The opening scene of Clueless may look like a Noxzema commercial, according to Cher Horowitz, but what truly catches everyone's attention was her supposedly "way normal" morning routine for a teenage girl. When it comes to picking out her school clothes, she mixes and matches pieces on her computer to pick out an outfit, then turns to her revolving closet, modeled after a conveyor you normally see at the dry cleaners. Perhaps that is normal in Beverly Hills, but for viewers across America, it was like watching a leopard-printed glimpse into the future.
"There was the actual physical closet, and then Cher's clothes are catalogued on a computer," recalls writer and director Amy Heckerling, who came up with the idea for the 1995 film's lead character. "I imagine that they're hooked up and work in conjunction with each other in the Clueless world."
The concept of a "gamified" closet was so novel at the time that it eventually inspired a slew of apps over the years, all claiming to be modern-day, tech versions to help you organize your wardrobe. Of course, none come close to the original, but Heckerling still takes credit. "They should all pay me some money," she laughs. "I want residuals on that."
In honor of the movie's 25th anniversary, NYLON spoke with Heckerling, costume designer Mona May, and more about how Cher's iconic closet came to life.
While the Horowitz family resided in Beverly Hills, the actual mansion in the film was located in Encino in the Valley, which, at the time, had just experienced the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
Amy Heckerling (writer and director): I wanted Clueless to look like one of those elegant comedy of manners from English productions from the past. You'd feel like you stepped into a beautiful world, but then make it somewhat sillier. This was not an expensive movie, but it looks like her world is quite elegant in this cheesy way. Steven Jordan was the production designer, and I worked with him a number of times. I really love his aesthetic and he gets it. If I say, 'I want a mansion but the closet was like a dry cleaner, he knew what I meant.
Steven Jordan (production designer): I was living on the east coast — working in New York and living in New Jersey. When I got to Los Angeles, I was seeing it with a very fresh vision. The owners of the mansion were getting ready to move out and have some earthquake repairs done. When I walked into the house and saw that staircase, I said, 'Oh my god, this is it.' We were able to convince the owners to put off their construction for a few months, and we basically redid the home cosmetically — fixed cracked walls, completely repainted it, things like that. In fact, Cher's closet was built inside of the pool house at the home. The bedroom was actually the living room of that house, which we built with some very creative additional walls. It became one of my favorite sets on the show. I loved the windows and the beautiful mantle was the focal point of the room.
Amy Wells (set decorator): The bedroom's decor had to do with the quirkiness of Cher's character. She was all about how things looked. It was very important to her. She was her daddy's girl and they had a lot of money. I remember going to the prop house at Warner Bros. and getting that beautiful gilded mirror and the zebra-printed benches. They're still [at the prop house]. I swear I've seen them in the last year or two.
Cher's Revolving Closet
Seeing Cher’s revolving closet for the first time may seem unique, but it turns out a lot of rich dudes already had their own versions at home, which served as inspiration for the film.
Heckerling: I was in film school but I had been meeting various people in other industries and I knew a record producer — he was a friend of a friend — who actually had that closet made in his house. He had lots of clothes from the '70s and early '80s that had special embroidery or designs, and the idea was that you could get a good visual of everything and remember what you had. I remember being like, 'I can't believe something like this exists. It's just too crazy!' I had to put that in something one day.
Jordan: I had first seen [a closet like that] when I was working on a project that got me into one of the New York Yankees owners' homes in New Jersey. He had a collection of vintage jerseys going back to Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson's minor league days. He had this picture on the wall and you hit a button and it would recede into the ceiling and this conveyor system was behind it. It was crazy. [The closet] was such a collaboration. Everyone was bringing their recollection and what they've seen in their travels and lifetime.
Wells: Doing closets is really hard because you don't see every item but every item has to be right. Cher's closet was so enormous and such a crucial part of the set. The clothes inside of it were color-coordinated and a combination of me finding clothes that matched the look of the character and also using some of Cher's real clothes in the movie.
Mona May (costume designer): Cher was a perfectionist in every way, so we used gold-and-wooden hangers — higher echelon things that most of us probably don't have. Everything was super color-coordinated. That was very important to us. It was a very specific color palette that Cher wore. She didn't wear a lot of black; she does not look good in brown. It was more about fun, poppy colors. If you look at the closet, it's very colorful and really fun. And the whole movie was like that. When I was working with [Steven], there was not a lot of color in the background. He allowed us to play out our colors. If you look at her closet, the walls are gray, but then you have all the pinks and blues and yellows.
Cher's Virtual Closet
The concept of cataloging Cher's wardrobe, which eventually inspired a slew of tech startups to launch similar apps years later, stemmed from paper dolls, Polaroids, and wine.
Heckerling: I didn't like trying on different clothes every morning to figure out the best outfit. I had an obsession with paper dolls when I was a little kid, so I thought, 'What if I took a Polaroid of all of my different clothes?' Then I wouldn't have to get dressed; I could just play with them like cut-out dolls and decide what I was going to wear. And then I thought, 'What if you took pictures of yourself in all of your outfits — tops, bottoms, pants, skirts — and put that in the computer?' I also had one friend who had an extensive wine collection, so he cataloged all of them with different titles, groupings, and however else you divide up wines. It's a low-tech idea stuck into a computer.
Jordan: The virtual closet was really new stuff in terms of computer animation. It was really new and a very laborious process. But we were working with qualified people on the computer graphics side. We pulled it off. It was an enormous amount of developments. We worked on that for weeks and weeks and weeks.
Heckerling: There were designs of what [the closet] should physically look like, and I knew that I wanted to be able to separately control what the tops and bottoms would look like. You'd sense that she had gamified it in a way; give her something to be doing. That meant having different parts moving back and forth, having different clothes coming in and out.
May: We had a bunch of different tops and bottoms swinging by, which were all photographs that we took.
Heckerling: When you're working out the wardrobe for different characters in a film, you have pictures of all the actors in the different outfits. The visual boards would be blocked out according to the scene, so you would see who else is in the scene and what they were wearing. So you'd wind up with your pictures of the actors cut up in pieces and pasted together to see how they would look with other people in different scenes. Of course, now you would have a computer, but in those days it would be Polaroids.
May: One of the tops [in the virtual closet] was a jean jacket with all of these different plaids. We actually created that for the movie. Whatever was flying by had to be very visual, and it's very quick. But we wanted to make sure the yellow suit really stood out the most.
Heckerling: [The art department] came up with the computer's screensaver with the moving little hangers and leopard-print background. Once people had an idea of what we were all doing, everybody sort of went off and had fun with it. So I didn't say, 'I want it to be leopard or pink or have clothes hangers.' They said, 'What do you think of this?' And that was exactly right.
May: It was so much fun being involved in something like that. We were completely creating something new that nobody had seen before.