You may not know Mona May’s name or recognize her face, but you know the endearing clothes she designed for such beloved films as Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Never Been Kissed, The House Bunny and Enchanted. But the jewel in her crown is Clueless, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. A blast of fresh air when it was released in 1995, Clueless, a Paramount Home Entertainment release available from Redbox to rent or buy on DVD or On Demand, transposes Jane Austin’s classic novel, Emma, to contemporary Beverly Hills and the high school where Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone in her star-making role) is its good deed-doing queen. Beginning with Cher’s yellow plaid suit, the various stylish outfits have been certified iconic. “My friends say I was the original influencer,” May joked with Redbox in a phone interview. We spoke with May about inventing a timeless fashion look at a time when grunge ruled and why costume dramas get all the Oscar nominations.
Redbox: I was watching the movie again last night and my wife came in. She had never seen Clueless and the first thing she said was, “Those clothes are fabulous.”
Mona May: I love your wife.
RB: Me, too. But then it hit me that considering its enduring exalted place in pop culture, Clueless should have been nominated for Best Costume Design. I’ll bet no one remembers what anyone wore in Restoration, which won the Oscar.
MM: Costume design is a craft that I think is very misunderstood. People don’t really know what goes into it. That’s why I think a lot of the period pieces and costume dramas get the nominations. For contemporary films, some people think the actors just bring their clothes from home. In Clueless, the clothes were so important as a statement of character.
RB: At what point in the process were you involved in Clueless?
MM: Very early on. Amy and I are so connected creatively that when she wrote Clueless, she said, ‘Mona, you’re the girl.’ She knew I was European and had a European sensibility and she wanted me to bring that to the project. We had to jump into the future (of fashion) because basically there was nothing on the ground at the time. Everything was grunge and Kurt Cobain. My research was going to runway shows in London, Paris and Milan and translating that to high school. Amy wanted these girls to look real, not like models running around in their high heels. Cher’s yellow suit is so cool because it’s like a high school girl’s plaid skirt turned by Cher into high fashion.
RB: How did you get started?
MM: I studied fashion in Europe. Fashion was my first love. I got into costume design by chance. I was invited to design some of my friends’ student films and I loved it. I loved the collaboration and I loved reflecting character through clothes. I was able to marry my two loves.
RB: Did you spend time with the cast when fashioning Clueless’ look?
MM: Absolutely. The process is nothing without the actors. Alicia Silverstone is a beautiful young girl and even then was an animal activist. She had to learn how to wear the clothes and be this high fashion girl with a lot of money, which she was not. She had to learn through the clothes who Cher was.
RB: Who was your favorite character to design clothes for?
MM: Of course, Cher was my No. 1 love. She had 60 costume changes. But as a fashionista, Amber (Elisa Donovan) was pretty fabulous. She was kind of the fashion victim; she wanted to be Cher but she went overboard head to toe. We had so much fun with her and Elisa was game. But every person you saw onscreen was dressed by my department. We had to get them at 5 a.m. and dress them head to toe to create all the different factions of high school: the smart kids, the hippies, the stoners.
RB: Did you visit high schools for research on what kids were wearing?
MM: We did. We went to Sherman Oaks High School in the Valley. We went to Beverly Hills High School, but no one was dressed like they are in the movie (laughs). We had to invent everything.
RB: How did you come up with the yellow for the plaid suit?
MM: We had a lot of fittings. That first outfit for the beginning of the movie was so important. It had to be the shining star. We tried red, but it was not quite right for Cher’s character. We tried blue, which was beautiful, but it didn’t pop onscreen. The yellow was like this sunray. It reflected that she was the sun of this school; that’s certainly how she saw herself.
RB: What happened to the original outfits? They should be in the Smithsonian.
MM: Exactly. I’m really sad about this because there have been several costume exhibits and we weren’t included because they couldn’t find the clothes.
RB: The projects you’ve worked on have a similar theme of empowering young women. Is that a theme that especially speaks to you?
MM: That is such an important part of my design process and who I am as a woman. I’m truly a champion for girls in a lot of my films. What I bring to the table is something very feminine; women who are open to to finding their core and being accepted for who they are. I’m happy you asked that.
RB: Could you imagine back then you would be talking about Clueless 25 years later?
MM: When people I meet find out I designed the clothes for Clueless the stories pour out. They share their emotional connection to each character, how old they were when they saw it and how good it made them feel. There are so many positive things the film brought to the culture and to women. It was the girliness of the clothes, the really feminine feel that this movie has that caught girls at the time. It was never over-sexy; it really was innocent and I think we miss that.