25 years on, Clueless is remembered and revered for all sorts of things: the bold fashion, the sly wit, the uncanny way that Paul Rudd has refused to age even a little bit since 1995.
But the very first time you see it, the very first thing you notice about its heroine is her hair. And even now, it remains one of the film’s most defining features.
It’s with us from the opening shot of Clueless — the only thing you can really make out as Cher zips down a Beverly Hills street in her Jeep, before you can get a good look at her face or her clothes. A glorious curtain of it marks our proper introduction to her a few seconds later, as she flips it back over her face in a close-up.
Straight and thick and lustrous, it’s the ideal shade of golden blond, with gentle highlights that catch the light. As she runs her fingers through it, each strand falls into perfectly imperfect place. In that moment, before you know her name, you know exactly who this girl is.
“We’ve all had the experience, at some time or another, of the perfect girl in school who everybody loves,” Nina Paskowitz tells Mashable over Zoom in advance of Clueless‘ 25th anniversary on July 18. You know: “Super friendly, the leader of whatever’s going on. Everybody looks up to her. [She’s] maybe a little ditzy at times, but someone they admire and want to emulate. And yet youthful, playful, fun, approachable, and complicated and simple at the same time.”
Paskowitz was the hairstylist on Clueless, and therefore the one responsible for creating the looks that conveyed exactly those qualities in the character. It wasn’t always a straightforward task. According to Paskowitz, clotheshorse Cher had a different hairstyle for every look, even if the distinctions were as subtle as a new part. Each of them had to go with the outfit — a busier getup might be balanced out by more streamlined hair, for instance — and the outfits, chosen by costume designer Mona May and director Amy Heckerling, often weren’t finalized until the last minute.
But getting Alicia Silverstone’s naturally golden locks to look great? That was the easy part.
“Because Alicia had such beautiful hair to begin with, we wanted to make sure her hair always felt like silk,” says Paskowitz. All that was needed to maintain it, she explains, were picking the right shampoos and essential oils, giving it regular trims, avoiding toxic and drying chemicals, and applying a curling iron to turn up the ends just so. “Regardless of the style that we created, it was about her hair reflecting the light, being as healthy looking as possible.”
The styles Cher chooses — or, rather, that Paskowitz chose for her — tend to be uncomplicated. She frequently defaults to leaving it down, and when she does put it up, it’s usually in a basic pony or bun. (Paskowitz’s personal favorite look? The rhinestone clip Cher wears on her date with Christian, and which Paskowitz later reused on Amanda Bynes in She’s the Man.) They’re ‘dos a teenager could believably pull together in her own bedroom — which surely explains why so many ’90s kids, this reporter included, spent much of their adolescence trying to do just that. But those same kids could tell you that actually getting that hair isn’t as simple as it looks.
“Most people can’t have that,” Caroline Mitgang, a Los Angeles hairdresser, says bluntly over the phone. “I can give you a tutorial on what products do you use, and how to blow it out, and what size brush, and whatever. But unless your hair is basically 90% there on its own, it’s not happening.”
If you are already blessed with hair like Cher’s, Mitgang says, replicating Cher’s hair isn’t that difficult: “You’d just use a nice light styling product that has a touch of hold to it, maybe a really really light mousse or whatever, and then get your big ’90s, huge barrel round brush and blow it out with body but without any waves, and go.” If not, though, there’s no bleaching darker hair to the exact color of Cher’s, and no blow-drying or flat-ironing more textured hair to that level of smoothness.
Even if you got close, you’d be unable to touch your hair the way Cher does, and the touchability of her hair is a key aspect of its appeal. It’s a purposeful choice by Paskowitz, who prides herself on creating movable, naturalistic looks rather than stiff, overly stylized ones. “I wanted her hair and for her character to feel like she could run her hands through her hair without worrying about it looking inappropriate,” she said. Cher has hair that moves, that bounces and shifts as she does, that she can flip over her shoulder to punctuate a sentence or finger-comb to seduce a boy. (“Did my hair get flat?” she wonders when it doesn’t work.)
And once she’s done fiddling with it, the hair always, always, falls right back into place. The specific combination of genuine effortlessness and total unattainability is precisely what made Cher’s hair so alluring in 1995, and what still makes it so enviable all these years later. In our conversation, Paskowitz cited French actress Brigitte Bardot as an inspiration — not because their styles were necessarily similar, but because Bardot’s hair, like Cher’s, “was sassy and beautiful and sexy and made a statement without being self-conscious.”
It’s what separates Cher from someone like Amber, her rival, who has the same money and status that Cher does but lacks her je ne sais quoi. Amber, Paskowitz points out, has dramatic bangs and more exaggerated, elaborate styles, like the spiky bangs and flipped ends in debate class, or the spiral curl pigtails in gym class. Despite their shared social circle, Amber and Cher’s hair is as different as “good versus evil,” says Paskowitz.
Cher’s, in comparison, looks polished but casual. For as much time as we see her shopping for, curating, and even computer-matching her outfits, there’s only a single scene of her hair in rollers. The rest of the time, it seems, she just runs a brush through it, and it magically falls like that. Cher’s hair is integral to our understanding of her. It’s the crown of someone born lucky, to whom things come easily, who gets whatever she wants without having to work too hard for it. Including attention: “When she walked down that quad, you wanted to feel like everyone was going to look for her, and they did,” says Paskowitz. “All she’d have to do was turn her head and that flow, and an outfit that caught your eye with color and texture… It was really amazing.”
Or, as Mitgang puts it, “Her hair looks like someone who would get good grades and get the boy she wants and be able to get that for other people, too.” Because one of the reasons Cher’s hair is as appealing as it is, is that it reflects the attributes American society has deemed desirable, namely youth, wealth, and whiteness.
Mitgang says that although she rarely gets clients specifically referencing Cher these days, “I certainly have spent my whole career doing some version of that for women who feel like they can’t go to work with hair that has any visible textures.” Hair like Cher’s is still seen as “more professional and cleaner and neater,” even though it’s an arbitrary preference that reflects and reinforces our culture’s ingrained biases against people who might not be privileged enough to have Cher hair — people of color, for example, or older people.
Cher’s specific haircut, however, has cycled in and out of fashion over the decades. The simplicity of Cher’s hair gives it a certain timelessness; Paskowitz notes that it doesn’t feel as obviously dated as, say, the big Dynasty coifs of the 1980s. But the late 2000s and 2010s were dominated by big, loose waves, Mitgang points out, and Cher’s straight long hair would have been considered “a snoozefest.” It’s only recently that hair like Cher’s has come back into fashion — though it’s less about her specific look than her low-key approach.
“There’s more of a sentiment to let all of our hair exist in its natural form whenever possible,” says Mitgang. “So in a funny way, even though at the time her hair embodied this unattainable perfection thing in that it was very low maintenance, it actually is sort of perfect for right now for someone whose hair just does that.”
That Cher’s hair would still be resonant in 2020 is an outcome Paskowitz, who fondly remembers the shoot as a quick, collaborative, low-budget affair, says she never could have predicted. “At the time, we didn’t know we were creating an iconic film,” she marvels. “Imagine how proud I am that I got to be there. I mean, really.”
But those of us in the audience, who felt ourselves won over by Cher the second she tossed back that silky blond mane? Who were mesmerized by the way the sun created an ethereal halo around her, and the way it fluttered in the wind? I don’t want to say we knew, but we kind of knew. We realized, at least, that we’d never forget that hair. We knew right away that we’d go home and try to copy it, that we’d never stop envying the girls who had it, that we were powerless against its allure and didn’t mind it.
So happy birthday, Clueless, and happy birthday, Cher’s hair. You may not have been what made Cher special — but you epitomized everything that did.
Clueless is now streaming on Netflix.