‘Do you prefer “fashion victim” or “ensemble-y challenged”?’ Josie Sampson, creator of Film Reel Fashion examines the legacy of Mona May’s costume design for Clueless (1995, directed by Amy Heckerling).
When Clueless arrived onto screens in the mid-1990s, it ensured Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz became an overnight sensation. Teenage girls identified with Cher’s heartbreak and social worries, simultaneously envying her revolving wardrobe and online outfit chooser. Loosely based on the plot of Jane Austen’s Emma, this is a High School film at its finest. Set in sunny Beverly Hills with a free rein of Daddy’s credit card, the fashion is of utmost importance and communal acceptance. These are girls on the precipice of adulthood, their levels of sophistication undeveloped and gaudy. Inwardly, they are desperate to be taken seriously and their garishly matched designer uniforms are their outward attempts at this.
Cher is the most popular girl in school, surrounding herself with the social elite in one of the most affluent cities in the world. Her style is ‘rich girl prep’ and her signature patterned mini-skirts, knee high socks and patent miniature backpacks became emulated by girls the world over. The look is all about tasteless colour and texture, with Crayola brights adorning the pleats and pinstripe patterns. When more is more, accessories are bountiful; the tackier the better. The girls are drowning in faux-fur handbags, feather-trimmed coats and velvet headbands, with Cher’s best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash) exhibiting a penchant for flamboyant hats.
The first time we meet Cher, she is decisively picking out her outfit for another day of school. Settling on a mustard yellow checked jacket complete with matching pleated skirt and white knee high socks, she exemplifies the student body’s tasteless attempts at sophistication. We are next introduced to Dionne who is wearing a carbon copy of Cher’s outfit, albeit in an eye wateringly clashing palette of red, white and black. Instead of being horrified at the ultimate fashion faux pas of wearing the same ensemble, the girls are smugly delighted to be as equally stylish as one another. After all, this is a place where berets appear to be not only socially acceptable, but actually fashion forward.
In Cher’s world, appearance is the defining factor on which your successes in life depend. She is a lover of style over substance, often misusing or mispronouncing cultural references in an attempt to appear worldly. Indeed her later love interest, Josh, sarcastically remarks that her only direction in life is “towards the mall”. On the morning of her driving test, instead of practicing procedures or revising vital knowledge, Cher is seen tearing the house upside down in search of a particular crisp white collared Fred Seagul shirt, considering it to be her “most responsible looking ensemble”. She believes that by presenting herself in an immaculate and well put together outfit, she will project an image of herself as someone deserving of a driving licence, disregarding the need for any actual skills.
Similarly, when faced with the prospect of the first evening date with her object of desire Christian (Justin Walker), Cher is completely engrossed in the potential aesthetics. Outfit choices, lighting concepts and makeup are all carefully designed to showcase her to her very best. Any prospective personality or conversational factors do not enter her dating periphery. She settles on a vampish red dress, traditionally the colour of love and lust. In contrast, its skater style flair and Cher’s sweetly pinned backed hair are young and childlike, suggesting again the idea of an adolescent girl desperately trying to break into the adult world. It is interesting to note here her use of the phrase “costume decisions” when deciding on which outfit to wear. Akin to a little girl playing “dress up” in her mother’s clothes, the phrase emphasises the way that Cher sees her life status as a role she chooses to play, her clothes acting as the appropriate costume.
The sense that Cher is hovering on the fringes between socially-aware teen and beautiful young adult is showcased no better than the moment she descends down a staircase clad in a simple Calvin Klein slip dress. Its white colour connotes purity and virginal innocence, juxtaposing against its tight fit that displays her unmistakably womanly body. It is an obvious departure from the garish plaids and double denim we have become accustomed to seeing on Cher by this point and it is here that future love interest Josh (Paul Rudd) sees her as an object of adult lust for the first time. The dress represents such an iconic moment in the film that Calvin Klein re-released a run of the exact style and cut in 2010 to honour the fifteenth anniversary of the film’s release. This act demonstrates the full extent with which Clueless impacted on real fashion trends; girls wanting to emulate that little bit of Beverley Hills chic, even fifteen years later.
The name checking of designers such as Calvin Klein adds further to the fantasy element of Cher’s privileged life. In one memorable scene, she pleads with a mugger not to force her to the ground in her expensive Azzedine Alaïa dress. Begging that “It’s an Alaïa”, the mugger is momentarily dumfounded, responding, “An A-what-a?”. She reasons that “it’s, like, a totally important designer” and worthy of risking her life for. Previously, this was a name unfamiliar to the standard teenage population, making it instantly desirable in its unobtainability. With this, Clueless ushered in a generation of designer name lovers.
When new girl Tai, a then relatively unknown Brittany Murphy, arrives on the scene she is quickly shunned for her Nirvana-grunge appearance, despite being probably the most realistic portrayal of how teens dressed at the time of the film’s release. The camera lingers, mimicking the disapproving stares her new fellow classmates are throwing her way. She is clad in an oversized flannel shirt and baggy corduroy trousers, with a huge bag filled with school books slung on her back. Her comfortably flat shoes are almost hidden from view. This is in instant contrast with Cher’s statement Mary-Jane heels, which often enjoy a starring shot all of their own. The contrast is so extreme that it is Tai who looks wrong and costumed, while the other clownishly dressed students around her are the ones that appear acceptable. Indeed, one of her fellow students cruelly remarks that “she could be a farmer in those clothes”.
It is up to Cher and Dionne to transform Tai, basking haughtily in their sense of self worth. The process begins with a shot of Tai’s red hair dye being washed down the plughole. Perhaps alluding to the first arrival of the menstrual cycle, the shot signifies that, like Cher and the others, she is now embarking on her road to becoming a woman by learning how to dress. Tai emerges from the makeover another Beverly Hills clone and spends the rest of the film clad in preppy shift dresses and oxford collars.
Interestingly, as the film reaches its climax and Cher and co. realise their superficial wrongdoings, Tai loosens her Clueless makeover and somewhat reverts to her true self, albeit retaining some of Cher’s unmistakeable fashion sense. This is comparable to real life girls whose style is often unconsciously influenced by their friendships, an idea that makes Tai and Cher more humanly accessible right at the point of their self discovery.
The west coast preppy flair delves us into a world of pure fantasy, far removed from the grunge style of its 1995 release. As a result, Clueless provided a fashion revelation, with girls everywhere longing to shop on Rodeo Drive. In the words of Cher, they would strive for “courageous fashion efforts” and work to makeover their wardrobes. Hopefully, like Cher, they were also inspired to makeover their souls in the process.
By Josie Sampson. Do visit her blog Film Reel Fashion.
You can watch Alicia Silverstone in Clueless at LOVEFiLM.com.
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