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How American Hustle's Costume Designer Turned the Trashy '70s Into an Oscar Nomination

The star-studded cast of American Hustle. Image via Sony Pictures.
The star-studded cast of American Hustle. Image via Sony Pictures.

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Sci-fi film Tron: Legacy, twee indie Garden State and teen series Twilight might not appear to have anything in common with the Oscar-nominated American Hustle, but one element they do share is the careful scrutiny of costume designer Michael Wilkinson.

"What I really like about my job is that every [film] is so wildly different. I consciously pursue diverse projects," he told Racked in a phone interview days before the Oscars. "I'm equally proud of a film like 300 that's about ancient Greece [out March 7] and then of Tron where I was able to explore new costume technology and go places I've never gone."

The Australian native has been nominated for his first Academy Award for American Hustle, and come Sunday night, he'll face fierce competition from other period pieces such as The Great Gatsby and 12 Years A Slave. But given all that Wilkinson had to endure throughout filming—from overcoming the challenges that come with creating hundreds of costumes to successfully working for notoriously difficult director David O. Russell—we'd say he's earned that statue.

Costume designer Michael Wilkinson with American Hustle costumes. Image from Sony Pictures.

Before he began to choose costumes for American Hustle, a semi-true comedy-drama about an FBI sting operation, ABSCAM, which was designed to catch corrupt politicians, Wilkinson said he did loads of research on the fashion of the era. He studied magazines and pop culture from the seventies, taking inspiration from icons like Farrah Fawcett and Faye Dunaway for Amy Adams' character Sydney Prosser.

Wilkinson, who has a background in theater, opera, and ballet costume design, also made sure to use designers and their pieces from the time period including Gucci, Diane Von Furstenberg, and Halston. The fashion statements of the seventies served as inspiration behind some of the film's most notable looks: namely, the plunging necklines.

A sketch of Amy Adams' character. Image from Sony Pictures.

"The spirit of liberation of the period [meant] less structure, less tailoring, and being more provocative," he said. "It's a duality: there's a confidence but also a certain vulnerability with daring necklines. We wanted to be period correct so we didn't use double-sided tape. [For the outfits] Amy had to carry herself a certain way and be intuitive of the clothing. We also had to avoid any sudden gusts of air or windy situations. Plus, Amy made friends with the video editors to make sure they chose the right takes!"

Russell has been nominated three consecutive times for the Academy Award for Best Director and is notorious in Hollywood as one of the hardest directors to work with, thanks in part to his emphasis on 'spontaneity.' That required Wilkinson to think on his feet, as Russell is one to "develop the process on the day of." To prepare, Wilkinson had 40 different outfit changes for Amy Adams and Christian Bale; once, he had to run out in middle of a shoot to sift through lingerie at Agent Provocateur in Boston after Russell decided last minute to include a flashback scene of Adams' character as a stripper.

Those plunging necklines represent the fashion of the time. Image from Sony Pictures.

Russell was also extremely precise about each costume's fit, according to Wilkinson. For Jennifer Lawrence, who played a bored and unpredictable housewife, Russell wanted to convey the character's instability through her wardrobe. Russell told Wilkinson he envisioned Lawrence in evening wear that was dangerously ill-fitting and cheap.

"We wanted to show a sense of schizophrenia to the character, in that she wears sweatsuits during the day, bored at home, but when she goes out at night, she's dressed to kill, so you don't know if she's a shy type or a man killer. We gave her a real Long Island flavor," he said. "One of my favorite memories was from Jennifer's final fitting in [the white gown] and Russell wanted to make sure the dress was incredibly body hugging so you can see her shape right through. He wanted to see her move in the dress so we had a mini dress rehearsal and I suddenly found the number-one actress sitting in my lap, laughing and pretending to spill champagne on me."

A drawing of Jennifer Lawrence in the white dress Wilkinson made. Image from Sony Pictures.

The costumer's ability to pull things together quickly came in handy again when he prepped Lawrence and Bale for a wedding portrait that was to be displayed in their bedroom. He stuck Lawrence in a "frou-frou wedding dress" and moved onto to costuming Bale when he realized he hadn't accounted for a yarmulke in the portrait, since Bale's character is Jewish.

"The yarmulke was key for the wedding portrait so I ran to the bathroom, cut up some paper towels and worked with bobby pins," he laughed. "It's always makes sense to make friends with the hair department."

Photo by Sony Pictures.

Speaking of hair, no article about the American Hustle costumes would be complete without mentioning the outrageous hairdos in the film, from Jeremy Renner's Elvis-like coiffure to Bradley Cooper's (fake) kinky ringlets to JLaw's mop of a beehive. Wilkinson said many of the styles came from Russell's instincts, and the crew went through six different camera tests to make sure the hair, clothing, and makeup departments were telling the same story.

The hardest part of American Hustle, he says, was setting up the casino scene: the storyline called for hundreds of extras to be dressed in evening wear and Wilkinson struggled to give each extra a "Jersey flair."

"The logistics of that scene was dozens of costumers running around, getting everyone ready, outside in Boston in the middle of the winter, and then making sure each extra had their outerwear as well," he said. "You can imagine the fun."

A drawing of Christian Bale: heavy and balding. Photo by Sony Pictures.

Wilkinson said he expected to use fat suits to dress Bale in the three velvet suits he made, but the actor succeeded in gaining a whopping 40 pounds for the role. "The weight he put on really added to the wonderful complexity of the character. Christian brought such heart and soul, and he even managed to alter the way he walked and the way he hunched with his new weight," Wilkinson said.

After the Oscars, Wilkinson will get to work on the costumes for the mysterious Superman vs Batman project starring Ben Affleck that will come out in 2016. He isn't allowed to divulge any details of that project yet; currently, he's awaiting the March debut of his costumes in Noah, the biblical epic by Darren Aronofsky—another director who's known for his impulsiveness.

Image by Sony Pictures.

"Darren Aronofsky envisioned no one should be able to tell if the film was set 2000 years in the past or future, so we came up with an interesting blend of hand-woven costumes. The silhouettes are post-apocalyptic but also contemporary," he said.

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