With Valentine’s Day, rom-com season is officially upon us. While we’re nose-deep in cheesy storylines and cheering when everyone gets their happy endings, it’s important to note how the fashion in the films helps to communicate the narrative as much as the script itself; and with the rise of ‘main character’ dressing and Miss Vogue heralding romcom fashion as a trend of its own, where better to look for outfit inspiration than the most iconic romcom heroines themselves?
Mona May’s costume design in Clueless completely defied the Nineties grunge era and opted instead to showcase the film’s main character’s traits – optimistic, bubbly and unapologetically girly – through its styling.
The most iconic outfit of the film is undoubtedly Cher’s yellow plaid Dolce & Gabbana suit. The yellow plaid is such powerful iconography that any piece of clothing in that print still immediately conjures up Cher strutting into school, some 25 years after the film’s release. The use of heritage, preppy prints throughout Cher’s wardrobe, such as plaid and argyle, creates a clearcut image of her character. Despite her focus on something seemingly trivial, like fashion, leading to her being called “clueless”, she is mature and forward-thinking – as if reflected in the styling of classic and potentially too mature prints in a playful and girly way.
Unlike many rom-com heroines, Cher goes through no ‘ugly duckling’ transformation, a hallmark of the genre. Her wardrobe therefore remains consistent – styling classic staples, like plain button-up shirts and sweater vests, with a feminine, flirty twist by adding knee-high socks, miniskirts and matching sets.
Perhaps the biggest success of Cher’s style is its accessibility to the film’s audience. With the film marketed at a young teen audience, Cher is only 16 in the film and her style is so easily attainable for viewers who see themselves in her. Despite sporting the likes of Calvin Klein and Alaia, the individual pieces that make up her outfits are basics, easily found on the high street. What makes her style so iconic is the styling and her unapologetic attitude at a time when dressing in a hyper-feminine and put-together way was completely off trend.
Elle Woods, Legally Blonde
Another unashamedly ‘girly girl’, Elle Woods challenges the preconceptions around appearances reflecting our inner selves. The film itself challenged rom-com tropes, like giving the main female character a more ‘tomboyish’ look and setting her against the other female characters in order to convey her as strong and different. Legally Blonde is instead unique in that it portrays Elle’s femininity as her greatest strength, not a punchline.
Elle’s wardrobe perfectly encapsulates the early ‘00s bubblegum aesthetic, featuring generous splashes of sequins, halters and of course an enormous amount of pink. Her signature colour epitomises her California sorority-girl persona but visually makes her completely stand out amongst the earth-tones of the other Harvard students, something she struggles with throughout the film.
Unlike Cher, Elle does go through a style transformation of sorts, opting to temporarily drop her pink colour palette when she secures a prestigious law internship and instead dons a comparatively serious black pencil skirt suit with a polka dot bow blouse on her first day. Although the collar of the blouse and the colour scheme is reminiscent of a judge’s robes, reflecting her foray into the legal world, she never compromises her feminine silhouettes. Details like her red lip and frilled slip keep the look flirtatious and fun.
After opting for a more muted series of workwear outfits in an attempt to fit in, Elle’s epiphany that she doesn’t have to lose her sense of self to be taken seriously is reflected in her fashion choices. She returns to court in an iconic pink power suit and rhinestoned heels to match, retaining the classic workwear style but in her signature look. Her regained confidence radiates through this look and ultimately that is her success.
Elle’s style is ostentatious and visually striking. While her style may not be accessible, it is still aspirational and iconic in conveying to the audience the message that success comes from self-confidence and an uncompromising belief in being yourself.
Illustration by Verity Laycock