Few would have predicted that a period drama set in the world of competitive chess would end up being this fall's breakout hit, but The Queen's Gambit continues to defy expectations and break Netflix viewership records. It's even led to a surge in chess playing. But for the sartorially inclined, it's the show's covetable collection of sweaters, retro frocks, and eye-catching outerwear that's had the greatest impact. Part of the fantasy appeal of the Anya Taylor-Joy chess series is the strong aesthetic that reflects Beth Harmon's success on the circuit. The costumes designed by Gabriele Binder grow in confidence as Beth finds her identity and place within this male-centric environment during a decade that ushered in bold new styles.
Not only do the fancy frocks and appealing casual wear enhance the show's themes, but their images linger long after the final credits have rolled. Here are ten ensembles from The Queen's Gambit that show how Beth Harmon came to be the year's most unexpected fashion icon:
When Beth is adopted by the Wheatleys in the second episode, she is overwhelmed by the size of her new bedroom. While the décor is saccharine chaos, her closet is limited in color and style. A trip to Ben Snyder's should be a retail therapy treat, but instead the bland clothes purchased from the bargain loft section reveal how precarious her new family's finances are. A mannequin sporting a plaid frock paired with a white blouse stands out to the teenager, which she later returns to purchase after she wins the Kentucky State Championship. Turning the hotel staircase into a personal runway, she unveils the first splurge purchase upon her arrival in Cincinnati. Black-and-white Oxford Saddle shoes are the footwear of the popular girls at school, so this choice encapsulates how Beth mirrors those around her — as well as nodding to the game that paid for her Twin Peaks-ready shoes.
Being photographed for Life is a big deal, and Beth rises to the occasion in a simple pointed Peter-Pan-collared navy dress. Her pose is as stiff as the starch in the neckline, but the clean lines will become a signature even as her style shifts. It is also hard to pick an outfit that won't get lost in the pink plaid and floral backdrop, which requires a dark shade to pull focus from the canopy bed interior design. Babylon Berlin production designer Uli Hanisch's use of pattern throughout is often dominated by geometric prints that complement the chess champion, but here costume and décor are locked in a battle. Beth later wears this dress to the tournament held in a swanky Las Vegas hotel, and frequent costume repeats by Binder highlight the fact that while Beth may have more money to spend on her closet, there's a limit to her spending.
Capturing the decadence of airline travel in the 1960s, both Beth and her adopted mother Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) dress accordingly. For Mrs. Wheatley, this means accessorizing with leather gloves and millinery, whereas Beth wears a frock in which she feels comfortable sashaying around the lobbies of grand hotels. The black-and-white-check dress is another repeat (although in this episode she pairs it with a more adult-looking black sweater rather than the previous cardigan), which embodies her growing confidence. Flying to Mexico City, this first International tournament is a milestone moment. Mirroring a chessboard might be considered too cutesy, but Binder doesn't lean too far into the overt black-and-white-check trend.
"Harmon moved with such deadly accuracy, such measured control," the commentator notes as she effectively dispatches another rival, and this description could also apply to this elegant attire. Referred to as the "Afternoon Tea" dress, this is one of 14 costumes on display as part of the Brooklyn Museum virtual exhibition — alongside garments from this year's equally fashionable Season 4 of The Crown. Based on a Sears catalog design, "the large buttons on the shoulder straps contain a subtle but distinct crosshatch pattern, mirroring the rigid lines on a chessboard." In this particular moment, she is comforting her mother, who has temporarily ditched vacation glam for a home comfort garment after a brief romance has ended. Beth wears this dress more than once on this trip, pointing to the realities of limited suitcase space.
The blue-and-white bathing suit is another nod to the chessboard via fashion, but unlike the reassuring uniformity of the previous item, this swimwear is less structured. The backless design with the keyhole front reflects the style of the time while communicating Beth's incomplete narrative. She is about to be rocked by personal tragedy, but out here by the pool as she laughs with her friends, she's on top of the world. As she swims beneath a surface pelted by rain. she's content, but the storm still rages above.
Shifting from the put-together pretty looks of tournament play alongside her adopted mother, Beth adopts a somewhat casual closet rotation. In part, this is down to the low-key venues, but it also shows how malleable her style is. During a 92Y Queen's Gambit virtual panel, co-creator Scott Frank mentioned that Beth is "trying on all these identities" via her clothing, which is influenced by shop mannequins, the girls at school, and the places she travels to. This is how a lot of people shop, but in Beth's case, this need to reinvent herself is tied to her search for purpose and identity. Here she looks a lot like a cool young woman who is erecting a barrier via her sunglasses and attitude.
Our first glimpse of adult Beth in the opening moments of the first episode reveals she is — for want of a better phrase — a hot mess express. Paris 1967 fills the screen as Beth frantically searches a hotel room littered with booze and pills. It isn't until the penultimate installment that we return to this low point with added insight. Mirroring the green of her childhood dress, this emotional tether punctuates important moments, including this high-stakes match. Inspired by design icon Pierre Cardin, the green number dials into a recognizable Parisian aesthetic. It also stands out in a sea of beige, which means Beth can't hide even if she wants to.
Beth's relatability is no more apparent than with her penchant for this particular t-shirt. First worn in "Middle Game," the divided white-and-black design has its roots in chess and French designer André Courrèges. This is the shirt she takes to New York for boho hangouts, but it looks equally at home in Kentucky amid the redecorated wallpaper chaos.
Beth tries to find solace in clothing, which is not always a success, but in her battle with Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski), she finally finds peace with this simple, desaturated design. Earlier in the tournament, she has worn a very on-theme (and on-trend) black and white frock, but for the pivotal rematch, she returns to her roots. Binder has been specific with Beth's color story and it is no more noticeable than in this Moscow venue.
Moscow requires outerwear, and for the majority of this tournament, Beth wears an eye-catching check coat with a hint of Burberry to the design. It is quintessentially ‘60s and reflects Beth's comfort with fashion (and herself). The final look is the most overt when it comes to the chess symbolism, but whatever, Beth has earned the white queen title and the honor of dressing like this significant piece.
The Queen's Gambit is now streaming on Netflix
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Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.