Cher Horowitz is a fashion icon. Her wardrobe is a prominent character in Clueless, with outfits ranging from wonderful to wild. Some of the films costumes are so iconic that today they’re universal reference points, instantly emblematic of ‘90s fashion. But did you ever think about the meaning behind Cher’s most memorable looks? And are all those perfectly curated clothes an expression of power – or are they actually hiding a teenage girl who feels powerless?
Cher Horowitz is a fashion icon. Her wardrobe is a prominent character in Clueless, with outfits ranging from wonderful to wild. Some of the film’s costumes are so iconic that today they’re universal reference points, instantly emblematic of ’90s fashion.
But did you ever think about the meaning behind Cher’s most memorable looks? And are all those perfectly curated clothes an expression of power – or are they actually hiding a teenage girl who feels powerless?
Mel: “I’d like to see you have a little bit of direction.”
Cher: “I have direction.”
Josh: “Yeah. Towards the mall.”
Here’s our take on what the fashion in Clueless tells us about being a teen girl in the ’90s – and today.
Fashion is Power
Clueless introduces us to Cher almost simultaneously with her wardrobe, and the attention she gives to selecting her outfit tells us how important fashion is to her. Mona May, the designer, says Cher’s opening yellow plaid suit was chosen because Cher looks like “a ray of sunshine and the queen of the school.” As Vogue writes, “Matching sets and flashy suits are an easy, impactful shorthand for the queen bee.” Both the outfit and the way she selects it announce just how much Cher likes to be in control – her computer objectively declares if something is a match or not, just as Cher confidently lectures us on her various “rules” and judges everyone who doesn’t live up to her idiosyncratic standards.
“I don’t want to be a traitor to my generation and all, but I don’t get how guys dress today” - Cher, Clueless
As she steps out into her high school world, we see how Cher’s high-tech wardrobe reinforces her position of popularity at school. Her bestie Dionne’s matching black suit and bucket hat were chosen to compliment, but not overpower. The duo’s outfits are a play on the traditional school uniform – but instead of wearing a uniform to blend in, Cher and Dionne wear theirs to stand out. Their shared eliteness stems from how others in the school can’t match their level of fashion-forward self-assurance.
“She’s my friend because we both know what it’s like to have people be jealous of us… And I must give her snaps for her courageous fashion efforts.” - Cher, Clueless
Cher and Dionne even spar about their accessories – acknowledging that their fashion choices verge on the absurd, but delighting in that – which reminds us that so much of fashion is having the confidence of Cher and Dionne to commit and pull it off.
Dionne and Cher set themselves apart from the rest of the school through their bold accessories – like Cher’s iconic French beret when they set up Ms. Geist and Mr. Hall, or Dionne’s florally adorned microbraids at the wedding. Dionne’s accessories in particular often incorporate elements of Black style, which have turned her into an icon today. According to Taylor Bryant of NYLON magazine, Dionne was unusual for the era, as a fully formed Black character who isn’t a token, and has her own personality that contributes so much to the movie. And like with Cher, a lot of Dionne’s character is expressed visually through a style that she takes a lot of pride in.
“Perhaps you can explain how this cheap K-Mart hair extension got into the backseat of your car? … I do not wear polyester hair, unlike some people I know!” - Dionne, Clueless
During gym class, we see Dionne rocking a bandana as the uniform motif returns again – everyone wears black and white, suggesting a (very loose) dress code they must follow, but here that’s taken to a surreal extreme. These girls can flout the rules and eschew actual uniformity (just as they walk all over their P.E. teacher), so that tells us these girls live in an elite, rarified social class with a lot of entitlement and particular rules known only to insiders.
The confidence and individuality of these girls’ upper-crust anti-uniforms highlights how out of place and vulnerable the newcomer Tai feels when she first enters in this scene in her oversized outfit, clashing with the form-fitting, hyper-fashionable black and white clothes of the others.
It’s worth noting that Cher’s and Dionne’s aesthetic was a big departure from the grunge trends of the ’90s – according to Haute History, Clueless “flew in the face of the nonchalance and androgyny of the grunge movement.” The costumes do honor the spirit of youth culture and incorporate some grunge elements, like safety pins and bucket hats. But they eschew the shapeless, baggy clothes and dark, muted colors of the moment for classic cuts and bright colors. Cher even directly laments the state of fashion among her peers – at least for guys. And the fact that Cher’s style is a large part of what we think of as ’90s fashion today says a lot about how being a fashion icon isn’t chasing trends, but starting your own ones.
The central reason Cher can’t get behind sloppy grunge is because, for her, clothes are an expression of power – they’re her attempt to be in control.
“Cher’s main thrill in life is a makeover, okay? It gives her a sense of control in a world full of chaos.” - Dionne, Clueless
Her opening computer algorithm even signals that Cher is seeking perfection through fashion. And she flexes that control at every opportunity. She wriggles out of tight spots with her father, blaming her fashion choices for the reason she’s not home in time.
Mel: “Do you know what time it is?!”
Cher: “A watch doesn’t really go with this outfit, daddy.”
She relishes the opportunity to give Tai a makeover – an offer she frames as charity, but Dionne explicitly says it’s because Cher is seeking control. Taking Tai under her wing is really a way of reinforcing Cher’s own self-image, world view, and superiority.
“I’m going to take that lost soul in there and make her well-dressed and popular. Her life will be better because of me” - Cher, Clueless
So as much as Cher feels her fashion gives her power and a sense of self, we can also see that selfhood is precarious and the power is limited.
When Fashion Disempowers
As the movie goes on, Clueless reveals that, despite being popular and wealthy and seeming very together, Cher often feels very powerless.
The most obvious example of the limits to fashion’s power comes when Cher is robbed at gunpoint in her iconic red Alaïa dress. She initially tries to get out of the situation by highlighting how important her dress is – but outside of school, her fashion knowledge is worthless.
Robber: “Come on!”
Cher: “Oh, no. You don’t understand…It’s like a totally important designer.”
Robber: “And I will totally shoot you in the head.”
Cher’s next party outfit also highlights the limited power of fashion: when she tries to leave the house in her white Calvin Klein slip, Josh and her father interfere. This highlights the gap between teen girls’ increasing spending power in the ’90s, and their powerlessness elsewhere in their lives – Cher has the money to buy a Calvin Klein dress, but not the permission to wear it.
“It looks like underwear. Go upstairs and put something over it.” - Mel, Clueless
That white slip dress is part of a series of white outfits we see Cher wearing after we learn she’s a virgin. It’s a visual reminder that – while Cher attempts to project an extremely adult, savvy, and all-knowing persona, she’s a lot more inexperienced in relationships and the world than she pretends to be.
Cher: “Tai, how old are you?”
Tai: “I’ll be 16 in May.”
Cher: “My birthday’s in April, and as someone older, can l please give you some advice?”
Throughout the movie, the costume designers use clothing to play around with Cher’s age. They mix really juvenile outfits, like strap tops over tees, and dresses with bows under the bust, with mature pieces for much older women, like blazers, suits, and twinsets. This makes us feel like Cher’s very much a person in flux – stuck between being a child and play-acting as a totally poised, sophisticated woman.
“I was just totally clueless.” - Cher, Clueless
Her attempts to become seductive are another window into Cher’s limited power through fashion. When she’s trying to draw Christian’s attention, her tactic of showing more skin is highly obvious, yet she describes it to us as if it’s sophisticated science. When Christian asks her to spend the evening alone, she and Dionne work hard to find the perfect outfit. Definitively casting off her white motif, they settle on a red slip dress, reminiscent of the red Alaïa Elton was attracted to her in, but which (together with her makeup) also fits a fairly clichéd idea of how to “look sexy” for a guy. The scene hammers home that Cher isn’t really being herself in this look, as she offers us generic beauty-magazine-esque advice about how to please a man while clearly feeling very out of control. And no amount of planning or color coordinating can make the night go as she plans – Christian is gay, and fashion can’t stop heartbreak.
This becomes even more explicit in the scene when Cher freaks out because she can’t wear the outfit she planned on for taking her driving test.
Cher: “Lucy, where’s my shirt?”
Lucy: “Probably at the cleaner.”
Cher: “Ugh but today’s the driving test. lt’s my most capable-looking outfit.”
Cher fails her test not because of her clothes, but because she hasn’t focused on practicing driving skills - and the fact that she’s fixating on what she wears instead of the content of the test points to how, more generally, she’s getting too hung up on superficial appearances that distract from the deeper picture.
We also see how fashion fails to transform what’s inside when it comes to Tai’s makeover: afterwards, Tai seems to feel even more vulnerable and uncomfortable. Even though Cher’s makeover succeeds at making her popular and attractive, it also makes Tai someone she isn’t – something that’s driven home visually in how Tai doesn’t really look herself in the clothes Cher picks for her. That’s not true power. And when Tai finally does get comfortable copying Cher’s confident, popular-girl persona, it’s at the expense of the truly attractive parts of her personality like her sweetness and authenticity.
Tai: “Let’s just talk when we’ve mellowed, all right? I’m audi.”
Cher: “What did l do? I’ve created some sort of a monster.”
The character of Amber also demonstrates a disempowering form of fashion. While Cher is making choices, Amber is just flat out copying her; while Cher dresses with nuance, Amber is just chasing trends. Cher herself comments that, while the girls may look similar from a distance (as two rich, pretty Beverly Hills cool kids), the differences between them come down to detail, creativity, and artistry.
Tai: “Do you think she’s pretty?”
Cher: “She’s a full-on Monet.”
Tai: “What’s a Monet?”
Cher: “lt’s like the paintings, see? From far away it’s okay, but up close it’s a big old mess.”
Still, when Amber tries to copy Cher, Cher takes it really personally, because it’s like a little bit of her mystique is being chipped away. The degree to which it bothers Cher reveals how fragile our sense of power is when it’s only based on appearance. Similarly, when Travis spills on her shoes, Cher gets upset on a level that puts a serious damper on her party fun. Like with the sexy red she wears for Christian, Cher’s red party dress seems like a perfectly empowered, fabulous look. Cher and all her girlfriends – Tai, Dionne, Summer, and Amber – all have elements of red in their outfits, while Cher’s outfit is the scene-stealer with its classic cut and bright color, marking her out as the “main character.” But as the night goes on and everything falls apart around her, the bold power her outfit was projecting is nowhere to be seen.
As Cher starts to develop real feelings for Josh, she nonchalantly introduces the idea that sometimes fashion can restrict and control her. And as her crush deepens, she becomes insecure about whether he sees her as only a fashionista.
Josh: “Go out and have fun. Go shopping.”
Cher: “You think that’s all I do? I’m just a ditz with a credit card?”
Offhand remarks reveal that this has limited how she sees herself, too – as if she doesn’t really have other significant gifts. And she’s sometimes paying too much attention to her fashion choices, at the expense of things like schoolwork.
When Cher hits rock bottom, she regains control over her life not through fashion, but through being in service to others. She sheds her perfect wardrobe, giving away several pieces to the Pismo Beach flooding relief effort, and even wears jeans. And Tai does the same – she goes back to liking Travis, who she wanted to be with all along, and returns to her signature grunge-inspired style – albeit with some updates, indicating that she’s grown through her journey in the film and is refining her personal style.
The Moral of the Story
Clueless is a makeover movie in reverse – it challenges our perceptions around the power of appearance and shows us to go with our gut. Change isn’t always positive; our instincts are valuable and the deepest makeovers aren’t always physical. Cher’s anxieties about control make her want to change people, instead of looking at what makes them great.
“I decided I needed a complete makeover. Except this time I’d make over my soul.” - Cher, Clueless
Once she begins to interrogate that, she starts to see what is already wonderful about her friends. In the final scene of the movie, we see Cher in a bridesmaid’s dress, which means she hasn’t chosen her outfit at all. But she’s able to feel in control in other ways, while she and her friends can still continue to embrace their own signature stylistic expressions.
Clueless is actually an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel Emma, transplanted from Regency England to mid-90s L.A. The original book does occasionally toy with the importance of appearance - Harriet’s eventual husband Robert Martin is, according to Emma, doomed to be “a completely gross, vulgar farmer, totally inattentive to appearances.” But Emma is more fundamentally a story about class. In Clueless, Cher is similarly status-obsessed – but it’s not just socioeconomic status she’s concerned with. Most of the students, at least in her circle at Bronson Alcott High, seem to come from wealthy families. Dionne and Cher warn Tai about dating Travis because he’s a “‘loadie,” but when they go to a loadie party in the Valley, the house seems huge and expensive, and when Cher collects donations for flood victims at Pismo Beach, Travis is able to part with a box of stuff just like everyone else. So the difference between Cher and Travis isn’t necessarily money, but fashion. Status isn’t determined just by what you have, but by what you wear. Emma Woodhouse has to learn to be more conscious of her privilege, and likewise Cher’s fashion evolution shows her checking herself and her biased assumptions.
“God this woman is screaming for a makeover. I’m her only hope.” - Cher, Clueless
Just because someone doesn’t dress according to her rules, doesn’t mean they don’t have value, and that’s why it’s so important that Cher comes to see the beauty in Travis’ and Tai’s grunge style without trying to make them look, act, and think more like her. Cher’s journey is about deepening the power that, early on, she’s expressing purely through fashion, and simultaneously becoming less judgmental of others, to appreciate the gifts they bring to the table.
According to The Guardian’s Jess Cartner-Morley, Clueless is “the best fashion film ever made,” – with some of the best costuming and the finest one-liners about designers. But fashion is just part of the wider message. It’s a story about how complicated life is for teenage girls – and how important self expression is because of that.
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