Costume Designer Michael Wilkinson talks about dressing Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner in ‘70s fashion for American Hustle.

Not only does American Hustle have a stellar cast ensemble—Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Jennifer Lawrence—it also has a fab look that brings back an era of decadent fashion.

“The characters are wholly unique and wildly imaginative,” says costume designer Michael Wilkinson. “In the script, there were a lot of opportunities to explore different social backgrounds, from the vibrant, racially diverse world of blue-collar New Jersey to ultra-fashionable Upper East Side Manhattan to the sprawling suburbs of Long Island. 1978 – the year the film takes place – is a fascinating year, because it marks the beginning of a transition away from a truly flamboyant, exaggerated lines of the 1970s and into a more streamlined, early 80s vibe.”

Wilkinson (pictured left) not only had to capture the look of the time, but each outfit had to embody each of the flawed characters in the movie, that centers on a pair con artists (Bale, Adams) who are forced to work with a wild federal agent (Cooper).

“Michael constructs each character’s personality in the fabrics they like, the colors they like, how they feel when you’re around them,” says director David O. Russell.  “The cream bathing suits that he put Irving and Sydney in when they meet – this tells you a lot about them – they’re stylish, but very much of their period.”

Clothing played such a big part for each character that Bale and Adams had over 40 costumes each.  “There had to be something about Irv’s clothes that was very appealing – you want to trust him, you want to believe him.  There’s an aspect to his character that wants to fly a little below the radar.  It’s Sydney (Adams) who starts helping him find a way to present himself to the world.  We played with a lot of beautiful fabrics, some colors that were quite expressive, great combinations of vests and shirts, stripes and plaids.’”

Amy AdamsAdams’ Sydney throughout the story goes through a big transformation.  “She’s a small-town girl who arrives in New York.  She has a natural sense of style – and when she meets Irv, she gets the confidence to explore it.  She picks out Diane von Furstenberg dresses, wears Halston, and starts really enjoying this new silhouette, this new freedom – it’s super-sophisticated and confident.”

For all of the characters, Wilkinson worked with real clothes from the period to be as authentic as possible. He also ended up building a lot of clothes from scratch, designing costumes for specific moments in the film.

As for Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Irving’s wife Rosalyn, the costumes had to reflect her personality and where she is from.

“Rosalyn is very Long Island – red acrylic nails, huge hair all the time, loves leopard print,” Lawrence says. “I imagined her never going out, flipping through the magazines, buying these clothes, imagining that she’d look exactly like the pictures – but she has no idea how to dress for her body.  So costume fittings became all about making sure that nothing really looked good – ‘that’s not tacky enough, that’s too classic.’  I wanted her to look a little awkward.”

Keeping up with the script, Wilkinson says that the designs for Lawrence’s costumes are meant to underscore the character as another kind of hustler. “Rosalyn is a master of emotional manipulation – she really knows how to work a person over and she uses her sexuality to push her agenda.  At the same time, we had to balance that against the fact that she lives this totally boring existence in the suburbs,” he says. “She has wild mood swings, and this is reflected in her clothes, from her frumpy house dresses and muumuus to her ‘dressed-to-kill’ evening wear.”

And who can ignore Cooper’s tightly wound locks or Renner’s fluffed up coif? As an FBI Agent who falls under the spell of the hustlers he’s working with, Cooper’s Richie DiMaso is another complex character that makes a huge shift. “He curls his hair like famous ballplayers, just because he wants to be someone else, and he thinks ballplayers are cool,” Cooper says. “ So when he meets Irving and Syd, he’s very easily enthralled by their lifestyle. Suddenly, he’s hanging with the cool kids.  Sydney takes him to a disco, changes the way he dresses – he gets very entrenched in that world.”

“He starts off as someone who doesn’t care so much about how he looks,” Wilkinson says about Richie. “He doesn’t have a very finessed approach to what he’s doing.  When he comes into contact with Irv and Sydney, it has a huge effect on him. He re-invents himself: he goes from ill-fitting polyester cotton blends to silk shirts and stylish leather jackets.”

“For Renner’s character, Carmine Polito, Russell wanted to put him in pale suits,” continues Wilkinson. He had a signature way of dressing with a slightly old-school feel to it, a Rat Pack kind of boldness to it.  Maybe his clothes aren’t the most up-to-date – they hark back to another era, especially when juxtaposed with the finer, sophisticated clothes we see from Irv and Sydney – but he’s a very well-dressed man expressing a New Jersey bravado, and that was fun to explore.”

American Hustle opens December 13 (limited) and December 20 (wide), and stars Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence. Also starring, Louis C.K., Michael Peña, and Alessandro Nivola.




—Toni-Marie Ippolito




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