‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Shows the Protective Power of Beautiful Clothes

'The Queen’s Gambit' Sees Fashion as an Armor Against the World

Photo Courtesy of Netflix

I can pinpoint the moment, at around 11 years old, when I knew I would be forever fucked on closet space: Walking through the Robinsons May at the Plaza Bonita Mall in National City, California, with my mom, I spotted a shift dress in the preteen section. It had a Mondrian-esque design, with white strips of fabric separating lime green and black rectangles. It was everything, and I immediately imagined myself wearing it and looking like Twiggy, who I’d become obsessed with after seeing her photos in Vanidades, my mom’s favorite magazine.

I inherited my love for clothes from my mom, who has a section of her closet dedicated to floral print trousers. For weeks, we’d pass by the dress during trips to the mall. I’d graze my grubby little hands over it, until one day my mom asked, “Lo quieres?” Yes, I wanted it more than anything in the world. 

I had that same enamored reaction watching The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s mid-century period drama about Beth Harmon, a fictional young chess prodigy (Anya Taylor-Joy) on a quest to be world champion. Despite the many deserved oohs and ahhs about the series’ portrayal of one woman’s experiences of trauma and addiction, its sexiness despite it featuring no sex scenes, its queerness, and how it has reignited interest in the game, particularly for women players, it has its issues. Its depiction of sexism in chess is not super accurate, painting the phenomenon much more politely than it actually was during that period and now—and its treatment of Jolene (Moses Ingram), Beth’s Black best friend from their days in an orphanage, veers dangerously into “guardian angel” and “magical negro” trope territory. Nonetheless, taking a cerebral game like chess and making it so riveting is a feat, and the show’s sumptuous costuming has me mesmerized.

Watching Beth dress up in luxurious coats and chic shift dresses as she faces off against chess masters, I couldn’t stop thinking about how she seemed to use fashion as a way of shielding herself against the traumas and stresses of her life—something that becomes all the more apparent when you notice the sweaters and undergarments she dons when she’s at rock bottom. In some ways, the show couldn’t have come at a better time: As we continue to live our lives indoors, clad in sweatpants and comfy tie-dye, we could use a little fashion escapism.

The clothes worn by Beth and Cleo (Millie Brady), a hot French artist with whom Beth has a fling, are stunning—especially for me, someone has long adhered to a mid-century-adjacent aesthetic (with a couple of exceptions during the fashion nightmare that was the early aughts). Specifically, I call my look “punk mod mafia mistress,” or simply “mob wife, but punk”: Imagine if Megan Draper married a Gambino instead of Don Draper, and maybe spent some time in the pit.

Beth’s style is more refined, and far more luxurious than anything I wear, but I was taken with several of her outfits: the head-to-toe cream ensemble she wears after winning the world chess title, topped with a gorgeous coat and warm beanie—a monochromatic palette I’ve also experimented with; her geometric chess-board inspired shift dress, which I own a way less expensive version of; the harsh, psych-mod makeup she dons following her Shocking Blue-soundtracked spiral, evoking that of lead singer Mariska Veres—a reproduction I’ve done a bunch over the years as a fan of that iconic psychedelic rock group. 

The fashion of the 60s and 70s has always spoken to me because, well, it’s sick as hell, but also it reminds me of my favorite old photos of my mom. When I put on one of my groovy little outfits, she always says, “Yo tenia un vestido así igualito.” I become a mirror of her younger self, and it’s clear it warms her heart.

ElaurdfXIAQw2Eb.jpg

On my 23rd birthday in 2007, NOT 1965.

Seeing the reactions to the costuming online, viewers, writers, and fashion critics have been awed as much as I have. The Brooklyn Museum even has a virtual exhibition of the costumes from the series, alongside that of Netflix’s The Crown. I haven’t seen mid-century aesthetics stir up such a frenzy since the height of Mad Men, when everyone was scooping up bar carts and donning their best versions of Joan Holloway’s body-hugging dresses.

That can be credited to costume designer Gabriele Binder. In an interview with the New York Times, Binder said she was inspired by fashion icons and designers of the era, like Edie Sedgwick, Jean Seberg, Pierre Cardin, and Balenciaga. While researching the dress styles of men and women in the 50s and 60s chess world, Binder uncovered that most stuck to more “geeky, nerdy fashion”—though they also incorporated items meant to mentally prepare them for their matches. “At first look, chess is not stylish and fashionable, but the players make choices on what they wear and why they wear it,” she told the Times. “It brings them good luck or gives them a good experience.” 

Watching Beth grow from wearing a drab smock at her orphanage to a high-fashion chess queen, it’s hard not to miss how her clothing choices signified her ascent from her harsh beginnings, and served as armor she wore into battle. The lone woman in a room full of stodgy, besuited men who believe she has no place in their world, she strides into each match confident that she can beat them, and her clothes present the first strike. Not only will she win, but she will—gasp!—do so while looking incredible, upending preconceived notions of what she’s capable of. It resonated with me, and I can imagine it resonating with other women navigating a male-dominated space where they may be underestimated based on their sex or style. Legally Blonde is in this same canon of underdog story.

Lately, I’ve been making an effort to dust off my snake-print boots and short skirts and wear an outfit at least once a week, because I’ve come to realize how much of my mental health relies on it. As comfortable as it is, a life of sweatpants and loose showering schedules has made me feel disconnected from myself, cut off from the self-expression that is vital to my happiness.

On what I have taken to calling my “mob wife weekends,” I unleash clothes onto the world, walking through Target or Fort Greene Park as Brooklyn dads avert their eyes from me—a woman wearing a faux leather skirt, gold chain belt, and leopard coat at 11 a.m. on a Sunday. Who or what they think I am is not my concern. Their fear and confusion gives me life, and I’ve started to bring friends along on these jaunts, encouraging them to wear their funnest mob wife looks. There’s not a lot to feel great about lately—so why not seize joy when I have the power to? Dressing up feels like a celebration of myself, and the life I’m still fortunate to have.

Seeking comfort and protection in a piece of beautiful clothing is another thing I inherited from my mom. She has battled severe depression and anxiety during my lifetime, but it was always obvious how her mood seemed to change when she put herself together in her colorful trousers, flowy print tops, and piles of chunky jewelry. (The woman keeps Chico’s in business.) Perhaps not by coincidence, she dressed up, full make-up and all, pretty much every day, and still does. My siblings sometimes roll their eyes at how extra she is, but I’ve always loved it. If I’m sad, hurting, or even just feeling lazy, she always told me it’s ok to lie in bed in jammies all day if I need to, but eventually I’ve got to put on a fantastic outfit and remind myself and everyone around me that nothing is going to bring me down.

4593013944_dca73c4b2c_o.jpg

I see a lot of that in Beth, and how her outfits were a sheathing as she battled her traumas, addiction, and opponents. Maybe that’s what my mom was doing, and now that I think of it, it’s obvious that’s what I’m doing as well. Armor of any kind is protection, whether it’s steel, rayon, or silk. We’re all working through our shit, and for me looking good while I do it is instrumental to my healing. Watching The Queen’s Gambit was a timely reminder that that’s okay.

Alex Zaragoza is a senior staff writer at VICE. You can follow her on Twitter.

Leave a Reply