When Anya Taylor-Joy transformed herself into Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy for Netflix’s 2020 drama The Queen's Gambit, the fashion world was taken by storm. The show not only brought about a resurgence of interest in chess, but provided viewers with an opportunity to delve into the sultry and sleek fashion of the sixties.
But Beth Harmons fashion choices were not just appealing to the eye; many of her outfits hid a much deeper meaning. As she travels around the world ranking up in global tournaments from the 1950s into the 1960s, costume designer Gabriele Binder creates Beths looks as a reflection of her inner self and to reflect the woman she has become. She undergoes a steady and seamless transition from an awkward and stiff small town girl, into a high-fashion, sleek mod type. As she grows up, her style becomes more confident, sophisticated and decisively chic as she materialises elements of chess into her personal style to capture her love for the game.
In the general scheme, Beth’s outfits are often very muted, with plain colours and geometric chess-board-esque patterns. She wears neutral or dark jewel tones like navy or green, complimenting her red hair and bringing out her natural fire. The character of Beth isn’t one to seek attention by creating a false air of allure through overdone fashion, but instead, through simple and clean silhouettes and sleek colours, the costume designers highlight how this sense of allure is natural in her sharply charming character. She wears high necklines throughout the show, which are voguish but not in any regards sensual.
Binder, in an interview with Variety, states that this was because Beth was serious about being a champion and she wanted to win because of her excellence, not because men are distracted by her beauty.
In the first two episodes, Beth is seen wearing her school uniform from the orphanage until she gets adopted, at which point she is enrolled in high school. This marks the start of her fashion journey. With her stiff straight pinafore, Beth sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the popular girls in pastel colours, full circle skirts and saddle shoes. Many critics point out how their outfits are more attuned to those of the 50’s rather than the 60’s, but this is very contextually accurate for the time. Fashion trends spread slower depending on locale, and the small town of Lexington, Kentucky, where Beth lives, would be behind the trends in New York or Paris for instance, so what we think of as 50’s fashion was still spilling over into the mid 60’s in small towns.
When Beth wins her first local competition, she uses the money to go to Ben Snyders, (a real department store in mid-century Kentucky) to buy a dress. The geometrically patterned plaid pinafore is more up to scratch with the girlish style of her peers, reflecting how she is beginning to grow into herself and understand her own genius. At this point she is becoming slowly fashionable, yet also schoolgirl-like in her meek demeanour as reflected by the plaid, a pattern that was typically reserved for young girls in school.
When Beth goes to New York for another championship, she is also seen donning a very faint green grid-patterned dress. Her hairstyle has also changed into what the show's hairstylist, Daniel Parker, refers to as the “sexy kitten look”. Here, we see how Beth's transformation isn’t a cliche rags to riches story, but instead, a slow and natural transition as she ranks up in the leagues of chess. She also buys a pair of saddle shoes that she so desperately wanted after beginning high school, signifying her becoming more comfortable in her own skin.
After the point of 1963, Beth's fashion journey seems to be a steady uphill journey towards the sleek, clean kitten look. She further picks up styles and cultures when she buys clothes from Saks Fifth in New York, and even more so when she goes to Paris and starts shopping in trendy small boutiques, entering the world of haute couture with her newfound wealth.
She is still seen donning full circle skirts and very feminine silhouettes, despite the influx of boxy, androgynous silhouettes in the mid-60s (think Twiggy and Sharon Tate).
However, costume designer Binder discusses how this was intentional- she wanted to highlight how despite Beth being very mathematical and calculated, she was still a woman in a man's world, and that making it this far in the ranks of chess as a woman was something that was by no means easy. This visual juxtaposition also creates a much more striking look; when we see Beth beating men with ease, despite looking like a delicate or even timid woman. The show is careful not to distance femininity from the “masculinity” typically associated with chess. Beth is still a girl, she hasn’t lost sight of herself in a world that is typically for men.
Despite this, Beth does at times opt for the boyish mod look of the 60s, in cigarette pants, headbands, and straight-cut blouses- an off-duty Hollywood look said to be inspired by Audrey Hepburn.
Particularly after meeting Benny, the New York champion, the romance allows Beth to develop a side to herself with more edge and darkness. Taking inspiration from Benny’s rockstar look, she begins wearing black and white, monotonous tones. Again, she also takes elements from her love of chess, combined with the trendy mod look that she adopts. When combined with the new wave rock soundtrack featuring Shocking Blue and The Monkees, Beth is given a new edge to her sophisticated chess master look. She is calculated and clever, but also ready to win, and this is perfectly reflected in the development of her fashion.
One of the looks that is loaded with symbolism is the green pill dress from the Paris tournament. This look is inspired by Pierre Cardin pieces. Cardin’s couture consists of boyish silhouettes and geometric patterns, solid block patterns and drape dresses. Beth's dress is a light sage green with dark green accents, reminiscent of the green tranquilliser pills that she became dependent on during her childhood. Binder chose this scheme to reflect how this was one of Beth's lowest moments. Hungover and barely awake, she was rushed out of her suite, late to meet her opponent, the Russian champion Borgov.
The same green is worn later in Moscow in her final match against Borgov. However, this time, it is a much
more muted down version, with little detail. Simplistic and clean, it illustrates Beth's level-headedness and stability in the final match, having overcome her struggles with addiction.
The colour green is a deeply significant one for Beth. It is the first colour she is seen wearing prior to the suicide of her biological mother. She wears a faint green dress, hand embroidered by her mother. Binder refers to this green as Beth's “home colour”. It comes back in her most vulnerable moment in Paris, and then again when she reclaims her strength in the final match in Moscow.
The final look of the show is the white queen look. Here, Beth is seen in a long straight white cashmere coat and a white bobble hat to create the profile of the white queen piece. Gabriele Binder tells Variety that the look was also inspired by the atmosphere of 60’s Russia in winter, as it is worn after Beth beats Borgov in the final match in Moscow, making her the world champion.
The clean all white look is reflective of Beth becoming complete in her transformation as a chess master. She has faced and overcome all of her hurdles, and now takes the position of champion, she is the white queen.
Throughout the show, fashion remains as a means of expression and reflection for Beth. From the very beginning, we see her mother expressing her love for her by embroidering hearts onto her dress. Beth takes this use of expression and carries it with her through her adolescence and adulthood to show her own internal development as a chess master. She goes from a simple small town school girl to a decisive and sophisticated chess champion, all while maintaining a stylish feminine chic.
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