Inside American Hustle's '70s Style With Costume Designer Michael Wilkinson

All photos courtesy of Sony Pictures
By Vanessa Martin

American Hustle, directed and co-written by David O. Russell, is undeniably the must-watch film this holiday season. With outstanding performances by an A-list cast (Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence), the period film is loosely based on the real-life Abscam FBI Sting during the late-1970s.

It's a wild tale of corruption, scamming, ambition, and love, and of course, hilarity ensues -- all dressed in Halston, DVF, Gucci, and YSL.

For veteran costume designer Michael Wilkinson, the costumes in the film are characters of their own and are an underlying component in the telling of the story. But those expecting to find cliché '70s fashion à la That '70s Show won't find it in Hustle. The sartorial choices in the film exude sexy '70s glamour. In fact, the shimmering, body-hugging low-cut dresses and platform sandals seen on the ladies are perfectly suited for Miami's modern-day nightclub scene.

Don't even get us started on the guys' wardrobes. From the unbuttoned shirts and leather jackets worn by Bradley Cooper's character to Christian Bale's vests and ascots, hearts are kept throbbing throughout the entire film.

We spoke with Wilkinson to talk about '70s fashion done right and what it was like to work with Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence.

Cultist: Your previous work included 300 and Tron: Legacy. What was it like for you to do something that's so different?
Michael Wilkinson: I'm so fortunate that with my work I'm able to really move between lots of different genres. It keeps my creativity alive and fresh. I feel even though there might me very different worlds featured in the different films that I do, the process is surprisingly similar--it involves an intense study of the characters in the script and there's a real reflection about how they are going to use clothes, textures, fabrics, colors, and silhouettes to express themselves and to help tell the audience the story of the film.

There is nothing '70s-style cliché about the costumes in the movie. In fact, some of the looks could very well be worn today, especially the wrap dresses and the sexy low cut gown Amy Adams wore. And yet, all the looks still remained true to the era.
It's so amazing to hear you say that because that is exactly what our goal was. When I first read the script the characters were so wildly imaginative and absolutely cliché-free and entirely original, so I really knew that I wanted the costumes to have that same freshness and originality, and to have the film avoid looking like other films of the '70s. So even though I did extensive research into the period, at a certain point I didn't want to be tied down by that, so I cut myself free from it.

So what did the research process entail?
I set about looking across the nation for exactly the right pieces. I felt like we really had to find idiosyncratic and very specific pieces, so we looked at the costume rental houses and we approached all of the major vintage collectors in America and had them send boxes of things to our workshop in LA to rummage through. I went through endless flea markets and vintage stores and then, if there still weren't the pieces that had the absolute essence of what we needed, I also created lots of costume pieces for the film.

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