Gabriele Binder can’t tell you why she felt so drawn to “The Queen’s Gambit,” only that she’s glad she was. The costume designer responsible for crafting the most covetable wardrobe of the year admits that on its face, a chess-based tale set in the 1950s and ’60s shouldn’t have piqued her interest.
“I heard it and I immediately had goosebumps.”
Judging by the reaction that audiences and awards bodies have had in response to Scott Frank’s limited series — “The Queen’s Gambit” triumphed at the PGAs, DGAs, and SAGs, among many others — Binder wasn’t the only person who felt the latent magic lurking within the adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name.
In the months since “The Queen’s Gambit” took Netflix and the winter awards season by storm, it’s probable that some details about the saga of fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) have faded from viewers’ memories. The matches Beth won, the matches she lost, the indignities she faced along the way, those specifics might get lost with time, but they’d be hard-pressed to forget the costumes.
The reason that Binder’s creations made such a profound impact on viewers might have something to do with how integrated they were with the larger aesthetic of the series, evidence of the spirit of collaboration that existed between Binder and Frank, but also Binder and Taylor-Joy.
“I talked to Scott and immediately we had this feeling,” Binder said in a recent interview with IndieWire, “Immediately we realized, if he says something, I grab it, and it started like a ping-pong between us.”
In Taylor-Joy, the designer found something of a kindred spirit. When creating, Binder fixates on the psychology of the character she’s clothing, wondering what is going on inside of them, where they’re from, what their story is, and finding ways to reflect that in their wardrobe.
But while Binder had an entire cast of characters to analyze, Taylor-Joy was busy doing psychological excavation on Beth far beyond what the costumer had time or opportunity to do.
“It was just wonderful to develop [Beth’s wardrobe] with her and on her,” Binder said. “She is such a expressive personality. Immediately, when we put something on, we saw, ‘Yeah, this is the right way, but this has to be different.’ Or ‘No, this is not her way’ or ‘This could be a way in another movie, but that’s not Beth.’ Immediately, [Taylor-Joy] made everything visible. I never had a moment where I thought ‘I should have a second look.'”
Ken Woroner / Netflix
For as much as Binder was in conversation with her collaborators, her work was often attempting to be in direct conversation with the story itself, specifically in the utilization of color. In other interviews, she has spoken at length of the sage green color which clothes young Beth in the opening moments of the series and recurs several times throughout, a reminder of older Beth’s continued vulnerability.
Binder also often clothed Beth in blue, particularly after her adoption by Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller). She explained that Alma (and then Beth) lived in a blue house and that blue was Alma’s favorite color. Through that, she set aside light blue for Alma and dark blue for Beth.
“I also thought that dark blue was kind of, let’s call it, an intellectual color,” Binder said. “It’s not too feminine and it’s not black. It’s just cool and more intellectual. It was good, too, that it came from Alma plus it was good because [Beth] was different from all the other girls wearing these lighter ice cream tones.”
That she absorbs the color blue from Alma should come as no surprise for anyone familiar with Beth, whose entire experience throughout the series sees her picking and choosing her wardrobe carefully. An effort to hide in plain sight, the character is a careful mimic and her style subtly changes to reflect the city she’s in or the company she keeps, while slowly but surely developing her own sense of self.
With regards to those fashions, the majority are crafted by Binder and her team, opting to create the clothing they needed rather than trying to source appropriate period wear in the wild.
“If you have a plan and if you have a color concept and if it’s a period, it becomes very, very difficult to source something,” she explained. “It’s always kind of too big but in the right color or totally the wrong color but the form is really perfect or a strange pattern but this form could go.”
So from the beginning, she continued, you have to think about what you want. Maybe you’ll find some of those things, and then you’re very lucky, but you must be ready, for the main characters, to produce it with your team.
Seeing as Binder won the Costume Designers Guild Award for Period TV Series earlier this year, it would seem that her creations are on point.
COURTESY OF NETFLIX
And while so much ink is — rightfully — spilled about Beth’s fantastic wardrobe, “The Queen’s Gambit” is full of pristine fashion moments from Benny’s (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) leather trench coat and hat to Benny’s silk robe (and plenty of non-Benny clothes as well) but Binder shared a particular point of pride that generally goes overlooked.
While Beth spends time in the orphanage as a child, she and the other girls clad in similar, but different clothing. Binder said that she struggled with determining what, exactly, the girls should be wearing. That a uniform would be wrong, because it suggests a type of story that “The Queen’s Gambit” isn’t necessarily telling but that to have all the children dressed in whatever they arrived at the orphanage in would be visually distracting.
Her solution was elegant and she added her own narrative reasoning to boot. Instead of crafting a uniform, Binder and her team created four dark-colored dresses, that were similar but not identical. The result became a group of girls that looked of apiece but not so much so that they were interchangeable.
“The idea behind for is that a lady from the orphanage, she goes once a year to buy a like 30 new clothes, always the same and always the cheapest every year. So they have this stock of clothes like this and they work. Scott, he liked this idea and we tried it out and it worked.”
A tiny triumph of costume puzzle-solving and a testament to how getting the little things right serve an overall aesthetic atmosphere that suffuses “The Queen’s Gambit.”