In Conversation: The Dazzling Style of American Hustle

American Hustle, the new David O. Russell film, is receiving an unprecedented amount of attention for its style: Bradley Cooper has curls, Christian Bale is nearly unrecognizable, and Jennifer Lawrence is a long way from The Hunger Games. With the film set in the 1970s, costume designer Michael Wilkinson had a chance to express the decade’s distinctive design through the film’s fashion. I talked to Michael about his experience working on the film.

(l to r) Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in Columbia Pictures' AMERICAN HUSTLE.  (Amy Adams dress: made for film, jewelry, shoes: vintage / Bradley Cooper suit, shirt: made for film / Jeremy Renner suit: made for film, tie, shirt: vintage / Christian Bale suit: made for film, tie, shirt: vintage / Jessica Lawrence dress: made for film, jewelry, shoes: vintage)
(l to r) Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in Columbia Pictures’ AMERICAN HUSTLE. (Amy Adams dress: made for film, jewelry, shoes: vintage / Bradley Cooper suit, shirt: made for film / Jeremy Renner suit: made for film, tie, shirt: vintage / Christian Bale suit: made for film, tie, shirt: vintage / Jessica Lawrence dress: made for film, jewelry, shoes: vintage)

It’s rare that the style and look of a film commands this much attention. How cool is this for you?

It’s a real thrill. It’s a film that I’m so proud of. I’m glad that the energy we brought to the film, the commitment we had to these characters, and the love we had in bringing them to the screen is inspiring people. People are being moved by what we had to say, and that just feels great.

Did you set out to make Bradley, Christian, and Jeremy look a bit disheveled and have the ladies look amazingly sexy?

(Laughs) You know, as soon as I read the script I was so fascinated by these characters. They are drawn into the script with such love and imagination. The women are definitely using their physicality as part of their hustle, but the men are using their clothes with some power dressing moments to get attention in the world too. I really like how each of the characters have such a personal and immediate connection with their clothes, and I feel like they are using their clothes to dress up as the people they are aspiring to be.

How cooperative are the actors?

All of the actors checked their egos at the door. When you sign up for a David O. Russell film, you know what you are in for. You read the characters and it’s warts and all. Some of the looks are pretty off. They are human beings, and we are celebrating the wide spectrum of what it is to be a human being. All of the actors were committed to going very deep into these characters. I’m always fascinated by how each actor has a different approach to their costumes. I was working with some of the most gifted actors, and one after another they came into my fitting room, so it was really thrilling. Collaborating with them is something I will treasure for the rest of my life. They all had a lot to say about their characters; they’re drawn with a lot of details in the script. Most of the time, we sat down on the couch and talked about the little quirks and motivations of their characters and what made them who they are. Then we would look through the racks of clothes from the period that we received from all across the nation. We partnered with some interesting designers like Halston, Gucci, and Diane von Furstenburg. It was fascinating to see which clothes the actors were drawn to and how they were transformed when they put on the clothes.

Did you have a few laughs with the actors once they were in full costume?

We weren’t playing for laughs. We loved these characters. It was about embracing the flaws as well as the gifts.

The opening sequence with Christian Bale fixing his hair while getting ready is certainly memorable and humorous, and the audience really reacted to that scene.

The interesting thing is, when we were making it, I wasn’t thinking of it as a comedy. We were so deep into it, we were really living these characters. I was so excited to see that it plays as a comedy in theaters to audiences. People are immediately engaged with laughter and there is so much warmth there, which I think is rare these days.

I agree. I didn’t think of it as a comedy after seeing it, either. I think it’s hard to pinpoint a genre for David O. Russell films. Did Bale gain weight specifically for this role or was there padding added?

Yeah, that was all him — absolutely no padding required. Every time Christian came into the fitting room he was heavier and heavier; he put on pounds. It was really great for the clothes. Suddenly, this character came to life for us. All the fabrics and costume choices kind of made sense when you teamed it with the incredible physique that he was bringing to the table.

Christian Bale’s character touches his glasses a lot throughout the film. I feel like that’s one of the most important quirks that really helps define his character. How much thought was put into that?

We went and looked at different tints, colors and different details to the frames. Christian was interested in adding the plastic nose bridge that gives the glasses an interesting and unusual vintage flair. Yeah, the touching of the glasses is something he felt his character would do, and it certainly becomes a very strong character tick.

How did you blend the vintage garments with clothing designed specifically for the film?

We tried to use as much vintage as possible. We found it necessary, but because those clothes were now over forty years old, so we tried to freshen up the look a little bit. I made a lot of custom costumes from scratch for the film. We tried to choose the right fabrics, we looked hard at the textures and the lines and the drapes of the clothes to make sure that our clothes fit in right next to the vintage pieces.

Was the menswear difficult to piece together since ’70s menswear had so many more elements to it?

I had a ball. It’s such an expensive and exuberant period for clothes. With Christian Bale’s character, in particular, there were so many wonderful choices: combining the paisleys with the plaid, the polka dots and striped shirts, and the ascots and the three piece suits. It was fun getting a great look for him that told the world he was a cultured man, who knew about art and could be trusted. That was how he wanted to use his clothes to express who he was.

How much taping needed to be done for those plunging necklines?

(Laughs) I think that is a credit to Amy Adams — her poise and elegance. She held those dresses up in a very impressive way. There were a few moments where we had to use a few wardrobe secrets, like double sided tape. It was all about Amy; she got into incredible shape for the film, and that helped everything fit in the right place.

Tell me about the experience accessing the Halston archives?

That was a fascinating day in the prep for this movie! We had a great partnership with Halston. You go to this wonderful building in downtown Los Angeles and deep into the basement and someone opens a locked door, and you enter a dimly lit room and there are racks and racks of incredible vintage clothes from the ’70s and early ’80s. You feel like there should be a chorus of angels singing when you open the door.

Name your favorite vintage piece used in the film.

Hmmm…I’m really proud of the vintage Halston leather dress that Amy Adams wears. It’s a chocolate brown leather dress with a twist front detail and low plummeting neckline. She wears it with such supreme poise. It makes me a very proud costume designer.

Will ’70s fashion be making a return anytime soon? If so, which element would you like to see crop up now?

I have such a fondness for ’70s clothes. It’s an era where ideas were big and people lived large and took risks. So it’s not so much about the different pieces; it’s more about the mood of the period.  You are embracing who you are, and you’re using clothes to express yourself. It’s all about the attitude of walking tall and being comfortable in your own skin.

For winter weather, which we have here in Indy – give me three must-have fashion accessories for this time of year?

I would bring a nice, chunky wool plaid overcoat, like the one Christian Bale wears in the airport scene when he is greeting the Sheik for the first time; a nice three-piece velvet suit, preferably in a nice chocolate brown, burgundy or midnight blue, to keep me nice and cozy; and I would adopt the ascot because it keeps your neck warm and gives you a certain amount of gentlemanly flair.

American Hustle opens this Friday, December 20th.

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