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Clueless costume designer on Cher’s yellow suit: It was so important to choose the first look

Costume designer Mona May explains why the ‘Clueless’ clothes have had so much staying power.

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Sandy’s sultry black jumpsuit in Grease, Lloyd Dobler’s classic beige trench coat from Say Anything, Sloane Peterson’s cool white leather fringe jacket in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Napoleon Dynamite’s fun and effective “Vote For Pedro” t-shirt in Napoleon Dynamite are just a few of many sartorial choices that reign supreme in the pantheon of memorable costumes from high school films.

But you simply can’t talk about teen films and their clothes without mentioning Cher Horowitz’s (Alicia Silverstone) plaid, yellow suit in Clueless.

“It was so important to choose the first look,” says costume designer Mona May of Cher’s back-to-school garb, complemented by a similar but more eccentric outfit for BFF Dionne (Stacey Dash). “It’s like taking the uniform and twisting it. What would Cher do with a Catholic school girl uniform? Take it to another level: Let’s make it a Dolce & Gabbana yellow suit with over-the-knee stockings and matching Mary Janes and the furry backpack and, of course, beautiful hair.”

The intention with the yellow — a far cry from the dark, grunge fashions that were popular at the time of filming — was for Cher to stand out. “We wanted to make sure that she popped because she’s going to be in the quad with a lot of green around her, a lot of other kids,” May explains. “We tried different colors. Red was great but too much for her; blue was very pretty but didn’t pop. Then, finally, when I brought the yellow suit to the fitting, it just was magic. She put it on and it was ‘Bam!’ It was the right tone, it was the right fun.”

“She just beamed, and the way that she even walked in it, the way she even felt in it,” May adds. “It was completely Cher. It made Cher. [Alicia] was like, ‘This is it. I’m her.’”

Cher’s yellow suit is, of course, just one of the film’s memorable costumes. “Fashion, you could say, is a character in this film,” explains May, a testament to the importance of clothes in director Amy Heckerling’s high school hit. Think to Christian’s (Justin Walker) modernized “Rat Pack” style or Tai’s (Brittany Murphy) party overalls or, well, everything in Amber’s (Elisa Donovan) closet because it’s all just so out there. 

Twenty years after its release, Clueless has remained at the forefront of pop-culture (chatter of the real-life possibility of a styling computer program like Cher’s, Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” music video, and now, anniversary reminiscing and re-watching). May has some theories on the reasons behind the continued relevance of the costumes in particular:

—Timeless Styles: “I think that the clothes are timeless because they are reaching into the past,” May says, giving over-the-knee stockings, plaid skirts, pea coats, berets, and headbands, among others, as examples. She also pointed to an A-line leather skirt and white sheer blouse combo of Cher’s, noting that something very similar is selling at Barneys right now. “It’s the beauty of the classic shapes, and I think also a staying power.” May, however, is resistant to calling the Clueless style classic altogether, fearing that it might imply boring — it’s also feminine and flirty, youthful and fun.

—Perfect Fits: The clothes in Clueless look good because they fit well, which May describes as being somewhat of a lost art. “The film really reminds you how important it is for clothes to fit well even if you buy something for 99 cents, which we did, and then we got something expensive,” May says, adding much of the costumes in the film mixed high and low, and that nowadays a lot of clothing is mass produced and ill fitting as a result. “Everything was tailored, everything looked good on their body.” Cher’s Alaia (pictured above), for example, is memorable in effect because it’s cute, because of its famous line, AND because it’s tailored to its wearer.

—Real Girls: At the end of the day, Clueless is about a few real girls navigating fashion, high school, friendships, romantic interests … and fashion. “We were just doing our thing, doing our movie, creating these amazing characters, the young girls,” she says. “Part of the staying power too I think is because they’re real girls.” Cher and Dionne may not have fit into the grunge style that was popular at the time, but their interpretations of what was on runways were fun (Amber’s pink tutu … how cute!) and age appropriate (think Mary Janes in lieu of stilettos). “For Amy and I, what was really important and I think spoke to the staying power of the film was it being pretty, girly, feminine, innocent.” 

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