In the realm of film and television, clothing always tell a story. It gives us insight into what kind of person the character will be. From Pulp Fiction‘s Mia Wallace with her white button-down and her sleek, no-bullshit black bob to Clueless’ bubbly, bouncy Cher with her unforgettable yellow plaid suit, the work costume designers put into envisioning and constructing these looks has been overlooked for far too long. It’s a difficult and time-consuming job that we tend to overlook when we’re watching and consuming our favorite flicks. Mona May, the genius mind behind the costume design in some of your classic favorites — Clueless (1995), The House Bunny (2008) — spoke with NBGA about the process behind the scenes, sharing some secrets about her inspirations and aims when dressing some of the most notable film characters to ever grace the bigscreen.
A behind-the-scenes stylistic visionary, Mona May has styled some of the most beloved pop culture film characters to have ever graced the silver screen. Giselle from Enchanted (2007), Shelley from The House Bunny (2008), and Cher from Clueless (1995) can all credit Mona for the timelessness of their glitzy drip. Nonetheless, one doesn’t just simply jump into costume design. For Mona, this was an unexpected career change that turned out for the better.
Born in India to her European parents, Mona May always had a passion for fashion, however, when she was attending school at the Fashion Institute in LA, that’s where she really found her interest in costume design. Students would ask for her help in their small independent films, and she instantly fell in love with it. “I just didn’t really know that much about costume design and so I learned kind of backhand in a way and I just loved it immediately because it was really kind of diving deep into the psychology of a person you know who they really are it wasn’t so surface it was kind of like the clothes were expressing who they are.”
A lot of the films Mona has worked on feature a female lead and are typically known as “chick-flicks.” Movies like, Never Been Kissed (1999) and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (2009) are upbeat, girly feel-good movies that you probably watched for the first time at a sleepover. “I love that I got to do a lot of female-driven films because that’s kind of my passion as well: to empower girls and give them a kind of sense of who they are”. And that she did. In every film, every scene, the outfits Mona May would assemble really showcased each character’s personalities.
The House Bunny (2008)
Mini skirts and low rise jeans were once all the rage. House Bunny is a hilarious chick flick about a former Playboy bunny starting a new life as the “house mother” of an outcast university sorority. The eccentric, Barbie-like outfits featured in the film are what really sets this movie apart from the rest. With an array of different character personalities and body types to work with, Mona went above and beyond when it came to giving them their own style.
“I love having different bodies. I want to have curves, I want to have skinny girls, I want to have short girls, I want to have tall girls. I can show you that you can — no matter what size and shape you are — can look amazing, and have fun with clothes. I’m a painter. I paint with clothes and I paint with colors. To me, color is energy […] I think we need color. I love it when things are happy. Because when you’re looking at the movies, and then you go away, afterwards you’re like, oh my God! That really makes me feel good. And I feel good about it.””
When it came to styling Kat Denning’s character in the film, Mona really made sure that what she wore showed off her assets and complimented her curves instead of hiding them (a practice Mona hates). With that in mind, she also utilized color a lot in this film, Mona wasn’t afraid to pair electric blue with hot pink. The courageous color combinations truly gave the film a timelessly upbeat, feel-good aura.
From the first scene of House Bunny to the last, you witness Shelley’s personal transformation. She no longer had the Playboy Mansion to depend on for her sense of identity. Shelley’s outfits in the film give her the aura of being a walking Barbie doll. The bling, the pink, the sparkles, the diamonds. Imagine Paris Hilton’s closet on steroids. The pink, sparkly butterfly top that Shelley wears paired with a hot pink mini skirt in the post-makeover scene of House Bunny has been seen recreated on celebs like the rapper Saweetie.
“I just love it because her journey was so beautiful,” Mona shares. “Kind of being oversexed in the beginning, you know, she was a lost soul in a way…that’s all she knew. [Feeling] like, maybe I just have to be pretty and everybody’s gonna like me.”
When it comes to the stylistic transformation that happened for the rest of the Zeta girls, they were shy and outcast in the beginning and their style reflected that. They wore neutral colors, lots of layers, and had no sense of personal style. “No matter if they were kind of the ‘less-attractive’ girl or the Playboy bunny, in the end, you always knew that that was them in their character. The punk girl always kind of kept the funky look, the hippie girl [kept the hippy look] and so on. That’s kind of like staying true to the character. I think it’s a really great collaboration with actors, you know, to really have that because it gives them a sense of character, give the sense of who they are when they step into my room.”
Clueless was Mona May’s first big-time movie as a costume designer. Call it beginner’s luck, but the looks in this film are undoubtably to die for. Even now, 25 years since the release of the film, the outfits are still being praised, remembered, worn on Halloween, and referenced in music videos.
A secret to many, Clueless was actually an independent film which means that Mona didn’t have a big spending budget to splurge on high designer items to dress the characters in. She had to really think out of the box, mix and matching expensive items with things that she created or thrift. Back then, not a lot of people were doing this. Dionne, played by Stacey Dash, is a great example of her using this method. “She had the vinyl skirt from Melrose and then she had the 50s purse and the Dolce top. I think it was very, very inspiring,” Mona shares. Dionne’s style was a lot more funky and bold, giving Mona more space to play around with her outfits.
The characters of Clueless each had a distinctive stylistic look that was reserved just for them but was still able to coexist with one another without clashing. For example, Amber (played by Elisa Donovan) was dressed in a lot of splashy, over the top, and unconventional outfits that may have looked crazy conceptually but worked effortlessly in the film. From her Pippi Longstocking look to her red sailor suit, creating her outfits was one of Mona May’s favorite tasks.
Tai (played by Brittany Murphy) underwent a huge cinematic makeover throughout the film, transforming from an ‘ugly duckling’ to a swan, but still stayed true to herself. She wasn’t as rich as Cher and Dionne; her outfits reflected that. The colors weren’t as vibrant and gave an effortlessly thrifted vibe.
Do you know fashion in film at all if you haven’t taken a look at the fits worn by Cher in Clueless? From the color choice of that iconic yellow Dolce & Gabbana suit to the fluffy pink pen that she uses in class, every tiny detail counted. Fun fact: Mona May created the iconic fluffy pencil that Cher uses in the film. When it comes to the looks that the characters were dressed in on the first day of school, Mona knew that Cher had to stand out against the green background of the school courtyard, but also wanted to make sure that the aura being emitted was totally accurate to Cher’s bubbly persona. “We tried blue, it could have been red, we tried red It was like she tried too hard. But when she put the yellow on it was like the energy of the sun.”
The yellow suit is the most popular look in the movie. Cher’s first day of school outfit is so synonymous with our collective memory of the film that to this day, you see hundreds of girls recreate this look all the time. From the yellow plaid suit to the red Alaïa dress, it’s clear that color played a huge role when it came to the styling of the characters. It was used to indicate whether it was Fall or Spring or even to further showcase the emotions that the characters were struggling with.
Cher is depressed when she’s walking around the fountain, so we put her in a grey chiffon blouse and the Argos skirt. It was a down, sad moment and she was more withdrawn. So we want to keep it you know, kind of, almost neutral.
My personal favorite outfit of Cher is the Calvin Klein dress that she wears on her date with Christian. It’s simple and sexy, but it’s not too sexy. When I asked Mona what led them to choose that dress for the scene she shared: “We were thinking that maybe we have to make the dress a little bit more like a slip, almost like underwear. We tried a lot of spandexy slips and to make it more on the point of being sexy and that wasn’t working. And that Calvin Klein dress was actually a cotton stretch which was more matte and it was also not as hugging. So it preserved her innocence.”
Believe it or not, Clueless actually got picked up to be a television show that ran for three seasons between 1996 and 1999 with the majority of the same cast, excluding Alicia Silverstone, Brittany Murphy, and Paul Rudd. Mona went above and beyond once again when designing the outfits for the show with an average of 10-15 outfit changes per each 30 minute episode. You can check out these star fits for yourself: all of the episodes are available to stream free on Youtube.
Clueless really brought girly-ness and femininity to the mainstream during a time when grungey, Kurt Cobainesque clothing was the hottest trend. The stylistic impact that both The House Bunny and Clueless had on teenage girls is unparalleled. Mona has inspired millions of girls to be comfortable in their skin and embrace color or go a little bit outside of our comfort zone.
Currently, Mona May is working behind the scenes of the revival of Punky Brewster, and a collaboration with the black-owned brand called Thrilling, an online store of curated vintage and secondhand items from the best boutiques across the country. The collaboration will be released on September 15th, so keep a lookout because we are extremely excited to see what the Mona May has in store for us next.