Earlier this year, I had the great honor of interviewing a true costume design legend, Mona May. There is absolutely no way you aren’t familiar with at least one of Mona’s films. I am talking about Clueless, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, A Night at the Roxbury, The Wedding Singer, Never Been Kissed, Enchanted, The Haunted Mansion, Stuart Little 2, and The House Bunny. Really, I could go on forever naming her wide list of work. Today, I am excited to share with you some insight into the wonderful world of Mona May, as we talk about her growing up, inspiration, research, current and future projects, a new collaboration with Thrilling, and some advice for future costume designers. Thank you again Mona for taking the time to speak with me.
Spencer Williams: Mona, I can’t tell you how honored I am to have you here. This is so exciting!
Mona May: Hello Spencer, I’m happy to be here! Congratulations on the launch of your blog!
Spencer: Oh, thank you so much! I am so grateful for how receptive the costume design community has been to the launch of The Art of Costume. It’s a true honor to spotlight the incredible creativity and talent of costume designers. I’m so glad you could join me.
Mona: I love it!
Spencer: Well Mona, how have you been doing? It’s certainly been an interesting time.
Mona: I have been great. Actually, it’s been kind of a very interesting downtime, but I’ve taken a lot of different creative leaps. Because of the Clueless twenty-fifth anniversary, I’ve been doing so much press and my Instagram just blew up. I never was really an Instagram person. Now, I’m loving it! I’m doing Mona May Minute, talking about my work and process to my followers, getting so many questions from everybody. I just love it. I’m collaborating with brands and different organizations like Girls, Inc.. a non-profit organization that empowers young girls…Mentoring is kind of a new adventure for me. It’s been a very, very creative few months.
In the beginning, I thought it was all very scary because I was on a Netflix film that was going to Canada to shoot and I was getting ready to get on a plane on Wednesday. Then on Friday, they shut us down. It was very disappointing as We were already prepping all the costumes with our actors. It was very jarring. All of a sudden, everything stopped. We were prepping at Universal Studios wardrobe department, and it was just packed with people, so many projects going on that we couldn’t even get a fitting room. Then everything just basically stopped, overnight it was empty.
Projects are finally coming back. Looks like I’m going to start Punky Brewster, the reboot for Peacock. I’m super excited to be back to work, to create and have fun.
Spencer: I am so thrilled to see projects are coming back. It’s like the end of a long winter. I always like to start with my guests, asking how you ended up in the world of costume design. Where did it all begin for Mona?
Mona: I like the question because my path is very interesting. I was actually that young kid who drew as a little girl. I had princesses and gave them all makeovers and had a whole collection of outfits for my princesses.
I was always interested in clothes and fashion. I was giving my mom advice when I was five years old, telling her what she should wear. As you can see this was kind of my natural path into costume. I studied fashion in Europe. I was actually born in India, I grew up in Poland and Germany. My mom’s German and my dad was Polish. My mom was an art dealer, so I grew up around art and artists. Then I came to the USA and via New York City ended up in Los Angeles at the Fashion Institute Of Design and Merchandising and studied fashion. It was very interesting to be here in Los Angeles because it was very different from European fashion, very casual and the clothes were a lot more fun.
During the time I was here studying, I met friends from USC Film School and the UCLA Film School that were doing short films for their school projects. They would always ask me, “Can you help us, you are in fashion?” Sure. It sounds interesting. I have to tell you that from the first little movie that I did, I just got the bug immediately because it was such a fun, collaborative process. Learning about the characters, diving into their psychology, it was so much more than just fashion. I was good at it and eventually, the word got out.
MTV was starting out, so I worked with Run DMC, Debbie Gibson, some commercials and this crazy show for MTV called Just Say Julie, which was with Julie Brown. It was super funny. I did props and costumes. I was able to express myself in this amazing way. Everything kind of led another. I got into the union. I did a pilot with Amy Heckling. The pilot didn’t get picked up, but then she wrote Clueless… she called because we just connected on such a creative level when we worked together. Amy loves fashion and has a really deep understanding of what’s going on and always has a hand on the pulse of everything, the language of young people and current fashions. When she called me up, she said you are the best person to design the costumes and the rest is history.
Clueless was a film about girls in Beverly Hills who dressed in high fashion. At the time when we were prepping the movie, fashion had a strong similarity to that of Kurt Cobain. The fashion in Los Angeles during the nineties was grunge, all about big plaid shirts, baggy pants, and dark colors. Our main goal was to bring European runway fashion inspirations to the story. It was all ahead of its time and blended with the characters in a high school setting. We also had to make sure that everything looked authentic and real. We didn’t want all of the girls to run around in high heels looking like snooty models. We wanted real girls that the audience could still relate to. So part of the challenge was translating that high fashion from the runways into high school.
We had amazing actors. Alicia Silverstone was this new girl on the scene famous from an Aerosmith video and most of the actors like Paul Rudd this was a big break… Clueless was really a project of love for all of us, we were so happy to be there and doing such a creative film with a great script and amazing director. Because of this opportunity, I was able to marry my love of fashion and costume design. What an incredible opportunity!
The budget on the movie wasn’t big, it was my first studio film as a designer, I didn’t even have an agent and had to negotiate my rate and my own perks. I want the young readers who are kind of on their path to becoming designers to know, you never know how things are going to really turn out. You have to be very open to opportunities. When we were working on Clueless none of us imagined we will be all talking about it 25 years later.
Spencer: You have an incredible story. So let’s talk about Clueless, celebrating its 25th anniversary. I mean, twenty-five years… Does it even seem real?
Mona: I mean, it seems like it was just yesterday. But, yeah, it just doesn’t. It’s bizarre and wild that it’s been twenty-five years, really and there is still so much love for this film.
Spencer: As you said earlier, your Instagram is blowing up. I’ve been seeing your name all over the press. People refer to you sometimes as The Queen of 90s Fashion. You would think the film just came out yesterday!
Mona: I am so proud that this film has stood the test of time. That is still so popular and has inspired generations of women. Even though the outfits were inspired by the 90s, I had a global point of view on fashion. So the movie is not as dated as maybe it was just on-trend. The outfits are so classic, the plaid, the peacoat, the berets, A-line skirts. You have the empire waist dresses with the cap sleeves. That’s what I gravitate to. I always wanted the girls to look and feel feminine and pretty. That’s what we’re doing in the movie. We’re kind of bringing back the feminine and bringing back the beauty of girls that was lost in the grunge and darkness.
Spencer: What type of research did you have to do for Clueless when it came to fashion as well as designing each of the subcultures, such as a skater kid, the jocks, stoner kids, or the teachers. What does that research look like?
Mona: Well, as a costume designer we each have a different process. After reading the script and meeting with a director and kind of downloading their vision is doing visual boards. You do collages. I gather art and look at photography. You look at fashion pieces. For me, that film inspiration was really about going to European runways, and really bringing something that’s not in the stores or on the streets. I was looking six months ahead or even further when it came to styles, textures, and colors. I had to use the predictive magazines, there was no computer and ideas with the click of a little finger. You look through these magazines and think about what’s right for each character, what will translate well into the world of young girls in Beverly Hills.
For example, when it came to creating the color palette for these characters, Dionne and Cher were very different. The color palette for Cher was classic, like reds, blues, yellows, and pinks as Dionne Davenport, the palette was much brighter. Her skin tone allowed me to push the colors and even use neon colors. I got to use a lot of different textures such as vinyl leopard and faux fur on Dionne as she was sassier. Cher and Dionne were best friends, but really very unique psychologically so the clothes had to reflect that.
The rest kind of fell into place with a lot of effort of course as we had a lot of clothes in the movie. Since we were creating fashion that was not on the street every extra that was on screen had to be dressed from head to toe. The stoners, the skateboarders, preppy boys, the school A-list boys we dressed all of them. And that was in addition to our main cast like Alicia Silverstone who had sixty wardrobe changes and Dionne probably had about fifty.
I would come in at 5:00 in the morning, and the real challenge was everyone had to be dressed because they were all coming in grunge. If we are creating the world, they have to be on par and look as fabulous as everybody else on the screen. With the right color palette, textures, and have all of the new cool hip clothes or the backpacks. So it was a lot of clothes.
But that’s kind of the movies I do. If you really look at Never Been Kissed, Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, The Wedding Singer, The House Bunny, or even Enchanted. I just get these very creative jobs with big stories and journeys of the characters and this is where I thrive. I can put the creative puzzle together. As a costume designer, I don’t do it all alone. I have a big team: a supervisor who looks after the whole department, pays the bills, makes sure we are on schedule with fittings. I have shoppers, patternmakers, seamstresses, and the very important set crew who dresses actors and keeps the continuity. There is a big team behind me to support my vision. In this film, we didn’t have a lot of time prep, only about two months to prep so a designer needs a strong team to make it all happen.
Spencer: Oh wow. I’m sorry, did you say two months? I just got chills.
Mona: Yeah. We didn’t have a lot of money either. Also, you have to remember this was so long ago that the PR machine also wasn’t really in place. You know, like now if you are watching a television show, some of these fabulous clothes are just a phone call away. It’s much easier to put these incredible looks together. In my case, I didn’t have that luxury, so I had to be very inventive. The thing about not having a lot of money, I couldn’t buy all designer clothes. But in the end, I think the movie was better because of it. I had to find the clothes from the future, right then from all kinds of sources, high-end stores, mall stores, and thrift stores. Which created the unique look of the film- mixing high and low fashion which was not done before. It was fresh and the girls loved it!!
Spencer: Because of this process of thrifting and combining all of these pieces, you were setting trends. Those trends are as alive now as they were twenty-five years ago! It’s incredible really.
Mona: Yeah, it was really amazing how I was able to inspire girls to dress in fun fashions to be girly again and to mix old and new. Thrifting is so in now, so we all have to think about stability and not polluting the earth with a crazy amount of disposable clothes. I just did a collaboration with this shop, Thrilling, a company that’s online, a collective of thrift stores from all over the United States. We did a photo shoot as I am curating a collection for them and I was able to pull all kinds of cool clothes and show girls that you can dress high fashion in vintage. That you don’t need to buy new clothes and you can look more unique with repurposed clothing. I had so much fun putting it together and the response has been great so far.
I always try to inspire. That’s kind of the goal of what I do and who I am. I want to inspire young women. I want them to be inspired to be themselves and to be authentic. That’s the message I feel I have tried to send in all my movies.
Spencer: So this is really the hardest question of them all, and I am sorry I have to ask you. I think the audience would riot if I don’t. Is there a particular costume that has a special place in your heart? Do you have a favorite?
Mona: You know, it’s really one of the hardest questions to answer because they are all my babies and they all have such meaning. The yellow suit will forever be the most famous of the costumes that I’ve ever done. I mean, it’s almost like the white dress Marilyn Monroe wore. When you look at the yellow plaid, you automatically think Clueless. I love Enchanted too, you know. That white dress we did for Amy Adams, as a design, it’s just so spectacular. There were these costumes that I did for Haunted Mansion that were quite incredible as they were glowing in the dark. It was such a fun process creating them. I was using the stuff that’s on your tennis shoes that reflects when light hits it – that’s actually microscopic glass beads that reflect light. The director wanted the costumes to be very organic and have the ghosts in the graveyard glow when the main characters drive through it.
So each costume is so unique to the process. If I had to pick one, it’s probably the yellow suit just because it’s so iconic. It’s very synonymous with me and that movie to this day.
Spencer: So looking back at a lot of your popular work such as Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, Clueless, A Night at the Roxbury, it seems like you have a real connection to Los Angeles and the L.A. fashion scene. Do you feel that way, too?
Mona: You know what? It was not intentional. It was just something that happened. I do feel a connection to Los Angeles. I love color and the environment is something that has helped me paint my pictures in a brighter way. The setting is so much more positive and happy. You know, there’s so much light here. There’s so much color. Everybody has a signature. Some designers do really well, period costumes. Some designers do great with drama. I think that I’m kind of suited to my personality and artistic take on things with comedy.
Spencer: So unlike most people, I feel like my first introduction into the world of Mona May wasn’t actually with Clueless. My childhood is deeply composed of those Disney Channel television shows that so many people my age feel all of the nostalgia for.
Mona: Oh! Which one?
Spencer: Well, most of them were projects you were on. Stuck in the Suburbs was a good one, I still have the soundtrack *laughs*. Zenon: The Zequel. Oh, and how could I forget The Cheetah Girls: One World. Take us back a little bit to the early 2000s when you were doing these original Disney Channel television-movies.
Mona: It was so much fun because in between these big movies, I always had a little break and they reached out to me. My sensibility and my art are very similar to what Disney Channel stands for. You know, it’s very bright. It was all very happy.
It was really fun to work with young kids because they were on the verge of being women. So it was great to be able to empower them and also help them understand costume design. How does costume design help tell the story? At the same time, helping them to feel good in their bodies. I really loved working with Disney Channel. At the time, Disney Channel was spending a bunch of money on those little films. They allowed me a certain kind of freedom to do what I want, which was really creative.
Spencer: I remember being a kid in probably elementary school, watching The Cheetah Girls: One World and thinking beautiful and inspiring those costumes were. Plus, how exciting to go to India, your birthplace!
Mona: We just had a blast. It was an unforgettable experience. It was so interesting to work there and oversee the cross-culture. Here’s the thing, the Cheetah Girls had these modern, really kind of cool, funky clothes. Then as we went to India, we started to blend authentic Indian fashion into their own looks. It was such a cool and interesting blend.
Spencer: Ugh I love it. You are taking me all the way back! A key focus of mine and the team at The Art of Costume is exploring this idea of storytelling through costume design. Just as a basic question, do you consider costume designers to be storytellers?
Mona: Of course! This question is lovely. Clueless is a great example. The costumes are almost like a character in itself. Or, if you look at Never Been Kissed. Josie Geller (played by Drew Berrymore) starts as a kind of very bookish, nerdy girl and then goes into high school with this crazy idea of what high school the kids would wear. Then you see her transformation as she finds more about herself and the scrips unfold the story. At the end of the film, you see this young woman in that beautiful, age-appropriate pink dress and she is not the same girl we met at the begging of the film. The final look, that dress tells us about a sophisticated young woman who is not afraid of who she is – why she became. So costume it’s absolutely part of the storytelling. When you see a character on screen, within thirty seconds or less we have a good idea of who they are by the clothes they wear.
Twenty-five years later after doing Clueless, having articles written about me in Variety and fashion magazines such as Vogue and Elle, WWD, and New York Post brings more awareness to who we are as costume designers as artists. We are part of the creative process on a film or a tv project as important as directors of photography and production designers. I think this is so incredibly important because we want equality. Artistic equality and pay equality. Costume designers are a part of the collaborative process of filmmaking and as being mostly women we don’t get all the respect. I love that I’m speaking to you and I am doing all this press because it just brings more awareness to who we are as costume designers and our craft…
Spencer: Another great example I wanted to add to this idea of storytelling, is Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. I can’t even imagine that film without you. The whole story is about these two characters almost kind of changing themselves in hopes to be impressive at their high school reunion. This story is so dependent on the clothes that they’re wearing. It’s even told through multiple flashbacks to their days in high school. For example, the great prom scene. Their whole story is relying on the costume designer to translate their trials throughout their life leading up to the reunion. We rely heavily upon our costume designers as storytellers, and I think it’s about time costume designers and costume departments as a whole are given the credit they deserve.
Mona: Absolutely. But I think the problem is that people don’t know how it happens. As I said, I had to put sixty changes together for Alicia Silverstone as Cher. People don’t realize how many clothes you have, how many fittings you have to do, and you know how many accessories you have to put together. Each outfit is unique and thought out to the last detail. It’s a huge job not only creatively but you have to deal with budgets, running crew in your department, communicate with actors, and deliver everything on time. So this is about shedding the light on what we do, how does it happen – the process.
Spencer: Right. I mean, touching on that same point. Throughout your career, you’ve worked on multiple projects that include costume design for both live-action and animated films such as Stuart Little 2, The Haunted Mansion. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my favorites, Enchanted. By the way, one of my favorite costumes of all time is that gown Queen Narissa wore.
Mona: Thank you. Narissa’s costume is probably my second, right after the yellow suit in Clueless. I love, love that design and how beautiful it is on screen.
Spencer: Oh, it’s extraordinary. That scene where she emerges from that manhole in Times Square. Spoiler alert, she eventually becomes a dragon. Plus, Narissa is played by Susan Sarandon, it doesn’t get better than that. Okay, I will stop being a nerd for a few seconds. Not many people realize that animated characters and films require costume designers as well.
Mona: Yes! Yes! My first experience with animated costumes was with Stuart Little 2. I got a great opportunity to meet the director, Rob Minkoff, and had an interview with him. The first film was great because we had this mouse who was kind of conservative wearing little bow ties and suits the movie became a huge hit. So now people believed that there was a mouse living with humans. When I went to interview for Stuart Little 2, I brought drawings of Stuart and in a Prada suit, skateboarding outfit, or even a date outfit. I said to the director Rob Minkoff – the mouse is now a beloved character so let’s give Stuart a makeover. And that’s how I got the job!
The process is very similar to designing costumes for live-action. You start with drawings and then it becomes very technical with many many details from proportions to fit. I’m almost like an adviser to all the technical guys who are on the computer who build them all in 3D. I would come in and do fittings virtually on the computer. Pretty cool! We had to make sure that the clothes fit on the digital character, especially because he had a horrible body to dress. He had a giant head, basically, no neck, small shoulders, giant tail, and short legs and the director wanted him to look like he shops at GAP. But he was one of the best actors I’ve worked with, he loved all his costumes and never talked back. *laughs*
It was a great learning experience to work on these animated projects because it’s all very technical but I’m still designing costumes just not a human but a digital character.
I just worked on another animated movie recently that was for Skydance Animation. It was a female virtual character, a young girl, but she had a different shape than humans more of an animated character body with a bigger head and small shaped body. You’re designing the costumes and trying to make sure they still fit great. The clothes need to be the right colors for her skin tone, fit her body shape. They have to be right for her age, where she is coming from culturally, and the right socio-economic background. This particular character was going to be doing a lot of action so we have to allow for the clothes to move with her, making sure clothing is not too restrictive. So the process is very similar to live-action the decisions you make as a designer are the same. You just have to deal with gravity in live-action and not in animation
Spencer: Speaking of gravity, even in animation, gravity still affects the textiles and the flow of the clothing too! Well, unless you are space…
Mona: Very much so. It’s a funny thing that you bring up. When I was doing Enchanted, I got brought on very early because I was working with the animators designing the costumes since I had to translate them into live-action costumes. The first part of the film was all old-style animation. I was there when they were starting to draw the characters and putting some clothes on them. When we started to cast and I was hired, I would be in the room with them. We were trying to figure out the designs for characters like Nathaniel (Played by Timothy Spall) who was the sidekick to the prince. The animators started drawing little puffy hot pants and short shirts for his look. I’m like, OK, I have this actor who is over 200 lbs and he’s not going to run Central Park with these little shorts. So we need to really be realistic. We as designers can bring our experience understanding clothing, how it works on bodies how the fabric moves when it moves in live-action. Animators think more in fantasy and they don’t have to think of gravity. They can do anything they want but we as a costume designer have to deal with real bodies, especially in this case of Enchanted, which was about bringing the animated characters into a live-action world.
Spencer: Wow, that’s so interesting. I feel like I am certainly going to watch Enchanted again after this interview. I heard you are working on a new animated film, Flora and Ulysses for Disney+. Would you like to give us a special sneak peek?
Mona: I would love to talk about it. It was such a fantastic experience because it took me back to my roots of Stuart Little 2. It’s a live-action film with a CGI squirrel and working with CGI characters and live-action is complicated and fun at the same time. I love a challenge and learning new things on my projects. Sadly the CGI squirrel didn’t wear any clothes…
Spencer: Oh man!
Mona: I know I was very bummed. But what was really cool about this film was that the father is a comic book writer, and his daughter imagines his characters are coming off the pages of his comic books. So I actually had to design superheroes and it was so much fun because I had never done superheroes. I was able to learn a lot and learn about textures and different finishings. We worked with material that’s shiny, that almost looks like plastic. It was just a really great learning experience. I love a challenge and learning new things on my projects.
That’s what it’s all about for me. That’s what I would love to leave people who are reading along. Life is about learning. Every project brings a new experience and more opportunities to learn. When I got Stuart Little 2, I didn’t know how to design CGI characters. I had to learn. I loved it. Enchanted is such an interesting project because it blended old style 2D animation with live-action and CGI. Queen Narissa was a character that turned into a CGI dragon. I had to figure out how to blend all 3 different mediums. The 2D costume looked very flat, almost like a cut-out. Then when she comes to life, it’s like she just explodes with textures and color, and then all the details of her costumes become part of the dragon she turns into..
Spencer: When Queen Narissa comes to life as a live-action character, the costume took on a dragon scale-like texture.
Mona: Exactly. You know, probably one of the best parts of my job is learning so much. With each project, you dive into really intense research. You learn so much from meeting with other collaborators. I learned a lot from the director of photography when I was working on The Haunted Mansion when I had to make the costumes glow. We had to mix this stuff that glows that actually comes in powder form. You mix it with paint. You paint the clothes and then we had to shoot it with a camera that had a ring of light around the lens. We became a kind of like alchemists.
We work with actors. You know what’s very interesting and I talk a lot about it, when you have these ideas and you make the boards. You think you know who the character is. But then the actor or actress walks into the fitting room. This is when the magic happens. Going back to Clueless and the yellow suit, we let Alicia Silverstone try on the blue one. Then she tried the red one. The blue one was beautiful. The red one was a little bit too on the nose, like trying too hard. Then she pulled the yellow…Oh my God. This is the color of just sunshine. She’s the queen.
Another great story I have comes with those final dresses for Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion. Those blue and pink party dresses. I had something else designed for Lisa Kudrow’s character. A couple of days before Lisa came, we started talking and she had a really good point. Maybe the dresses should be very similar. There should be this feeling, like a “We made it” feeling. So I changed the design last minute, which wasn’t easy. It was hard because everything was already in motion. We made both of the dresses A-line with the empire waist. We made Lisa’s pink which represented her character. Mira Sorvino’s character was always more in control so she had the blue one, and it really was perfect. It was actually better than what I did before. It became iconic. So the flexibility and kind of openness to the process and change are very important in our work…
Spencer: This is all so inspiring to hear. I am sure it’s also going to be very inspiring to a lot of future costume designers who are going to be reading this. It’s inspiring to hear, as someone we look up to including myself, is still constantly learning. Even with all of these projects that came after Clueless, you are still taking the time to learn.
Mona: Yes. You know, we are artists but not machines. You have to be dedicated to your work. There are long hours involved. Sometimes you have to go away for months. You have to be passionate and willing to learn. You have to show up and be there. It’s not always going to be easy. You won’t always have the money. You might not have enough crew. So you have to love it. I think. You have to really be there and be professional. I think you have to be a very good communicator.
It’s a job that’s very interesting because it’s not a job that’s the same every day. Every project is different. Every day, different things happen. There’s a lot of change. You have to be on your toes, and sometimes you have to take yourself out of the equation a little. It’s not about you. It’s about the project. It’s about the art. In the end, it’s our goal to make the project the best we can. Sometimes, maybe you don’t win and you don’t get what you like. Sometimes, you do. You know, it’s really give, and take. I hope that is one thing that the readers of The Art of Costume take away from this.
Spencer: I think they will, and I am so happy you have taken the time to share your knowledge and experiences with us… So finally, what’s coming up next for Mona May I know you’re doing the reboot for Punky Brewster, a popular 80s sitcom That is so exciting!
Mona: Oh, I am super excited. Punky is now a mom. Punky is now in her 40s and she has three kids. You know, we want to make her kind of a cool mom, edgy mom. One of the girls is a fashionista who is about fifteen. So she’s gonna have some fun clothes. Freddie Prinze. Junior is going to be the ex-husband, the musician. I’m so happy that I was brought onto this project, to create something very fresh, something real, something that the young moms can emulate. We are looking at a woman who is 40 years old, who can also be a mom and be hip and be cool. We will be connecting with the audience in different ways. I’m lucky that I get these kinds of jobs, you know. I’m sort of a go-to when it comes to bringing something fresh, to remake something in a new way that’s so exciting.
Spencer: Mona, thank you so much for talking with me. I can sit here and just talk to you for hours, and hours.
Mona: I appreciate you talking to me. You are shedding light on what we do and spreading the word about costume design. It’s really important to me.
I also would love your audience to follow me on Instagram. I’m actually answering a lot of questions. On Mondays, I host Mona Minute, and I talk about my process so anybody can send me a question and I’ll try to answer as many as I can. I want people to be on this journey with me. It’s just great. I probably will be like the eighty-five-year-old grandma still doing this, and sharing.