When fashion and film collide—as the respectively mammoth industries they are—the financial potential is huge. Only, for decades, the brains behind such collaborations have rarely been celebrated.
Take Polish costume designer Mona May, who wrangled the iconic wardrobes of many of the ‘90s and ‘00s most popular films (including Clueless, Never Been Kissed, The Wedding Singer, Enchanted, and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion).
Working in the industry for three decades, May has racked up seventy credits as a costume designer and played a multi-million dollar role in their success.
Take 1995’s Clueless, which May describes as her “lucky break” following six years on made-for-TV movies and now-unknown shows. Despite its small budget, the film grossed $56.1 million in the United States during its theatrical run alone, as well as a seventy-outfit fashion legacy that would pay off for years to come.
“The reaction still feels amazing, I have to tell you, because it’s so close to my heart,” May tells me. “When we made this film, it really was a small picture, but we had the most amazing director, Amy Heckerling, who also wrote the script and was just a genius.
“I mean, she wanted these girls in Beverley Hills to be fashionistas with enough money to go to fashion shows in Europe, but everything had to be translated into a high school setting. You needed to be youthful, not snooty models, so the fashion had to feel real. And I think that’s kind of the success. The characters feel very authentic, and the girls watching not only want to emulate it, they want to be the girls.”
To May’s point, the yellow plaid suit she selected as Cher Horowitz’s first outfit has not only become the seminal frame of reference for the film, but one of the world’s best-selling Halloween costumes for over twenty years.
“The yellow suit, it’s such a quintessential item from the film, and I knew I had to do it right because it is opening of the movie. Alicia [Silverstone, who plays Cher]’s first day of school, in the Quad, around a lot of greenery and people, and she had to pop.
“We wanted to use plaid as a nod to a Catholic schoolgirl uniform, but taken to another level and, of course, turned designer. I had high hopes for a blue suit, because I thought she’s would look just gorgeous in it, plus the yellow one, which didn’t seem right for a blonde, and I had a red one.”
Within moments of her putting it on, however, the others were out of the race. “It was just perfect; the energy of yellow, like a ray of sunshine against all the green, it wasn’t just arbitrarily chosen.”
Though many people see the film’s costume design as a general reference point for ‘90s fashion now, May didn’t want to follow any of the trends of the time.
“The goal was to make it very feminine because, at the time, it was all about grunge,” says May. “When we went scouting at high school, everybody was wearing big, baggy clothes and you couldn’t tell a girl from a boy. We wanted to go against that. We wanted to bring something very fresh and I’ve always felt femininity is so important for girls to express with confidence. Also, society—or culture—was ready for that.”
Culture was so ready for it, in fact, it went on to dictate the future of fashion and culture itself (see: Versace’s Fall 2018 collection, inspired purely by Clueless, or Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX’s Clueless-mimicking music video for ‘Fancy’, which has been viewed over one billion times on YouTube).
Additionally, far beyond the impact of a single look or skirt suit, May’s design choices went on to introduce visionary designers like Azzedine Alaïa to a wider market.
“Get down on the ground. Face down.” – Mugger
“Oh no, you don’t understand. This is an Alaïa.” – Cher
“An a-what-a?” – Mugger
“An Alaïa. Like a totally important designer.” – Cher
“And I will totally shoot you in the head.” – Mugger
“While designing, I’m never really looking at brands. Everything is organic. To me, it really is what the character and story needs. Even the Alaïa,” she notes. “When we were making the movie, we didn’t have the PR machine that we have now. I couldn’t pick up the phone and go, ‘send me clothes!’. It just really didn’t exist.
“I really had to predict what, in the future, was going to be cool. Like the yellow suit came off the rack—I found that at Saks Fifth Avenue—but I saw the Alaïa on the runway, knew we could not afford it, but called them and said ‘we’re doing this movie, your dress is so beautiful, it’s perfect for the scene, it’s red, it’s Christmas time, but also…she’s gonna be on the ground in the dress,” she giggles, aware of her not-so-appealing pitch.
“But they were so gracious. They did send us the dress, we used it in the movie, and that’s how a generation learned about this high-end Parisian fashion designer!”
As an artist, May has always found costume designing is her preferred method of communication.
“We really communicate through clothes, through color—we dive into the psychology of each person,” she says. “When you see an actor on the screen, even if it’s just for a few seconds, you know exactly who they are without them having to utter a word. Their clothes will tell you if they’re depressed, they’re happy, the socio-economic place they come from…I love that art.”
Off the back of Clueless, May was keen to not only continue her craft but prove what a valuable investment she was to the industry at large.
Thankfully, with her work on The Wedding Singer (which grossed $123.3 million in ticket sales worldwide at release, second to none other than Titanic) and Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (a cult favorite filled with costumes rife for future TV and musical adaptations which, naturally, kept the franchise’s moneypots full for much longer than most Hollywood releases), it didn’t come hard.
Over the proceeding years, May helmed the costume design for everything from Disney hits like The Haunted Mansion and Enchanted to adult comedies like The House Bunny and American Reunion.
When I press her for a favorite, she struggles, but settles on the look she designed for Enchanted’s Evil Queen Narissa—a 2D animated ensemble brought to life in 3D for Susan Sarandon. “It was such a unique experience, making those colors and textures mimic her own transformation. Then turning the crown into CGI dragon horns, the back of the dress into wings. Every time I look at it, my heart sings.”
In the streaming age, of course, her work has changed. Like the film and TV industries at large, May has had to fall in line the industry’s shift towards digital content.
“It truly is a business,” says May. “I think things have changed since I started many years ago. Then, it was more of a studio system. Now, when you’re working with companies like Netflix
Nonetheless, she believes the process on set remains the same—where directors, actors, costume designers, et al work together to tell stories, no matter the budget, “I mean, I just did a movie with Alicia Silverstone that was under a million dollars. It is the same process for me, even though it’s way less money, and we get way less time to create, it’s what I get off on. That’s the part that I love, 25 years later, I’m still doing it and getting up at 8am and travelling to Vancouver to shoot in winter, you know,” she laughs.
Vancouver specifically as, after months in lockdown, the Covid-secure production for her latest project is shooting there.
“I definitely felt it in the beginning,” May says of coronavirus’ impact on the film industry. “I was actually on pre-production on this film, Mixtape, and we got shut down when I was about to get on the plane. We really didn’t know what was going to happen.”
Hoping she’d be back to work in a few weeks, she held tight, like the rest of the world, for more information.
“Luckily Netflix carried us for a little bit, and then we all went on unemployment and just had to wait it out in lockdown. It was intense times for everybody all over the world and, because we work in such close proximity to each other on film sets, I was out of work from March ’til September.”
Though cross-country production was still off the cards at the time, an LA-trapped May took on the remake of Punky Brewster locally, which went on to become one of the first Covid-era TV shows out of the gate.
“We were tested daily, we had to wear our masks and shields, we were separated into different zones—it’s definitely difficult.”
Beyond increased security measures, additional precautions meant all clothes in or out of the wardrobe department also had to be quarantined, making May’s job harder than ever.
“When they cast people, we have to fit them, and there is not a lot of time on TV shows…you normally have three days to prep. It put a lot of stress on us and I think it will continuously put stress on production, even on this film, because the entire shopping experience is different.”
Particularly with limited access, limited stock, and a Covid-conscious avoidance of using vintage or secondhand clothes.
“There are a lot of more hoops that we have to jump through. It’s definitely a new world, and I think it’s a lot more costly for production. I imagine we’ll be wearing PPE until the very end. But we all know it’s worth the investment.”
Still, though Hollywood is looking at around a $4 billion hit from the effects of coronavirus, May is more excited about her work than ever.
“I’ve not stopped working since Clueless,” she laughs,”and one of the greatest things about all of this is knowing that so many young, talented costume designers have more opportunities to showcase their art. It’s an exciting time.”