Exclusive: BAZAAR’s Conversation with Clueless Costume Designer

Clueless is over twenty years old, and although that notion is shocking in our time-lapse, pop-culture world, it gives us cause to reflect on a film that remains eternally relevant—especially aesthetically. The woman behind the fashion, the great and powerful Oz of Clueless style, Mona May, is still as enthusiastic about Cher, Dionne and the rest of the Beverly Hills gang now as she was then. Here, the costume designer talks Alaia, high-low style, sourcing vintage and what life is like on the other side of creating of a fashion phenomenon.

Image: Everett Collection

 Harper’s BAZAAR (HB): Are you ever surprised at the staying power of this movie, especially the fashion?

Mona May (MM): I have to say I am surprised about the staying power overall, but I’m not surprised about the aesthetic in a sense. I feel like there’s something about my point of view that’s proven to be very timeless.

HB: What story did you want to tell through the clothing?

MM: As a costume designer, the first thing for me is to work with the director. I met Amy Heckerling and we did a pilot together, and we connected on such a great level that now it’s become a lifelong collaboration. We just loved each other so much and when she wrote Clueless she called me up. The first step is to read the script and meet with the director and find out what is the vision because I’m there to support Amy’s vision or any director. It’s really a starting point to what’s on paper, what’s on the page, who these people are. How does this director see them?

HB: Who were the Clueless teenagers?

MM: In terms of Cher she was a really good girl. She was a sweet, innocent girl in a sense—she just wanted a good life. But her fashion is fashion. That’s kind of the starting point. Then you have Dionne who’s much more sophisticated and worldly in a sense—more sexually active. She’s more sassy.

Then we go to the drawing board and in this case what was very interesting about this movie is that the reality on the street—which was very grunge-influenced—was very different from what Amy wanted to portray in the film. It was 1994 when we started prepping the movie. We were scouting in the high schools—it was all baggy pants, girls looked like boys, boys looked like boys. Amy’s vision really was to make this movie a girly movie. In a sense it started the chick flick.

HB: How did this job differ from more conventional costume design?

MM: Because of my European background I also studied as a fashion designer before costume designing. It really was a dream come true to marry both of my loves—fashion design and costume design—and do it in a movie. People don’t realize that when you make a movie you shoot it a year before it comes out—so you have to prep it, then you have to shoot it, then you have to edit, then you have to put in the music.

I was acting as a fashion designer by trying to create trends—something very fresh and new that wasn’t really reflected on the streets or in the culture yet. That was so cool because that kind of creativity doesn’t usually happen often in a film—especially with fashion.

HB: The fashion in Clueless is almost its own character.

MM: Right. Which is so fun.

Image: Everett Collection

HB: Without the help of popular culture to influence you, what tools did you use for research?

MM: We have to remember that this was pre-computers. It was a very different, harder environment to create the film in because we didn’t have everything that accessible. I didn’t get to fly to the shows, I had to rely on collecting magazines and the reports on runways. It was a lot of digging and I think discerning, what is right for the characters? What is also right for the environment? Amy was adamant about making sure the girls were girls. We’re not putting them in runway clothing where they look like adult models running around. They’re teenagers in high school. Using Mary Jane shoes, the 1920s over-the-knee stockings make it all super cute and adorable.

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How do you take the quintessential of cool girl fashion, twist it around, bring some high fashion into it, and then hope to make it really fun because that’s what it’s all about. Amy was a dream to work with and just egging me on going, “Do more. Let’s get more crazy hats, let’s do textures, let’s do fur backpacks.”

HB: And it feels like the film was shot to really show off the fashion…

MM: That was Bill Pope’s [director of photography] brilliance. He’s a person who knows how to shoot a character like that, too. Pope really shot it like a fashion photographer.

HB: What were the actors like to work with?

MM: They were so collaborative and supportive. Alicia Silverstone was 18 and doing masses of fittings because she had 60 changes and was learning about being a high fashion girl. She’s a hippie, this girl. She’s an amazing activist for animals and healthy eating and that was already evident then. We had to teach her how you walk in these clothes and how you move. That was fascinating. As soon as you put these clothes on, as soon it’s altered to fit you like a glove, it really gives you that kind of confidence—you change.

HB: We have to ask—What are some of your favourite looks?

MM: I love all my babies. That’s so hard. The iconic yellow suit, of course. I love her dresses, I love her little shift dresses, these empire waists, the cap sleeves. I love all of the timelessness—to me it’s just forever. Now, then, and 10 years from now, 20 years from now.

HB: There’s very particular name-dropping of designers. How did you decide who those would be?

MM: It was kind of a combination of things—you know it wasn’t a big budget movie number one. It was a pretty small movie compared to the blockbusters now. It was more of a medium-sized movie. It was a combination of what we could find and who’s going to lend us something. It wasn’t like it is now with product placement and integration. Getting a dress from Alaia was a big thing. It was so organic how it worked out.

HB: If there were only certain high end designer partners, what were the other pieces?

MM: What I think was interesting too, which was very new in this film, was mixing high and low. At the time it really was not something that was as common as it is now. Everyone now goes to H&M and Gucci and mixes them. It really was not like that on the street then—and I really did that. From a budgetary standpoint and a creative standpoint I got to have some high fashion like Dolce & Gabbana suits and Alaia. Then we would go to thrift stores. Actually a lot of Dionne’s looks were a mixture of vintage and designer skirts, her clutches. Adding a lot of French accents to both girls with the headbands, the white cuffs, the white colours, was all vintage.

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Of course good materials help, but even if we bought something for 99 cents we made sure it fit like a glove—and it looks totally couture. The sense of the film is that everything looks perfect, but it really was a mixture of expensive and very inexpensive vintage stuff.

HB: So most of the inexpensive pieces were vintage?

MM: Pretty much. There was not much in the mall then—it was horrible. It was Contempo Casual and just hideous stuff out of left field. We did shop some of that stuff for Tai because we wanted to show how high fashion Cher was in comparison. Tai wanted to emulate her and they made her over to look like Cher, but she was different—she didn’t have the money. So it was more of a lower-end version of Cher.

Stacey Dash [Dionne] was happy and she was really fun to work with—she got it immediately, she got the character, she knew how to move. She had a lot to say about what looked good on her and what didn’t. There’s one outfit she wears to the Christmas party—that was a Dolce outfit. I spent a ton of money on her, but it looks so freakin’ good. I was like, I’m going to break the bank.

Image: Everett Collection

HB: How long does it take overall start-to-finish with dressing everybody and all the fittings?

MM: Medium-sized movies usually take two months. The lead time is first, the break down to determine how many changes, what they’re doing, talking to Amy, doing visual boards. Amy draws and sketches. Now we are texting each other, but then we were calling each other. Then, we have some shopping fittings to get to know the body of an actor, which is very important. We always had great ideas like oh my god, ‘this would look so cool,’ but once you get into the fitting and you put something on the body, boy things change.

Sometimes the unexpected happens with something you didn’t think was going to be right. It’s the perfect match. If a girl has great legs, you showcase that. Dionne has the perfect stomach. We never went overboard with the sexuality, but we had touches here and there. She could handle more of that, she could have the leopard, she could have the fuchsia, the colour part of each girl was very important.

HB: What colours did you concentrate on for each?

MM: For Cher, working with her skin and blonde hair, we went for vibrant tones—the reds and blues and yellows. Then with Dionne we went all out with the leopard and the fuchsia and great textures. It’s great creating the characters because you want each one to be so unique.

Cher, Dionne, Tai, and Amber, every character, had a beautiful composition and that’s very important to acting. We always talk about Sex and the City. I love the movie—I think Patricia Field is so talented. I really pay attention to that. How does the girl, how does each one of them together, fit into the picture of the background and where they are and what’s happening.

HB: After the film came out, what was it like for you to see those trends hit the streets?

MM: It was amazing. I think about it a lot because it’s such a fascinating thing. I think it was just the right moment, culturally. It’s always about the right timing—nothing’s more important than timing in life in general. The movie came out and the girls were ready. They were done with grunge and they wanted to embrace new things, and we gave them the new things. Every woman I meet from years 13-50 has a connection to it—every woman has been touched by this film in some way and it’s so fascinating to me because it’s so cross-cultural and now it’s cross-generational. I was at a screening two years ago and there were girls 17, 18, 19 years old running around as Cher, as Tai, as Dionne and they weren’t even born when the movie came out. It’s so beautiful. It touched a nerve. We should be girly, we should embrace our body, our beauty. Whatever shape you are feel sexy, feel beautiful about yourself.

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HB: Do you think that was partly the message of the film?

MM: I think, unfortunately, the press bombards us with images that aren’t even real and what we strive for is really never obtainable. This movie to me is really a celebration of the girl in all of us—feminine, sweet, fun, flirty, adorable. I’m so proud. It’s amazing the outfits are still so relevant. There’s one outfit in particular from a couple months ago that just struck me in that moment. There’s an outfit Cher wears when she’s wearing a leather skirt and she has a sheer blouse. And I’m telling you it’s on the runway. I’m like holy sh*t. I could have just bought it. That’s what really means a lot to me—when women talk about how Clueless has touched their hearts and really creates such a warm feeling, such genuine sweetness and hopefulness and how they felt when the movie came out and how they wore the clothes. One girl points out, “I made my daddy buy the Jeep!” I love the girls.

Image: Everett Collection

HB: Do you still have a relationship with the cast and crew?

MM: Alicia is such a great friend still to this day. I admire her—she’s made such a great life for herself. They just were beautiful girls who were so trusting and open to playing, because it was a whole new territory. They were completely game. Amber too—who else would wear such a stylish Pippi Long stocking outfit like that? She has such a perfect body and we could do anything with her. She never even flinched, she was like yeah bring it on! Elisa Donovan—what a wonderful girl. Amy has just such a knack of making stars. Look at how she picked people—Paul Rudd is huge. She really has a knack of finding great actors and actors that were so perfect for the part. She’s my true hero and now I’m going to get to work with her on the Clueless musical! I can’t wait.

HB: How do you think Clueless impacted your career overall?

MM: Oh my god, it was my first studio feature. I didn’t even have an agent—I had to make my own deals. In a sense now you have to have agents and lawyers and all this other stuff. I was a small fish in a big pond and it put me on the map instantly. It made my name and I got an agent and I haven’t stopped working since then. The most fun of all is that I really got to have an amazing creative career. I got to do projects where I was able to excel and showcase my talents. I’ve done a lot of comedies and then I didEnchanted. I’ve really gotten to showcase a variety of my talent. And really I didn’t get stuck in a niche, like horror or something like that. I’m able to tell stories with costumes almost in each field. Never Been Kissed, House Bunny. I think all of my movies have an impact.