a fashion moment. In late November the exhibit “Keith Haring: Radiant Gambit” will open at the World Chess Hall of Fame. It will include Haring’s custom street art chess sets.

Also scheduled for a program at the Chess Hall of Fame is Michael Drummond, the St. Louis fashion designer featured on “Project Runway.” His exhibit, “Being Played,” looks at the effects of fashion and climate using figures from chess as a metaphor. (We’re here for the black minidress made entirely out of chess pieces.)

And now, costumes from “The Queen’s Gambit” can be viewed on a virtual exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, which worked with Netflix to offer a closer look of outfits from the show, along with costumes from “The Crown.”

The bad news, however, is that none of these glamorous Queen’s Gambit costumes are available in stores. Binder made them all specifically for Beth, or purchased them from costume archives. So when it comes to shopping for them, it’s your move.

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