Film and TV

Inside American Hustle's '70s style with costume designer Michael Wilkinson

All photos courtesy of Sony Pictures
American Hustle, directed and co-written by David O. Russell, is undeniably the must-watch film this holiday season. With outstanding performances by an A-list cast (Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence), the period film is loosely based on the real-life Abscam FBI Sting during the late-1970s.

It's a wild tale of corruption, scamming, ambition, and love, and of course, hilarity ensues -- all dressed in Halston, DVF, Gucci, and YSL.

For veteran costume designer Michael Wilkinson, the costumes in the film are characters of their own and are an underlying component in the telling of the story. But those expecting to find cliché '70s fashion à la That '70s Show won't find it in Hustle. The sartorial choices in the film exude sexy '70s glamour. In fact, the shimmering, body-hugging low-cut dresses and platform sandals seen on the ladies are perfectly suited for Miami's modern-day nightclub scene.

Don't even get us started on the guys' wardrobes. From the unbuttoned shirts and leather jackets worn by Bradley Cooper's character to Christian Bale's vests and ascots, hearts are kept throbbing throughout the entire film.

We spoke with Wilkinson to talk about '70s fashion done right and what it was like to work with Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence.

Cultist: Your previous work included 300 and Tron: Legacy. What was it like for you to do something that's so different? Michael Wilkinson: I'm so fortunate that with my work I'm able to really move between lots of different genres. It keeps my creativity alive and fresh. I feel even though there might me very different worlds featured in the different films that I do, the process is surprisingly similar--it involves an intense study of the characters in the script and there's a real reflection about how they are going to use clothes, textures, fabrics, colors, and silhouettes to express themselves and to help tell the audience the story of the film.

There is nothing '70s-style cliché about the costumes in the movie. In fact, some of the looks could very well be worn today, especially the wrap dresses and the sexy low cut gown Amy Adams wore. And yet, all the looks still remained true to the era. It's so amazing to hear you say that because that is exactly what our goal was. When I first read the script the characters were so wildly imaginative and absolutely cliché-free and entirely original, so I really knew that I wanted the costumes to have that same freshness and originality, and to have the film avoid looking like other films of the '70s. So even though I did extensive research into the period, at a certain point I didn't want to be tied down by that, so I cut myself free from it.

So what did the research process entail? I set about looking across the nation for exactly the right pieces. I felt like we really had to find idiosyncratic and very specific pieces, so we looked at the costume rental houses and we approached all of the major vintage collectors in America and had them send boxes of things to our workshop in LA to rummage through. I went through endless flea markets and vintage stores and then, if there still weren't the pieces that had the absolute essence of what we needed, I also created lots of costume pieces for the film.

What was it like working as a team with director David O. Russell? It was incredible. I mean, I finally met another person or collaborator with whom costumes are equally as important as the acting is. David's attention to detail is phenomenal and he cares so deeply about his characters. He's created them and they're like living, breathing creatures for him. No detail was too small for either of us.

What would you say is the ultimate look in the movie? I think that for me the dress that I designed for Amy Adams for the casino scene seems to be the most iconic fashion moment in the film. It's a really extreme example of the spirit of high-end fashion in the period. I love the simplicity of the lines and the sort of daring silhouette. As she walks into a sea of working class revelers at the casino she really turns heads as a slice of Manhattan coming into New Jersey.

The male characters just wouldn't have been the same without the ascots and the unbuttoned disco shirts revealing unruly chest hair. I fell in love with Christian Bale's character; he had such a wonderful waltz to him. You really wanted to trust him. He was projecting himself as a real man of the world, even though he was a Jewish guy from the Bronx and he wanted the world to think he was an art expert and a very cultured individual. He had his signature ascots that he wore all the time and his signature contrasting vests with his three-piece suit. He had this very, I felt, rather enduring way of dressing that I really enjoyed exploring with Christian.

Then with Bradley Cooper's character-- he was kind of a different creature there, too. He is a rather sort of conservative guy working at the FBI in sort of ill-fitting polyester suits and garish ties, but he's very ambitious, and when he meets the characters played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams, he's introduced into this whole new world of sophistication and enchantment, so he kind of explores how clothes can affect who people perceive you. So he wears leather jackets and cool sunglasses and three-piece suits and silk scarves. He's really using clothes to sort of dress as the person he wants to be.

Were there any scenes that were challenging to stylize? I think the biggest challenge was maybe the different demographics that we had in the film. We really wanted to have a definition between the three worlds--the high end Manhattan world, the sprawling suburban world of Long Island that has it's own flavor, and we also have this wonderfully vibrant world of New Jersey, which is a working class scene--it's racially diverse and less resourceful, but had a very original and striking way of dressing.

What was it like working with Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence? I feel like I learned so much from both of them. They're both incredibly inspiring and interested individuals. Amy is so professional and incredibly prepared, intelligent, and she has a razor sharp wit. She has such a thorough approach to her character. We went through racks of clothes together and every detail was important to her and that was just a thrill for me.

Jennifer Lawrence is equally amazing but in a very different way. There is a rawness and fearlessness there where she can just look at a whole rack of clothes and intuitively know the one piece that is right for a scene. It's a different process, but it's equally as interesting to me.

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