When costume designer Michael Wilkinson got the call to craft the distinctive looks of the characters inhabiting the world of filmmaker David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” he knew his response immediately: “Does it get better than 1978 in Manhattan?” Wilkinson asks. “It's pretty amazing – this is like a dream for a costume designer.”
A veteran of a diverse array of films featuring wardrobes ranging from the everyday – “Garden State,” “Friends With Money,” “Babel” – to the extraordinary – “300,” “Watchmen,” “Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Parts 1 and 2” and “Man of Steel” – Wilkinson faced a major challenge in his first collaboration with Russell: how to capture the decadent, over-the-top essence of late-70s style while still adeptly defining the rich characters played by the film’s all-star cast, including Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner.
“I think when you're looking at a David O. Russell film, it's going to be ‘warts and all’ you're signing up for,” Wilkinson says. “It's not necessarily about the most glamorous costumes. It's about really getting to the heart of a character and exploring it in all its amazing complexity, so if that meant polyester suits and vinyl shoes, that was one thing. If it meant Halston dresses and silken gowns, they were also willing to go there.”
The wardrobe needed to accurately reflect the images Russell’s deeply complex characters were trying to project to the outer world. “Each character didn’t have a wardrobe – they had a costume,” says Amy Adams. “These were personalities that they put on. They were all striving for something better and we were all putting on this armor in some way to help us carry off these characters we were trying to portray.”
“They're spectacularly passionate, but they're also spectacularly flawed and raw,” adds Wilkinson. “There's so many amazing character details and quirks, and so translating that into clothes and going into detail with all of that was just endlessly fascinating.”
Adding to the ambiance were the specific East Coast environs of the era the players inhabited. The great thing for me was you have New Jersey, you have Manhattan, and you have Long Island. You get all of these great demographics to explore and these different people. It was just a lot of fun!”
For Jennifer Lawrence’s aimless, manipulative and self-indulgent housewife Rosalyn, Wilkinson fashioned “a really different look for her, showing the whole world a different Jennifer Lawrence. ... She's an amazing collaborator and brought a lot of ideas to the table. She wears muumuus around the house when she's a bored Long Island housewife, but then she also dresses to kill when she's going out on the town with her husband.”
Rather than endure trying on an endless array of outfits, Lawrence, he says, had an instinct for zeroing in on the right thing on the rack. The actress’ cleavage-showcasing, intentionally-too-small white metallic casino night dress was created especially for her when no vintage gown could be found to capture the right vibe: sexy as envisioned by a housewife flipping through magazines.
Amy Adams’ character Sydney had a more chic brand of sex appeal, as filtered through a bra-less, Playboy-influenced aesthetic of the time period. “She's such a pleasure to work with,” says Wilkinson. “She's very intuitive when it comes to clothes, and so she had about 50 changes in this film. And we see her go from small town girl arriving in Manhattan to the toast of the town and the most sophisticated and most glamorous outfits from the 1970s.”
Central to Adams’ style were vintage fashions from the legendary, then-red-hot designer Halston. “We had this fantastic partnership with Halston,” Wilkinson explains. “They opened their archives to us. So we went down into the vault. It was mostly for Amy, and that really added a whole layer of authenticity and was a very special collaboration for us.” Those looks include an iconic Halston camel coat, two twist front dresses, a beige silk blouse featuring the designer’s signature plunging neckline and a sharply tailored brown leather dress.
Gucci, another defining 70s luxury brand, also had a key presence in Adams’ signature ensembles. “Gucci was a natural choice,” says Wilkinson. “What better label to capture the sophistication and glamour of New York in the late 1970s? Her horsebit jewelry immediately shows the audience that Amy's character is both elegant and sexy. Her Gucci platform loafers encapsulate classic style. When the director asked for a ‘special handbag’ for a detailed close-up, I was drawn straight away to the Python Bamboo Lady Lock – bold, luxurious and iconic."
“Amy is a real Gucci woman – sensual, elegant, intelligent and full of life,” says Gucci’s Creative Director Frida Giannini. “It’s great to see Gucci worn with this attitude, as it really epitomizes the essence of the label.”
Adams, too, required a few looks that needed to be specially crafted to showcase her character, one of which is among Wilkinson’s personal favorites. “I designed and created Amy's silver sequin dress from scratch,” he says, “and when she came out on set in that costume with her amazing big hair and the way she turned and walks in that dress was just something I'll never forget.”