Town Talk Features

Chess + Fashion

In the early 20th century, chess was a game you dressed up for. Men were suave in suits; women looked chic in the fashions of the day. But that tradition has fallen by the wayside, and the sport—considered to be one of the world’s oldest—has become a far more casual affair.

However, with the help of the World Chess Hall of Fame (WCHOF) and the inaugural class of the Saint Louis Fashion Incubator (SLFI), that is about to change. During the past year, six SLFI designers have paired with chess grandmasters to come up with the world’s first chess uniform. Steeping themselves in the game and its history (in one case, even learning how to play), each designer produced two chess-inspired outfits—one practical, the other a whimsical, out-of-the-box piece meant more to showcase the designer’s talents than for the rigors of hours studying a chessboard. The contest is called Pinned! A Designer Chess Challenge, and one winner will receive a $10,000 cash scholarship.

“I’ve always been so interested in how designers have used chess in their work and in their shows,” says Susan Sherman, board chair of Saint Louis Fashion Fund (SLFF), the nonprofit that supports the Incubator. “And the interconnection of chess and fashion is not new to this city.” Sherman refers to the Chess Hall of Fame’s 2013 exhibit, ‘A Queen Within,’ which was inspired in part by the queen chess piece. Shannon Bailey, WCHOF’s chief curator, agrees that St. Louis is uniquely positioned to celebrate the intersection of these two worlds, considering the parallels between the Fashion Fund and the Hall of Fame. “Both nonprofits are doing very interesting things and attracting global attention,” she says. “We are thrilled to help the Saint Louis Fashion Fund rebuild what was once a booming industry in our city.”

But what, exactly, are the specs for a chess uniform? What might be considered ‘fitting attire’ for a sport played sitting down, in silence and with minimal movement? “When you are sitting for three or four hours, comfort is an issue,” Sherman says. “And because chess players often perspire due to the game’s intensity, breathable fabric is important, too.” One designer—St. Louis’ own Emily Brady Koplar of the Wai Ming line—has incorporated padded sleeves into her design, a practical nod to forearms perched on tables.

Bailey says it’s high time chess had its own uniform, and speaks emphatically to the game’s classification as a ‘sport,’ noting that top-level players often report feeling physically exhausted after a tournament. And when Bobby Fischer was preparing for the 1972 World Chess Championship, she says he employed a physical trainer. “With this competition, we’re hoping to break down the chess stereotype,” Bailey says. “We want to show its chic, hip side.”

Doing her part to bring haute elegance to the Pinned! challenge is handbag designer Allison Mitchell. Mitchell partnered with Grandmaster Fabiano Caruana and—inspired by a tortoiseshell chess set—created a bag from a red snapping turtle shell. “It’s a ‘hero piece’ … not really sellable. But it has a raw, sauvage aesthetic and a lot of style,” Mitchell says.

The winning design will be revealed Aug. 1 at Windows on Washington, adjacent to the new Saint Louis Fashion Incubator in St. Louis’ historic Garment District. A Pinned! exhibition opens at the Chess Hall of Fame Oct. 5 and will consist of six unique ‘boutiques’ branded for each designer participating in the challenge. Each boutique will contain the drawings, sketches and chess designs, as well as some of the designers’ original pieces from their lines, open for public viewing.

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