If there was any single look that defined the style-deficient years of the early 1990s it was grunge. The loser-rocker look—flannel shirt, ripped jeans and Converse sneakers—were indie staples long before Nirvana broke through in 1992, and suddenly it seemed like everyone under 30 was dressing to audition for the next unheard-of rock band. Slovenliness was the just-right look for students already hit hard by a recession. It mirrored the skepticism and angry, don’t-care attitude felt on college and high school campuses—and everywhere, or so it seemed at the time—across America. A disheveled look became the norm and longtime sartorial (and societal) no-no’s, such as wearing pajamas in the classroom and T-shirts and jeans in the workplace became acceptable, as outrageous as that was for many. It was in this no-fashion landscape that Clueless, a hyper colorful and optimistic film whose heroine lectured on the merits of style, shopping and “totally important” fashion designers, was released on this day in 1995.
Director Amy Heckerling specifically set out to make a happy film, one that poked fun at the in-crowd but also offered solutions and redemption. She based her story about Cher Horowitz, the most popular girl at Beverly Hills High, on Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, Emma. Cher, like Austen’s protagonist, is a precocious, overly confident matchmaker whose actions are usually motivated by her own selfishness. When Cher decides to makeover the new girl at school, the perky teen’s efforts are revealed as misguided, and she realizes that she’s the one who needs a makeover, not an external one but, as she puts it, one for her soul.
Throughout her journey, Cher looks simply terrific. Actress Alicia Silverstone was the perfect Barbie doll to dress in Technicolor matchy-matchy separates that were, well, pretty much like Barbie clothes: small, tight and bright, a fantasy wardrobe packaged in a fantasy closet and worn by a girl with a fantasy figure. Heckerling’s depiction of Beverly Hills High fashion was worlds away from the reality, but that’s what the director was aiming for. “We wanted to bring something fresh and new,” says costume designer Mona May. “We wanted to bring the school girl, the femininity of girls and the prettiness of color to the screen, and create something unusual and fresh for kids to emulate.”
May nailed the miniskirts and bare midriffs of the era, but Cher’s lily-white knee-highs, Crayola-hued plaids, chunky platforms and Lycra tank dresses were an amped up, more fitted version of grunge kinderwhore. In the real world, Courtney Love was essentially wearing all the same pieces that Cher did, but Love’s kilts, slips and stockings were ripped, stained, thrift-store scores paired with a trashy, rude and promiscuous persona. By comparison, Cher’s sex-, drug- and curse-free ethos perfectly matched her spotless, dry-cleaned, designer garments. The contrast—and the message—couldn’t have been more vivid.
While Cher had 56 costume changes throughout filming, she wasn’t Clueless’s only character with a finely honed sense of style. In fact, May thoughtfully dressed every character down to the tiniest accessory, and even the extras milling in the background are specifically costumed to project their social position, from faded burnout to AV nerd. When Tai, the object of Cher’s makeover, lands in this hyper-fashion world, she’s the only character dressed like a real-life American schoolgirl. The contrast is so extreme that it is Tai who looks costumed, while the other students, dressed in clownish over-layered sportswear, are the ones that appear acceptable.
But amid all the pumped-up, splashy visuals, another, equally strong message is delivered: The image you project is important to how you are perceived as a person; focus on your style strengths and you will achieve sartorial nirvana. Cher believes this to her core, and is determined to school those around her on the merits of style, shopping and designer name brands. Two of the most memorable scenes in the film are ones that directly call out two designers: Calvin Klein—who’d already received millions in free advertising from his shout-out a decade earlier in Back to the Future—and Azzedine Alaïa, a name revered within the fashion world but previously unknown to most American teenagers until Cher pleads with a mugger to not force her to lie down on the ground in her dress. (“It’s an Alaïa,” she scolds, to which the mugger responds, “An A-whatta?” Cher rolls her eyes: “It’s, like, a totally important designer.”) Earlier this month, Klein announced he was re-releasing a limited edition of the “Clueless dress” in time for the film’s 15-year anniversary (though true fans probably crave an authentic Alaïa).
May says she was thrilled with the opportunity to pay homage to great designers in a film where fashion is a main focus. Though fashion is worshipped in Clueless, it ultimately plays second fiddle to shopping, which is depicted as not only an essential part of a girl’s character but is, like, totally therapeutic. Cher is not so much in awe of great design but in how clothes make a person act and feel and are perceived.
With its cast of nobodies playing a script based on a 19th-century novel and directed by a female (a rarity), Clueless barely made it into production. But the film targeted toward teens resonated with moviegoers of all ages (perhaps Austen’s timeless themes had something to do with it), and was a sleeper hit of the summer. Women’s Wear Daily called Clueless the “fashion film of the year” and with good reason: May’s costume design, despite being unrealistic and out-of-reach, changed how teenagers dressed. One of Cher’s best snippets of wisdom critiques the baggy, greasy style of her contemporaries and it apparently hit home: The following autumn the grunge look quickly faded into obscurity and a more tailored style took its place.
Okay, so the film’s release coincided with other, perhaps stronger, influences on the tides of fashion: the death of Kurt Cobain, the end of the recession and rise of the dot-com boom, an interest in swing and cocktail culture and a surge within the garment industry to move production overseas, resulting in more inexpensive clothing available than ever before. But, for teens, Clueless provided a fashion revelation. They, like Cher suggested, would strive for “courageous fashion efforts” and work to makeover their wardrobes. Hopefully, they were also inspired to make over their souls. —Ali Basye
All photos courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Cinemode is OTDIF’s ongoing compilation of the world’s most stylish films, a must-see list for fans of fashion. From Klute to Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Shaft, some of the greatest style inspiration comes from the characters and costumes in film. Bookmark Cinemode and check back often to read the growing list. The reviews, written with an eye specifically toward fashion, are added to On This Day In Fashion on the anniversary of the film’s release date.