Clueless costume designer Mona May on immortalizing plaid sets

Published March 19, 2018

IMAGE COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT PICTURES

Clothes on Film is a series in which we explore iconic looks from film and television that have stayed in our minds years after they first hit the silver screen. 

Clueless [1995] is memorable for many reasons. There are the zingy one-liners: “As if!,” “You’re just a virgin who can’t drive,” and “Oh my god, I am totally buggin’!’” There are the valley parties: over the hill keggers that perfectly encapsulate what it was like to go to high school at that time. And then there are the matching plaid sets and that unforgettable Alaïa dress. “You don’t understand, this is an Alaïa!

The modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma [1815] celebrates being true to yourself and the lasting power of female friendships, which is none too easy while navigating high school. Though it certainly helps to be Cher Horowitz, armed with a killer virtual wardrobe. We asked the film’s costume designer Mona May to explain how some of film’s most-loved outfits were conceptualized and how rotating closets were invented.

MONA MAY: When we started working on Clueless there was pretty much just grunge everywhere. We went to some high school in L.A. and it was all very Kurt Cobain, with flannel shirts and baggy jeans. For the movie, it was really to bring back the feminine in Cher and Dionne. To bring back the fun, the girly. It was the ‘90s so there was no internet and I had to research everything with books. For the opening scene, we wanted Cher to stand out. We knew the front of the school was going to be green and she’d be walking among a lot of people and making comments about them. I looked at red and it didn’t seem right, blue was pretty, but not bold. And Cher is bold—she doesn’t have any excuses, she just goes for it. When we finally found the yellow, that was it. Amy Heckerling, the director, and I just knew. And then I complemented Dionne with black and white and red on her shirt and hat.

Even though it’s high fashion, the clothes suited girls in high school—we did the Mary Janes, the over-the-knee stockings. Stacey’s character sported shorter skirts and showed more skin than Cher because she was more involved in a sense. Cher was still very innocent. In the ‘90s there was no mixing of high and low. You either wore designers or you were a grunge girl. We did some high end designer pieces, some from thrift stores, and some mall clothes that mixed together with classic pieces like a peacoat, a beret, or an A-line dress. You look at it today and it still works. Amy is so into fashion, she gets it. The way the film is shot you see head-to-toe outfits and fuzzy backpacks. We worked it out with the director of photography so you could see the details of the fashion. And she had the idea for the rotating closet. She’s just a visionary.