David O. Russell‘s American Hustle is a tale of cons and part of the con is told in costume. To help outfit characters in his films in the particularly perfect costume is costume designer Michael Wilkinson, who is best known for his work on The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-part 1 (2011), as well as part 2 (2012) and Man of Steel (2013). The costume designer and the director met and immediately realized their collaboration would be an ideal one because both shared a fascination with the way clothes tell a story about a person and how that can be manipulated. “The choices that people make when they dress themselves, and the messages that they give out to the world, both consciously and unconsciously- using colors, textures, silhouettes – all of these things matter deeply to David, and they do to me as well,” said Wilkinson.
Avoiding cliches was of utmost importance to Wilkinson, who referred to social documentary photographs, low-brow magazine shoots, high fashion advertising and films set in New York and New Jersey in 1978 for research. Authenticity was key when it came to expressing each character through their clothes. To this end, the first choice was to use actual pieces from the time period. “We searched high and low for the right costumes,” said Wilkinson. “We searched in the film studios’ costume rental house in L.A. and New York, at the private costume collections across the nation, in the vintage stores and flea markets.” Sometimes the hunt led to dismal results, such as when the clothes weren’t in good condition, so a lot of costumes were actually made especially for the characters.
It’s hard to pick a favorite character for Wilkinson but he did especially love working with Amy Adams and creating her character, Sydney. “There was a new spirit in the clothes for American women in the late 1970s,” he explained. “It was a time when women were enjoying new freedoms in fashion: less underpinnings, less structure and bold, streamlined shapes. I wanted to reflect the sense that Sydney was constantly treading the fine line between supreme confidence and fragile vulnerability. With her low cut, body-hugging costumes, she is going out on a limb, with very little between her and the world. She is in an emotionally raw, dangerous and exciting space. I mixed high-end vintage designer pieces (Halston, Gucci, Diane Von Furstenberg, Christian Dior, Ossie Clark) and custom made-to-order costumes, and combined strong, dramatic lines with soft, sensual fabrics.”
A particular challenge was the amount of costume changes that each character had. Irving (Christian Bale) and Sydney (Amy Adams) each had about 40 costume changes. “We created extensive closets for each character so that we were ready for anything,” remarked Wilkinson. Another challenge was the many distinct demographics that had to be portrayed through the costumes: “cosmopolitan Manhattan, suburban Long Island and working class New Jersey.” This particular challenge coming also with its pleasures for the costume designer. “Fortunately, the late 1970s was such an exuberant and expressive period for clothes. It was an era for clothes when ideas were big, people lived large, took risks, and didn’t give a damn – so there were many exciting costume choices to make.”