While many teen films fade away never to be heard of again, Clueless, a loose adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, has remained in the cultural consciousness since its 1995 release. Maybe it is the catchy soundtrack, the at-time quirky costuming, the familiar story about social comeuppance, or the endurance of the teen film as a genre. Most likely it is a combination of many factors that has enabled the film to remain relevant in the cultural consciousness.
Clueless has engendered a cult following since its release, leading to a number of spin-offs including books, comics, a television series (1996-1999) and even a 2018 jukebox musical written by the film’s writer-director Amy Heckerling, who – as one of only a few female directors working for major studios at the time – had established herself as a strong voice in the teen film realm. As journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner has written: “She was a woman who was somehow able to join a fraternity and thrive in it.” Eventually produced by Paramount, Clueless became the surprise sleeper hit of 1995.
Re-shaping the times
Clueless is a film out-of-time in many ways. Fashion, language, music and story are all taken from other eras and remixed to create a unique aesthetic. In a nod to its literary roots, Clueless plays with language in interesting and memorable ways. The endlessly quotable movie had its teenage characters communicate with exaggerated affect.
At times, Cher seems to have her own language that requires translation. A “full on Monet” refers to someone who “from far away, it’s okay, but from up close, it’s a mess.” A “Baldwin” is a cute guy, in reference to the famous and famously handsome Baldwin brothers.
Not only do the characters talk with an ironic knowingness, the characters comment knowingly on how they use language. Not long after we are introduced to Tai, she says to Cher, “You guys talk like grown-ups.” Cher replies, “Oh this is a really good school.” One of the self-improvement tasks that Cher assigns Tai is to learn a new word every day. Her first word is “sporadically.”
Clueless’s soundtrack forms a key part of its success and popularity, but it also adds to the film’s sardonic humor, irony and character development. An eclectic mix of 1990s American pop punk, hip hop and rock, along with covers of hits from the 1970s and 1980s, the music establishes the milieu and expresses characters’ internal emotions.
The film’s opening titles feature Californian punk rock band The Muffs’ cover of Kids in America over a montage of Cher and her friends driving through Beverly Hills in her jeep, shopping on Rodeo Drive, lounging by the pool, and talking and eating at the mall; all images of her extreme wealth, privilege and carefree teen life. This is ironically undercut by Cher’s narration: “I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl.”
David Bowie’s 1980 hit Fashion plays while she picks out an outfit on her computer and selects it from her motorized revolving wardrobe. The songs add to the ironic nature of the film’s commentary on Cher’s obliviousness to her own wealth and privilege.
Finally, the fashion
Not to be overlooked: the costumes. Clueless did not reflect the fashion of its time but re-shaped it. While we may think of Cher’s yellow plaid ensemble, organza shirt, white Calvin Klein mini and red Alaïa (“like a totally important designer”) dress as iconic 1990s fashion, in the early 90s high-school students were wearing grungy flannel and loose-fitting jeans, which did not fit Heckerling’s ideal aesthetic. Costume designer Mona May brought together vintage styles, designer dresses and thrift shop finds to create Cher’s iconic style, which fused 1920s over-the-knee socks with 1960s mod miniskirts and chic 90s figure-hugging designer dresses.
Cher’s iconic fashion still informs runways and street style, with today’s teens – and high fashion designers, alike – recreating these iconic looks. Willow Smith, for instance, was styled to reference Cher in a 2016 issue of French fashion publication CR Fashionbook. Iggy Azalea casted herself as Cher in the music video for Fancy, and Ariana Grande channeled her inner Cher for her 2019 world tour.
At the same time, “Clueless-inspired plaids” appeared in various high fashion collections in recent years, with Donatella Versace sending a mash-up of Cher Horowitz-centric schoolgirl blazer and skirt combos down the runway for Fall/Winter 2018, while Matthew Adams Dolan, Michael Kors, and Nicopanda, among others, similarly adopting colorful plaids for their own collections, trends that have since tricked down to the offerings of fast fashion giants like Zara, Mango, Topshop, and Forever 21.
Still yet, companies have sought to tap into millennial nostalgia by way of Clueless collaborations. Footwear brand K-Swiss, for example, released a limited run of sneakers in 2019 “based on the iconic style of the film’s protagonist, Cher Horowitz” by taking its “Classic VN and blending its timelessly recognizable upper with features and accents from the evocative yellow and blue plaid pattern of Cher’s most identifiable outfit from the movie.”
Reflecting on the various creative elements of the film, with its mansions, designer dresses, and fancy cars, Heckerling said that she “wanted that feel of a fantasy that you would like to live in.” If the enduring appeal of the film is any indication, that seems to have worked.
Phoebe Macrossan is an Associate Lecturer/Sessional Academic at the Queensland University of Technology. Jessica Ford is a Lecturer in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Newcastle. (Edits/additions courtesy of TFL)