For a game based on the strict caste system of feudalism, chess is surprisingly democratic. Though popular with the mathematically inclined, artists also have an affinity for chess. The chessboard manifests the art of strategy.
Chess provides beauty that even nonplayers appreciate.
That beauty will be central to the World Chess Hall of Fame’s upcoming exhibit showcasing an array of fashion by top internationally recognized designers.
The exhibition titled “A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes, Fashion & Chess” will also present a series of events and educational programs aimed at getting more women to play and benefit from chess.
Chessmaster Jennifer Shahade, author of “Play Like a Girl” and “Chess Bitch,” will participate in multiple events and workshops for girls and women during the exhibition.
“I really think learning chess is great for adults,” but it can be difficult to master later in life, Shahade said. “It can be like learning a language.”
But she said that adults excel at appreciating chess on “an aesthetic level. They tend to appreciate it on a majestic level.”
“Adults get more excited about how the pieces move. They have a better feel for how the pieces should harmonize and where to position the pieces than children do, especially people who appreciate art. It’s like music, an appreciation for chess can really enrich their lives.”
And though at first blush, fashion and chess seem disparate, the thesis of the exhibit will probably change your mind.
It’s not the first time the World Chess Hall of Fame has featured clothing on its exhibition floor, but this ambitious presentation seeks to rival the top-tier conceptual offering of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
And as if to put an exclamation mark on that statement, the World Chess Hall of Fame and a group of St. Louis supporters hosted a preview of the exhibition at Christie’s New York on June 4. It was attended by 400 guests, including a bevy of New York press who have been singing their praises about the novelty, creativity and aspirations of the exhibit being curated by Sofia Hedman, who helped catalog “Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty,” the blockbuster exhibition at the Met in 2011.
The full exhibition of “A Queen Within” will open at the World Chess Hall of Fame on Oct. 19. Select pieces will later be auctioned off by Christie’s when the show closes next year.
QUEEN BY ANOTHER NAME
The exhibit will revolve around nine queen archetypes based on Carl Jung’s theory: mother figure, heroine, magician, sage, enchantress, explorer, ruler, Mother Earth and orphan. The story of each persona will be told through examples of fashion, photography, film and art.
Jung’s theory was perfect for the exhibition because nine is the total number of queens that a player can technically possess at once if all eight pawns are elevated to queen status.
Another democratic and poetic element of chess is that a lowly pawn can be elevated to queen, which is considered the most powerful piece in the game. Despite reflecting a rigid social hierarchy of a royal caste, the queen is the most liberated chess piece. She can move and capture, traveling the length of the board in any direction.
“The queen gets to break the rules,” said Susan Barrett, the director of the World Chess Hall of Fame at one of the many presentations she’s been giving about the exhibition and its nearly sold-out gala.
Sure, the game is over when someone captures the king, but the queen is the heart of the game, Barret said. “She’s powerful. She’s fabulous.”
Those attributes are surely what many designers attempt to present when they subtly or explicitly use iconic queenly imagery within their work, or at least that’s what “A Queen Within” explores.
Highlights of the exhibition will include an Alexander McQueen cocktail dress emblazoned with an image of muse and provocateur Isabella Blow; Hussein Chalayan’s iconic bubble dress from Spring 2007; Maison Martin Margiela’s Spring 2001 vest made entirely from baseball gloves; and Iris van Herpen’s snake dress from her Capriole haute couture collection.
Select works from famed photographer Anne Deniau’s recent book, “Love Looks Not With the Eyes,” which contains more than 400 never-before-seen photos of Alexander McQueen shot during his working process and fashion shows, will be highlighted in conjunction with an exhibition at Phillip Slein Gallery.
“A Queen Within” plans to explores the relationship of power, risk-taking and the queen’s inherent femininity.
So it was not without irony that the exhibition committee took note that despite the value and dominance of this prized female game piece, the ranks of female chess players are relatively few.
GIRLS NOT INSPIRED BY QUEENS
Surveys suggest that girls and boys start playing chess in equal numbers as young children but that something happens around the age of 11.
“We have started chess classes, and lo and behold there’s not one lady in that room,” said Mary Beth McGivern, head of Metro East Montessori School. “It just boggled my mind. It sort of got me upset. It’s a magnificent mind game, and I want them in there.”
She suspected that some girls were intimidated.
Peggy Meyer, principal of Woerner Elementary in St. Louis, explained that the school has had a chess program for a few years, but it wasn’t until it adopted single-gender classes that the girls started playing.
“They love it. I haven’t heard one complaint,” said Meyer. “Now I’m wondering if not having the boys in class really made that much of a difference. I never thought of it before.”
But, Meyer said, “We do know that more girls are likely to step up into leadership roles when boys are out of the equation.”
Meyer said that around fifth grade, the age of their chess program, “girls start to become young ladies and are a little bit more worried about their appearance and how girly they look. So it’s kind of a challenge to get them interested in something like chess … but if you pull boys out of the equation, it works.”
Shahade, who had the benefit of a chessmaster father, noted a Catch-22. The ranks of women playing chess are getting better, “but I think the deterrent is that more women don’t already play.”
“What’s funny is that those who do (play) tend to dress very feminine. I do. Maybe it’s because we are constantly surrounded by men and want to assert ourselves. It’s interesting.”
Sounds like something a queen would do.
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