In world of Clueless is certainly a very

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            In Jane Austen’s Emma, the titular character, Emma
Woodhouse, is a member of the affluent society of nineteenth century England.

In Amy Heckerling’s adaptation, Clueless,
the main character Cher Horowitz inhabits the upscale Beverly Hills in
California. The dilemmas of wealth and social hierarchy, arrogance, and lack of
acceptance are translated from the book to the film, even as societal values
change over time. Heckerling’s fidelity to Emma
is revealed in the first few minutes of the film, as the camera leads an
audience through shots of Cher’s mansion and designer clothing. Fashion and
physical appearance are used to represent the social hierarchy in Clueless, demonstrating that the
changing time period has not necessarily resulted in significant progress. The
ability to recognize the issues that are consistent through time makes Clueless an enduring adaptation.

            In Emma, class structures are the most apparent divisions among
characters. The rich assume control of social situations, the social climbers strive
to appear important, while the poor remain far below them both. Land is an
essential factor that separates the classes, and Austen shows the contrasting fortunes
of those who do and don’t own land. Poor women are compelled to marry for money
or take on jobs as governesses. The novel explores the ultimate futility of Emma’s
attempts to change Harriet’s fate and defy these clearly defined social
boundaries. The world of Clueless is
certainly a very different one, where women can do much more than just marry.

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The film cleverly reiterates this in its end scene by showing a marriage where
Cher is merely in attendance, unlike in Emma, where she is the one finally
marrying Mr. Knightley. However, the notion of social hierarchy is far from obliterated.

            At Cher’s high school, social class
is most evidently tied to the different cliques or social circles, and to
popularity. Cher’s exaggerated deployment of “as if” is a response to an assumption
made about her that is so ghastly erroneous because it breaks this class hierarchy.

When Tai expresses an interest in grungy skateboarder Travis, Cher must
immediately dissuade her from the notion. Class status is also firmly tied to
one’s outward appearance, which is why Cher maintains a superficial attitude
towards people. ‘Fashion Girl’ by David Bowie plays at the beginning of Clueless, and serves to immediately
introduce the relevance of the topic of fashion in understanding the film’s
message. Characters strutting through the school hallways reinforce this as
they remind viewers of a fashion show runway. This visual distinction of social hierarchy is clearly set
up in Tai’s introductory scene, where a comparison is shown between the un-groomed
and unfashionable Tai, and the rest of the girls who are all beautiful and
stylish. In order for Tai to become a member of their high school’s social
elite, Cher must give her a makeover and make her physical appearance conform
to their standards. When Cher and Dionne take her home, this makeover,
accompanied by the song ‘Supermodel’, is revealed to include a transformation
of not only Tai’s clothes, but along with them, her accent and vocabulary as

            After Elton drops Cher off at a deserted
gas station late at night, she is held at gunpoint by a robber who orders her
to get down on the ground. Cher protests the act which would ruin her outfit,
exclaiming that “this is an Alaia” who is “like a totally important designer”. This
moment aligns with the pattern in Clueless
to highlight superficiality, even in the face of death, represented using
fashion. When Christian is first introduced, his sophisticated clothing style
noticeably finds an echo in both Cher’s and Dionne’s ways of dressing. Upon
feeling rejected by him, Cher comforts herself with the notion that, “I suppose
it wasn’t meant to be. I mean, he does dress better than I do. What would I
bring to the relationship?” Later on, when she discovers that Christian is gay,
she decides that he will at least remain “one of her favorite shopping partners.”
Each of Cher’s conceptions about her relationship with Christian emphasize
connections that are functional and contingent. This highlights that Cher’s associations
with people are driven by material and pragmatic desires, since one’s physical
appearance and fashion are how she sees class status being manifested, and thus
assume supreme importance.

            As the setting of Clueless is a high school in
contemporary Los Angeles, very often, school boards display words like “destitution”,
“discrimination”, “poverty”, “subjugation” and “suffragette”. However, these
topics exist merely as signs or words written on the board, and as distant as
possible from the actual lives of the film’s characters. They are also present
on Josh’s t-shirts, towards which Cher shows a clear disdain. Josh is the only
person in the film who does not dress according to his class status. In fact,
he utilizes fashion to make a statement against social injustices. This rejection
of the visual distinction of social hierarchy, in Cher’s superficial view, makes
Josh unworthy of being thought about romantically.

In a conversation between the two, Cher
insists, “I have direction!” to which Josh replies, “yeah, towards the mall.” Later
in the film, he tells her to “Go out and have fun. Go shopping”. In one of her
many voiceovers, Cher herself says, “I felt impotent and out of control, which
I really hate. I needed to find sanctuary in a place where I could gather my
thoughts and regain my strength.” The scene cuts to Cher at the mall. These
references to Cher’s obsession with shopping are repeated throughout the film,
often with a negative connotation or as an insult, such as when Logan tells her
to “just go back to the mall or something,” suggesting that Cher’s involvement
with society is limited to the shopping mall. Constant references to the mall
tie in the theme of fashion with consumerism, which further illustrates the
class divide where Cher utilizes status-symbols to solidify her social
standing, as well as judge socioeconomic status and social stratification. Her
relationships with the mall and shopping form substitutes for healthy human
relationships, such as in the case of Christian. According to critics of
consumerism, consumption of the sort Cher practices takes part in creating a
cultural hegemony (domination of the ruling class) and facilitating a general
process of social control.

Near the end of the film, Cher walks
through the streets feeling confused and upset about Tai’s revelation.

Punctuated by the song ‘All by Myself’, her voiceover monologue begins:

“Everything I think and everything I do
is wrong. I was wrong about Elton, I was wrong about Christian, and now Josh
hated me. It all boiled down to one inevitable conclusion – I was just totally
clueless. Oh, and this Josh and Tai thing was wigging me more than anything. I
mean, what was my problem? Tai is my pal; I don’t begrudge her a boyfriend. I
really…ooh, I wonder if they have that in my size.”

amid self-revelations that she has been “just totally clueless” and is “majorly,
totally, butt-crazy in love with Josh”, Cher ambles by a fashion display which
momentarily distracts her and diverts her train of thought to wonder if her
size is available. The gravity of her epiphany is undermined by Cher’s
diversion to notice a beautiful dress in the shop window, which once again,
humorously underscores her superficial preoccupation with fashion even as she
is on the cusps of change.

            Another connective tissue that
represents the social structure, and tethers the themes of Austen’s novel to
Heckerling’s script, is the language used by the characters. In the scene where
Dionne tells off her boyfriend for addressing her as “woman”, he delivers the
following explanation: “Street slang is an increasingly valid form of
expression. Most of the feminine pronouns do have mocking but not necessarily
misogynistic undertones.” In response to this eloquent defense, Dionne
immediately forgets her anger and smiles, while Tai admiringly declares, “wow,
you guys talk like grownups.” This leads Cher and Dionne to give her a
makeover, where along with her clothes, they also change her accent and
vocabulary, a necessary element of the transformation in outward appearance
required to elevate her class status.

            Although clothes and style have come
a long way since the early nineteenth century, their use to represent social hierarchy
drives home the fact that social issues may not have made the same progress.

Notions of class are still pervasive in contemporary America, although delineated
differently. Now, appearance, language and material possessions are the
currency of class. Exactly the same as in Emma,
relationships between these classes or cliques are unthinkable. Throughout the
film, Cher remains fixated on appearance and presentation, and believes that
these determine a person’s identity and social status. This is revealed through
her misrepresentation of what is important – beauty, fashion and makeup,
through which one can attain the power of being seen as desirable. Using
fashion and physical appearance as vehicles that would be relevant to a modern
audience, Heckerling effectively brings the thematic concern of social hierarchy
presented in Emma into modern day
cinema. The identification and presentation of this persisting issue enables
Heckerling to connect Austen’s world to that of 1990’s, and even current,
America, making Clueless enduring as
an adaptation.

Categories: Fashion


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