The ‘90s classic is far more than a loose Jane Austen adaptation
While it may be based on Jane Austen’s Emma, a classic tale of matchmaking gone awry that feels as fresh and relevant now as it did 200 years ago, the true charm of ‘90s adaptation Clueless lies not in the story - but in the clothes. Transporting the action from English manor house to Beverly Hills mansion, while fashion plays an important part in all Austen’s novels (you can, after all, tell a lot about a person’s social standing from the quality of their muslins), clothes are practically a leading character in Clueless.
From Cher Horowitz’s (Alicia Silverstone) groundbreaking wardrobe computer to Dionne’s (Stacey Dash) power hats and All. The. Plaid., few films leave quite such a profound aesthetic impression as Clueless. In fact, so iconic have the Clueless costumes become that, 25 years on, they are still referenced regularly by high fashion designers and pop culture creators alike. Here’s everything you need to know about Clueless and its celebration of fashion…
The costume design
Costume designer Mona May may have since gone on to help create the aesthetic worlds of The Wedding Singer, Never Been Kissed and Enchanted but, in 1995, she was a little known costume designer not long graduated from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. It was a chance encounter with Clueless director Amy Heckerling the year earlier, in which May made a memorable impression with her eclectic sense of style obtained from growing up in India, Poland and the US, that landed her the gig.
“When Amy wrote Clueless, she said to me ‘You’re the girl for this because you have that fashion sense and this film IS about fashion’,” May told Tatler earlier this year. However, despite this mission statement, May’s costume budget wasn’t exactly huge. With just $200,000 to spend on 60 looks for Cher, 50 for Dionne, 40 for Tai (as well as costumes for every high school student seen sitting in a classroom or milling around in the background), the fashion in Clueless - rather than being the series of high fashion looks one would expect - were largely thrifted or created from scratch by May and her team.
This, however, only served to give May greater creative control over the look of the film. Coming out at a time when grunge was the dominant trend among teenagers, Clueless deliberately sought to create a teenage world that flew in the face of the nonchalance and androgyny of the grunge movement. The clothes in Clueless were bold, fun, aspirational, highly feminine - and meticulously planned.
The Valley party: A little red dress
Cher Horowitz would never opt for something quite so straightforward as a little black dress but, when May spotted a simple scarlet Alaia slip dress on a friend, she knew this was the right piece for the Valley party scene. However, with nowhere near enough budget to afford to buy the dress - and working with little known actors in a time when PRs loaning clothes had yet to become common practice - May and Heckerling had to beg, borrow and steal from anyone they knew connected to the brand to get hold of the dress. They were, of course, successful and so perfect did the pair deem the look to be that the famous “This is Alaia” line was added to the script as both a Cher-appropriate namedrop and a celebration of their achievement. Quite the coup, as it turned out, for a young Alaia who at the time had virtually no brand recognition in America.
The first date dress: A white slip
Unlike most of the costumes in the film, the dress worn in the first date scene is central to the plot so it was imperative that May find the perfect piece. Although described by Cher’s father as a ‘naked’ dress, many of the early options May tried were too tight or nude in an obvious way and, to May’s mind, simply didn’t fit Cher’s character.
Once again May turned to a design great - in this case Calvin Klein - for the perfect piece. Being matte and white, rather than skin tone, it is easy to see how it would read as underwear to Cher’s father while being an aspirational first date look to a teenage audience. Rendered in a classic ’90s slip shape, its feature in the film skyrocketed the dress' popularity and Calvin Klein rereleased it multiple times following the film.
Gym class: Co-ordinated customisation
Described by May as one of the trickier looks in the film, gym class is the only time in Clueless when the characters have to conform to any kind of school uniform. Of course, being Dionne and Cher, they would never wear the prescribed uniform as told. Cher’s take is classic ‘90s athleisure layering while Dionne’s is a tuxedo-inspired style. Neither would look out of place in a modern yoga studio and both are markedly more stylish than fashion victim Amber’s stripy look (who, after all, can forget the head to toe camo she opts for when heading to camp?). Another sign of Clueless’ ongoing influence on style? The chain phone and bottle holders May created for the gym scene have spawned many an imitator and are still being sold on sites like Asos and Etsy.
“It was very important the girls felt authentic. Even though Cher was a snooty rich girl, she still felt real,” May explained to Elle earlier this year. “I think that's part of the success of this film. People wanted to be the girls and wanted to emulate them.” And, 25 years on, this desire to embody the characters from Clueless is still very much in evidence.
As well as spawning a million Halloween costumes, all one need do is open TikTok to see every other Gen Z-er dressed in plaid skirts, spaghetti strap dresses and sheer tops perhaps unknowingly, given their age, emulating the very look May helped popularise. It helps, of course, that the Clueless aesthetic has been kept alive by a generation of designers and creatives who grew up with its influence. Alexander Wang, for example, famously cites it as his favourite film and regularly references its most famous looks in his collections while Iggy Azalea created a shot-for-shot copy of Clueless for the video to her 2014 hit Fancy.
And now with Clueless available to stream for a whole new generation of fans, we can’t see its influence going anywhere quickly. Snaps to that.