Note: Some spoilers below.
The Queen’s Gambit, currently one of the most popular new Netflix limited series, features the kind of style we are longing for right now. Major news outlets, including The New York Times, Vogue, Glamour, Independent, and many more have reviewed not just the show, but also the costumes. That’s not without reason: the style is tailored and polished. But it is also pretty monochromatic, sometimes it’s plain, and there’s not a lot of variety of occasions.
This makes sense for the character: she wears a lot of the same colors because they remind her of chess, and she mostly wears cocktail dresses, day dresses, and trousers, because her life revolves around chess matches and home life. Beth likes chess because it is black-and-white and limited; as she says, “It’s an entire world of just 64 squares.”
The costumes express the character of Beth Harmon perfectly. But the style is not necessarily inherently better than other popular shows that feature costumes of the same period, such as The Crown or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel—so the current fixation on Beth Harmon’s style actually reveals a lot about us and how we feel this year.
(Beth wearing one of her favorite sharp collars.)
One reason why we’re obsessed with The Queen’s Gambit style is because chess prodigy Beth Harmon dresses so well, and so formally. She wears crisp, full-skirted day dresses, and later cocktail attire, to her chess matches. Though Beth admits to loving fashion, this is not just her personal taste, of course: everyone dressed more formally in the 1950s and 1960s. We admire these clothes because they are beautiful, but we’re also drawn to them because they are formal—and thus, a contrast from the way many of us have been dressing in 2020. (How many times did you wear heels or a blazer this year, compared to 2019?) This is the year of leisurewear, matching loungewear sets, and dressing for Zoom from the waist up.
(Beth in a crisp white dress with button details.)
But Beth Harmon doesn’t just dress up for chess matches. She even looks fabulous when she is at home cleaning, studying, or lounging—all while wearing well-fitting pants with prim sweaters or silk blouses and a scarf in her hair. Beth’s stay-at-home style is an inspiration; our admiration for the fashion on this show reveals a longing for structured clothing that makes us feel put-together and professional.
(Beth in a black-and-white blouse and scarf.)
Beth’s wardrobe on the show is the epitome of personal style. This perfect melding of fashion with personal interests is what we all aim to do with style—though, as with any medium, sometimes there are miscommunication problems. For many people, it can take a while to find out what we truly like and how to express that in a way that fits with our lifestyles. Sometimes we wind up wearing things that are comfortable and practical but that don’t express ourselves well.
(Beth meets Benny while wearing the plaid-print dress she bought for herself.)
Beth’s clothes, however, tell us exactly who she is and what she thinks. She wears a lot of clothes that obviously reference chess boards—black, white, black-and-white color blocking, and geometric prints. The first dress she buys and loves is a dominantly black V-neck with plaid patterning that she wears over a button-up blouse. She also wears a black dress with a white Peter Pan collar, and a black-and-white striped shirt and dress set.
(Beth in a brown and orange top covered in squares.)
Just like Beth, these dresses are sharp: they have crisp collars, clean lines, and structured shoulders. The one time Beth wears an unstructured shift dress, it’s the morning she sleeps past the start time of her match because she was out drinking all night. Beth’s droopy bow dress is the one outfit that doesn’t match her personal style; it’s not structured or sharp—and you can see right away that her mind is cloudy, too.
(Beth is not on her game in this floppy-bow dress that is not a good fit for her personal style.)
(Beth in a stunning white-and-black color-blocked dress.)
A consistent style evolution
Personal style changes many times throughout your lifetime, not just because you feel different, but also because of changing life circumstances. Sometimes it’s our bodies that change, and other times, it’s our circumstances. Going from a nine-to-five office job to remote work five days a week is a major change that warrants a wardrobe shift. Moving to a different climate is another major change that will affect our wardrobes. No matter the cause, everyone will need to redefine their style a few times to fit new lifestyles over the years. For many of us, those changes can come with some uncertainty and missteps while we experiment with different items and looks.
Beth’s style, on the other hand, evolves smoothly over the years, even as she grows and her lifestyle changes dramatically. She has two major wardrobe shifts as a minor—moving into and out of the orphanage—but she has no sartorial say in these changes. After that, she experiences three major lifestyle shifts: first, she starts winning prize money at chess tournaments, then she starts making friends with chess players, and finally, her adoptive mother dies, leaving her to navigate life and fame on her own as a young adult. After each of these major life changes, Beth’s fashion evolves, but it is always cohesive and always her.
(Beth with her early trophies.)
When she starts winning prize money at tournaments, her first purchases with her own money are a classic black-and-white plaid V-neck dress and her own chess board. During this period, when she is the breadwinner at age 15, she starts buying herself well-fitting, tailored clothing in dark colors, often with pressed white collars. She wears these dresses to chess matches, to school, and at home.
(Beth likes to look crisp and professional in black and white.)
Though initially ignored at school and underestimated by chess players, Beth finally starts making friends while traveling for (and winning) tournaments. As she spends more of her leisure time developing relationships with her adoptive mother and other chess players, she starts to incorporate more colors into her wardrobe. At this stage, she experiences success and happiness, symbolized by her short-lived penchant for yellow. In Mexico City, she wears a yellow blouse, a full yellow skirt, and a yellow robe over a gingham swimsuit.
(Beth wears a yellow blouse in Mexico City.)
As Beth gains more experience, her style also grows more sophisticated and formal. She starts wearing cocktail dresses and makeup to her chess matches. It’s still in the same vein as her teenage style—tailored, simple, black and white—just a more elevated version. At this point, there is a clear line between her casual clothes and her chess clothes.
(Beth wears a color-blocked black-and-tan cocktail dress.)
Tragedy strikes again when Beth’s adoptive mother dies, leaving Beth alone in the world. Beth became addicted to tranquilizers at the orphanage; tranquilizers were given even to very small children in order to keep them docile. As a child and young teen, Beth thought that she needed tranquilizers and alcohol in order to win at chess. But when two friends get to know her well, they warn her that she is doing damage to herself and her chess game by drinking and doing drugs. Eventually, she starts to listen and suspects that they are right, that she is actually a better player when she is sober.
(Beth loses herself in muted colors and wild 1960s makeup at one of her lowest points.)
It’s at this time, when she is struggling with her addiction and living on her own at 18, when Beth’s style shifts again. She still wears mostly neutrals and tailored clothing, but the colors deepen to darker shades—no more sunny, summer yellows. She tends toward forest green, navy blue, brown, and rusty red. She also switches to pants at home, pairing them with fitted sweaters and silk scarves. There is a deeper contrast between her everyday styles and her cocktail dresses for chess, symbolizing that she sees more and more that her personal problems are sabotaging her potential chess success.
(Beth drinks at home in a green sweater and black trousers.)
(Beth wears a rusty red cocktail dress to a bar.)
Beth’s style evolution is inspiring to watch because it can be hard, intimidating, or scary to change our styles. Sometimes, we hold onto old clothes that no longer fit or serve us. Other times, we jump headfirst into change and lose our personal style while trying too hard to fit in or adapt to a new lifestyle. But Beth has a strong sense of who she is and never loses that, despite her hardships. Her style is also cohesive because she makes only small changes, such as changes in details and level of formality. Throughout it all, her wardrobe has a through-line of simple elegance in tailored, dark colors.
Many of us have made major wardrobe changes while working from home this year, and there may be more changes in the coming months as more and more people return to in-person work. Beth shows us that it’s good to listen to yourself and shift slowly in order to keep your wardrobe feeling consistently like you!
Finally, we admire the style of The Queen’s Gambit because Beth wears her clothes with the utmost confidence. She knows what she wants and goes about getting it. It’s refreshing to watch an ambitious female character who is not an action hero, and who also doesn’t fall into the heartless-woman trope. (You know, the one where the woman with goals is cold and uptight and needs to be taught a lesson.)
Beth knows she is a superb chess player, and has no qualms about signing up for the first chess match she hears about. When she arrives, the organizers question her experience, but she is completely unbothered: her only response is to ask to be placed in the competition that awards the biggest cash prize. Beth wins that tournament and continues to win against almost everyone else. She sets clear goals for herself and works hard to achieve them. When she loses, which is rare, she studies to learn from her errors. But her rise is not easy. Though she is a prodigy who generally plays on intuition, she realizes that she has to study the grandmasters’ lives and famous games in order to advance at the game. Once she sets her sights on defeating the world champion, Borgov, she takes Russian classes to prepare for her match against him. (Those classes pay off when she overhears a conversation about her in Russian in an elevator.) Though becoming the best is not without its challenges, Beth feels capable of taking initiative and seeing her goals through. As she herself says about chess, “It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it; I can dominate it. And it’s predictable. So, if I get hurt, I have only myself to blame.”
(Beth, in a checked coat, walking to a chess match in Russia.)
The kind of determination that Beth has is always admirable, but we’re especially drawn to it now, because in 2020 it’s harder to know what we want, harder to define goals, and harder to parse out the steps to reach them. The uncertainty of this year has upended people’s holiday plans, travel plans, and major life plans. Some people have decided to go back to school; others are deferring school; some people have made major moves sooner than they expected, and many couples have postponed or drastically changed wedding plans. In times like these, it can feel much more difficult to plan with as much detail and certainty as we could pre-pandemic. Thus, it is comforting and inspiring to watch a confident woman lay out her plan, accomplish each step, and reach her goals again, and again, and again. We know that someday soon, we will return to relative certainty, too, and we will have much more confidence that we will be able to move forward, step by step—or square by square.
(Beth wearing winter whites in Russia.)
Throughout her life, Beth’s drive, determination, and strength are always apparent. We admire both her style evolution and her personal journey from the quiet child prodigy to the well-rounded, stylish, successful, and sober adult she becomes. And when things are in flux or not working out the way we hoped, we can understand Beth’s preference for a chess world, in which more things are black and white and predictable. Nevertheless, Beth is an inspiration that we can navigate our own difficult times with strength—and style, too.