‘Clueless’ Turns 18 Tomorrow! We Interviewed Costume Designer Mona May

Costume designer Mona May’s sketch of Cher and Dionne’s outfits in ’Clueless.’
Photo: Courtesy of Mona May

The 1990s may be known as the grunge era, but in 1995, something cataclysmic happened in the world of cinema to change all that. Um, hello? We’re totally talking about Clueless, aka one of the best teen movies of ALL TIME. It became a fashion phenomenon and catapulted star Alicia Silverstone, who plays Beverly Hills high schooler Cher, into superstar status. She singlehandedly stomped all over bland flannel and baggy jeans with super feminine, thigh-high, plaid mini-skirted abandon along with her best friend Dionne. Together, they wore matching outfits that were fresh off the runways and tailored to fit their personalities—such as Cher’s to-DIE white Calvin Klein dress that is still relevant today—and spread their sartorial prowess to Tai (played by the forever-missed Brittany Murphy, RIP), the grunge-y new girl who gets a hilariously killer makeover.

What’s so awesome about Clueless, other than writer/director Amy Heckerling’s genius script (which brought “whatever” into our collective lexicon), is that it stands the test of time. If you look at the world of fashion today, you can see bits of Clueless all over the 1990s-influenced landscape. And who still doesn’t want that gah-mazing computer-generated revolving closet (which is totally a real thing now BTW)? To celebrate Clueless’s 18th birthday tomorrow (yes, we’re early ’cause we’re THAT excited), we spoke to the film’s costume designer Mona May, who gave us all the behind-the-scenes wardrobe deets including what it was like working with the young, unknown cast, and why girls today continue to love this film. But I mean, who wouldn’t love Clueless? As IF.

Dionne (Stacey Dash) and Cher (Alicia Silverstone) in ’Clueless.’
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

MTV STYLE: How did you and Amy Heckerling start working together?

MONA MAY: We did a pilot about two party girls in New York, and we worked really well together. She liked my fashion sense and European point of view, so when she wrote Clueless, she called me. She wanted to do something super hyper girly and wanted it to be very high fashion. At the time, what was happening in fashion was grunge.

Which was the opposite of girly.

We went into high schools scouting and everything was jeans and plaid shirts—oversize stuff. There was not much out there that was very girly. We were blazing through unchartered territory! Amy wanted it to be feminine to the point of using shoes like mary janes, nothing inappropriate. We wanted everything to work with the age group [and be] fun, cute and silly… very positive. Also, the color palette was bright, and everything we did was purposeful. I looked at European runways to translate the high fashion into the script and set it with young girls [instead of] models.

Which designers at the time inspired you?

Jean Paul Gaultier, [Azzedine] Alaia. I grew up in Europe and lived in London, so street fashion is really important to me. I took from the trends, picking and choosing from that moment in fashion. But I didn’t want to date the movie with certain trends, which was easy to do in the ’80s and ’90s. We wanted to make it timeless, and it really stood the test of time. I can watch Clueless now and there’s still stuff we can wear.

Tai (Brittany Murphy), Cher (Alicia Silverstone) and Dionne (Stacey Dash) in ’Clueless.’
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

You inadvertently kicked off the knee high and thigh high trends of the time, but there was also a sixties feel to the short skirts and low-heeled shoes Cher and Dionne wore. Did you want to reference the past?

I like to use references from the past, iconic looks like Sophia Loren sexiness and 1960s go go boots, which are always good no matter what era you put them in. Mini skirts from the ’70s, plaids, the Bonnie and Clyde look with little sweaters, and the 1960s sweater sets that we put Cher in. These [are] timeless, iconic pieces that live forever that we see our mother wear and then we wear can be reinterpreted over and over. It’s [about] using the past in the best way possible.

What inspired the costumes for Cher and Dionne specifically?

The script was the inspiration, the characters that Amy created on the page that we wanted to make alive with fashion, lingo, and how they moved.

Cher (Alicia Silverstone) in ’Clueless.’
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

What was it like working with Alicia Silverstone?

It was interesting when we were fitting Alicia. She was so young at the time she didn’t know how to wear the clothes or how to move in them. So it was almost creating her from ground up.

Did she or any of the other actors have any input?

Stacey Dash (Dionne) was a little older, and she already knew what her body looked good in, so there were more conversations. Alicia has 60 changes, and Stacey I think 50. But for the fashion victim [Tai played by Brittany Murphy], we just had fun with it.

Tai (Brittany Murphy), Cher (Alicia Silverstone) and Dionne (Stacey Dash) in ’Clueless.’
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

I loved Tai and her skater-grunge look!

It was very intentional. It’s always a fine line with fashion and comedy how far you go. How grungy do we make her and then how pretty do we make her in the end? You don’t want to overdo it so it doesn’t seem realistic, so we stayed grounded with her. The boys were really fun, too, because they were game to wear anything. Like Alicia, they didn’t know how to wear the clothes and were used to baggy things. Everyone was 18, but they never really shopped in Beverly Hills or knew how to wear these expensive clothes, so each time we had a fitting, we wanted to make it feel like it was them. For Dionne’s boyfriend (Murray, played by Donald Faison), we wanted to take it to another level with color. It was very ’90s with oversized tennis shoes, and the pants and sweater matched so it was all color coordinated. We were creative, playful, and always referring to the script. It had to feel right—hip and youthful.

Did you think teens at the time would want to recreate the looks?

No! It was my first big studio feature, and it was pure, innocent creation. I love fashion and got into costume designing by chance. I was doing my two loves, fashion and film, at the same time. It was super exciting. This was the first chick flick, in a sense, and what happened with the trends I never expected.

I feel like so many of the clothes are coming back and can be worn today. Have you ever seen a Clueless look out on the streets?

Absolutely! People send me stuff constantly when they see references to Clueless. There’s a line in LA, Wildfox, and they recently did a whole campaign that was Clueless. I thought it was really fun. It’s a compliment that the movie and the clothes inspire them so many years later. To have the ’90s fashion resurgence now is phenomenal! It’s wild that it’s coming back around and the kids are loving it.

Tai (Brittany Murphy), Summer (Nicole Bilderback), Amber (Elisa Donovan) and Dionne (Stacey Dash) in ’Clueless.’
Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

What do you think has changed most about girls at the time of Clueless and now?

I think the girls in the film have a sweet innocence. I’m glad to see girls on the street that emulate that. It’s evolved to where you can be feminine and sweet and still strong and passionate as artists and working women. I see a lot of fashion out there that’s not made for our bodies. We go to movies and watch fashion, and who can wear this? Going back to Clueless, it’s stuff that fits girls right. Everything is proportionate. We used high fashion, yes, but I also shopped at thrift stores. It’s all in proportion, and that really makes a difference. In our own lives too, it really has to fit you.

Like us on Facebook so we can be friends and follow us on Twitter @MTVstyle to talk.