Sometimes a movie comes along that leaves such an impact that it leaves its fingerprints not only on entertainment but on popular culture, language, and even fashion for years to come. Clueless is one such film. Released on July 19, 1995 the Amy Heckerling-directed film in many ways redefined the teen movie genre, helped launch both Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd to stardom, and spawned a legitimate franchise, including a spin-off television series, books, comic books, and even a stage musical not to mention left an enduring mark on American slang -- who hasn't said "as if!" in true Cher Horowitz style?
But for all of that it's the actual style of Clueless that may be its most significant legacy. In 1995, grunge was the dominant street style, a world of denim and flannel that was both practical and comfortable, but not exactly high fashion while high fashion was itself something held a bit on a pedestal and the idea of mixing elements from the everyday with the elite -- in fashion terms -- was unheard of. Yet, Clueless did just that with a number of iconic outfits that not only brought the film's characters to life but redefined how people dressed and continue to approach the ideas of fashion and style even a quarter century later. And for that there's one woman to thank: costume designer Mona May.
Ahead of the release of the 25th anniversary Blu-ray and Limited Edition Blu-ray Steelbook of Clueless on July 21st, ComicBook.com had the opportunity to sit down with May to talk about the film, how she developed the film's iconic looks, the enduring impact the film and its fashion has had on popular culture, how the idea of mixing low and high-brow fashion completely changed style, and about might be the film's most lasting gift: how the film's fashion continues to help young women feel good about and express themselves through style.
"I love hearing things, because this is kind of... that makes me so happy to this day that it had this effect, this transformative effect on so many women, and that it was just inspired so many girls to just feel good about themselves and be girly and feminine and pretty, kind of belief who they are and bring that sense to their styles out," May said while talking about the impact of the film's fashion. "It was really something so new, I think, when the movie came out. Everything beforehand when we went scouting with Amy Heckerling, the director, it was all grunge. We went to high school in LA, and it was dismal."
The idea of physically going out to scout and get a sense of what people were wearing at the time is an important element to note because, in 1995 the internet wasn't what it is today. To find out how people dressed and what the real-life, on-the-ground trends really were required boots on the ground and physical work, something that May explained was a huge challenge especially with how Heckerling envisioned things with a fresh, European-style flair consistent with what a wealthy young fashionista like Cher might choose for herself.
"Oh, my God. You know, it was quite intense, I have to tell you. In the movie process, you meet the director," May said. "I met Amy Heckerling on the [television pilot] actually prior to Clueless. We fell in love with each other creatively. She was a fashionista, and I studied fashion before I came to do costume design, so that was my first love, fashion, and then costume design. When she wrote Clueless, she called me and said, 'You're the girl, because I really want this to have kind of a very European, fresh look. I don't want it to be what's in the stores now. I don't want it to what all the kids are wearing. This is about a girl that's shopping in Paris and going to couture shows.'”prevnext
May continued, "It was huge challenge not having a click away Style.com. I had to get the old books, collections to see what's on the runways, really kind of do the research like you said, on the street, like see what's going on abroad, because they usually are six months ahead. Also, what was really interesting, too, Amy wanted to make sure that this movie is very youthful. It's like taking this high fashion but then translating it into the world of the teenagers in Beverly Hills. Everything that I was able to look at from the runways, I still had to cipher through their point of view, who they are, because she didn't want like runway models running around with high heels and ultra-sexy adult women. They were kids. They were still young girls."
Preserving the youthfulness of the characters, style-wise was also a challenge as it was important to keep the characters real enough that the audience could see themselves in them.
"It was a very interesting challenge on a lot of levels, how to really not only bring the fashion from the future into the film to create something completely new, innovative, that hasn't been seen, and create this world that's very authentic. The girls had to feel like real girls. You wanted to believe in them and who they are so they could be beloved and emulated," she said.prevnext
The film also had the challenge of incorporating expensive, high-end style on a budget, something that was especially challenging given that Clueless wasn't exactly a film with a mega budget or the connections to get major designer items.
"It was a very interesting process, because also at the time, we didn't have PR machine where it was like everybody's sending you clothes and everything's for free," May explained. "That wasn't really in place at the time. Also, it was a small movie. Alicia was an ingenue. She was not a big movie star she is now. There was not really a way to even get clothes, because I didn't have the names."
Despite this, May revealed that she "turned the world" in order to acquire an Alaia dress that became a major part of one of the film's most iconic scenes -- and introduced the designer to a whole new audience of fashion lovers.
"I get you there, girl, because even for my budget, I didn't really have the money to buy a lot of designers, and the Alaia dress was so beautiful, and it was such an appropriate dress for the Christmas party that when I saw it, I actually turned the world to contact Alaia's people and actually get the dress, because there was no way that I could pay for it from my budget," May said. "I spent some money on the Dolce & Gabbana suits and a couple other things throughout the film, but I really, truly didn't have the budget, so it was such a great collaboration at the time, very kind of fresh, for him to allow us to use the dress, even though I was like 'okay, I just want to tell you that she's going to be on the ground in the dress.'"prevnext
"I think to this day, so many people around the world learned his name not only from the couture through Paris circles but really worldwide, like you say. ‘I heard who Alaia is, and I just got obsessed,’ which is so cool."
Outside of the budgetary restrictions, May explained that there were other challenges in dressing the film: fashion cycle, trying to locate items that, and mixing what was available with more aspirational pieces.
"The film doesn't come out until year later, six months to eight months later, so there is so many challenges for me with this film. Finding really the balance of the high end and finding in the store something that doesn't exist, that's on the runways, but I have to find it, physically find it."
And finding things? Again, in an age before the internet, that wasn't as easy as it might seem. Shopping options were frequently limited, especially for audience who might try to emulate the film’s style, to a handful of stores or the local mall.
"Oh, my God, or just even the mall. Just the mall. What was, I think, very interesting and fresh, and I actually really love that you're a little older and have a different perspective, because some writers, I talk to them, they're 25, so I think your perspective is very unique to really understand how difficult it was, because it was even for you to find the things that you liked," she said.prevnext
May continued, "I love that you have that perspective, understanding it, because movie making is very interesting. The film doesn't come out until year later, six months to eight months later, so there is so many challenges for me with this film. Finding really the balance of the high end and finding in the store something that doesn't exist, that's on the runways, but I have to find it, physically find it. The fresh part of this film, I think, that was unique and also very inspiring to girls like was that that was the first time somebody mixed high and low fashion."
"Now, it's du jour. Everybody wears the Balenciaga with their flip flops and their ripped jeans and stuff, but at the time, that was not done," she explained. "It was high fashion. You dressed really in let's say Versace, or you went to the mall, or you were a thrift store person, or you were a grunge person. There was not really much crossover of this world. It really truly was kind of mother of invention for me and stylistically choice to bring these things together."
A specific example of this is Stacey Dash's Dionne whose wardrobe brought together lots of disparate elements for her polished and unforgettable looks.
"You had specifically, I think, a lot of Dionne's outfits were very mixed," May recalled. "She had kind of a vinyl skirt from Melrose and she had Dolce Gabbana shirt or something designer, and then she would have the vintage purses. She had a lot of vintage purses from thrift stores that we found. It was really interesting to be able to kind of create that and something I think that really caught on and created that freshness onscreen."prevnext
While Dionne's looks stand out, don't ask May to pick a favorite. She explained that Silverstone's Cher had 60 outfit changes, Dash's Dionne had 45, and there were many, many others in the film to dress as well -- including the male characters. While a lot of the discussion of Clueless' fashion centers around its female characters, May also dressed the boys, too, but she said the process for styling them was exactly the same.
"The same exact because I think... I'm a costume designer, so what I look at, I look at the script, I look who they are on the page, I have a conversation with the director. 'What do these people, who they are?' Also, what the director wants their essence to be that we're going to show on the screen," May explained. "Really, this is kind of my information that I take, and then I take the right clothes for each of the actors that also you have to consider their build and size and skin tone and all this stuff, and really, you bring all of that information into the fitting. In a fitting, really, this is where the magic happens. This is when really we're finding the characters, because you can kind of do a lot of stuff on the page and the collages and do all of that, but truly not in a fitting you're really finding out who it is with the actors putting the clothes on and kind of embodying them and finding the characters."prevnext
May continued, "This could be too much, or this could be not enough, or the color choices, or maybe in the girls' cases, the length of the skirt is not right, and you really have to find what that is. I think the process is very much similar to male and female characters, because it's really a kind of excavation of who this person is and then color palette and all that stuff."
"For example, on Josh, he's kind of quintessential guy that goes to university. You see those guys now with the plaid shirts and there's jeans. We tried to give him a little bit more like activist, too. One of the T-shirts was like for a woman's breast cancer awareness. There was another T-shirt, it was kind of a cool club, like a bar in Austin, Texas, so just kind of giving him a little bit of character," she said. "He is a little bit opposite of Cher, too. He doesn't care about his clothes. He's just a regular Joe."
Balancing the looks of the male and female characters was something that May explained was an important part of the process as well.
"Any time you're pairing male and female characters, you want to make sure that they go together," May explained. "Same with like Murray. He had to look, even though he was kind of a hip hop a little bit with his Kangol hat, but it was always a color. It was always something there that when he was with Dionne, they looked great together because Dionne wouldn't go out with a guy that doesn't have any sense of fashion. Of course."prevnext
All of May's attention to detail in terms of putting together the style of Clueless not only resulted in a visually fresh and fun film but has also left major impact on offscreen style as well. The yellow plaid suit Cher wears in the opening of the film not only was a bona fide trend after the film came out with young women creating their own copycat looks (yours truly included), but the idea of mixing designer and popular fashion as well as developing a sense of self through style is something that caught on and continues today. It's a legacy not lost on the May.
"To me, it comes, everything kind of from my soul. I was brought up all over the world. I lived in India and Poland and Germany. Berlin, I call home as well as Los Angeles, New York. I think that I really had kind of more of a global point of view of things at the time when nobody really talked that way. Somehow, it's just who I am. I feel like in all my movies, I kind of bring something very fresh and very girlie.," she said. "To me, what's important is how can I lift people up? How can I bring something... it's not just fashion, but it's just kind of the fun of dressing, the fun of being a girl, the fun of really kind of expressing yourself in a way. That's what my motivation comes from, really, truly, for creating. To know that that, through my preceding of fashion and my spin on it, I was able to influence."
"It's quite incredible. I don't even know what the feeling is. It's exuberance. It's just proud of myself. It's really feeling extremely lucky, too, that I got the chance to express myself, my art in that way, that I got even asked to do the movie and then able to express that on the film screen. It's incredible," she continued.prevnext
But for May, there's another revolutionary element of the style of Clueless that really stands out: its impact on young Black women by showing a Black female character -- Dionne -- dressed in designer clothing.
"It's kind of like it's to be an innovator, to inspire life's purpose for people, I'm having fun. Hearing your story and so many women that come to me, how transforming that is and how it gave them a sense of style. I even hear a lot from African American girls. At the time, there was never really anybody African American dressed in designer clothes," May explained. "I meet girls all the time, a shop girl or someone I meet, and they're like 'this was incredible. This was, to me, changed everything, that I can dress like this, that this is who I can emulate.' I think that's also Amy being such an incredibly creative director and writer to have this kind of forward vision, too, for that."0comments
"I really feel that there was really no looking back from that," May said of Clueless' overall impact. "I think all the spin-offs and all the chick flicks and Legally Blonde and Mean Girls, it was really kind of post-Clueless. Beautifully done, but it was really kind of follow up to that. We were really first, first."
The 25th anniversary Blu-ray and a Limited Edition Blu-ray Steelbook of Clueless will both be available on July 21st.prev
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