American Hustle’s Costume Designer Tells Great Jennifer Lawrence Stories

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1Photo: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
While we admit that David O. Russell is a genius with this heavy-hitter flick, it’s Michael Wilkinson who is responsible for bringingAmerican Hustle to life. The film, about con artists in the '70s, conveys this decade at its best, with sequins, perms, long nails, and confidence, all thanks to the Aussie costume designer. Think gorgeous gowns, provocative cuts, blunt lines, and exquisite details galore.

Wilkinson has previously worked on Man of Steel, Watchmen, and both Twilight: Breaking Dawn films, but he’s never dazzled quite like he does here — literally. We spoke to the costume connoisseur about '70s style and working with our BFF (you know the one).

What made you decide to work on this film?
"David O. Russell’s films had always sparked my imagination; they were so wildly original and interesting. When I managed to read the script, the characters he had created blew me away. They were so complex and passionate, even their flaws were spectacular. They reminded me of why I had become a costume designer, which was to explore the complexities of people, and how they choose to express themselves and present themselves to the world, and how they use clothes to do that."

What was it like working with Russell, whose last two films have both won Academy Awards?
"It was incredible. He really encourages all of his collaborators to go really deep. He encouraged me to do so with the costumes, to avoid clichés and quick obvious decisions. He wanted to make sure that these characters were dressed in a way that was as exciting and original as the characters in the script. It really stretched my creativity to the max and I got outside my comfort zone. So, I am really proud of the final product."

How do you think the costumes influenced the story?
"When I read the script, I was really struck by how central the clothes were to telling the story of the film. What we have are these amazing characters that are constantly reinventing themselves in their fight to survive and one way they do that is that by dressing themselves as the people they aspire to be. They have a really fascinating and direct relationship with their clothes. Their clothes are really a part of their hustle. In this film, you have such an interesting range of characters, they are all from different demographics, and they are all using clothes in a different way."

Where did you pull inspiration from when designing these costumes?
"We went deep. We wanted to really explore the full spectrum of cultural influences of the period. Not just high-end fashion references but also the hard-hitting social documentary photos of real people. We also looked at the mid-range cheesy magazine shoots and advertising. The fantastic designers of the period were very inspiring to my team and we designed all the costumes for the film. We looked at Halston, DVF, Gucci, YSL, and Christian Dior; all those great designers who were really reinventing how women were dressing themselves in the '70s."

What was your favorite piece from the film?
"That’s hard; there were so many. I try not to pick favorites; I try to be a fair parent to all of my creations. However, I am particularly proud of Amy Adam’s wardrobe. It was so exciting collaborating with such a smart and fun actress. We had a real story to tell with her clothes. The first time we meet her, she’s from a small town and arrives in Manhattan to launch herself as the woman she’s always wanted to be. So we see her change from mousy and less confident outfits into some very strong, high-end designer pieces that she wears with supreme confidence, which was fun to explore."

What’s your favorite '70s trend?
"I’ve always had a soft spot for a jumpsuit; I think that’s a really fun item that hasn’t been explored yet in its full potential. Jennifer Lawrence wears a very striking leopard-print, halter-neck chiffon jumpsuit in one of the scenes, and it’s one of my favorite costumes of the film. But, it's more the attitude of '70s clothes that I find so inspiring and would like to see more of today. It was really a time when people walked tall and were comfortable in their own skin; it was an era when ideas were big and lived large, you took risks, and didn’t give a damn. There was much more diversity in the choices too. With different styles and silhouettes, you could find something that reflected who you were. And, today style feels a little more narrow and conservative. We hide behind our clothes instead of using them to express ourselves."
1Photo: Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

What was it like working with Amy and Jennifer?
"It was so exciting. They are both equally smart and have great senses of humor. They have different approaches when it comes to finding the right pieces for a film. Amy is incredibly thorough and comprehensive. We went through racks and racks of clothes. She had 40 changes in the film and we really wanted to zero in on the details like the silhouettes, textures, colors, and fabrics, and make sure we were really charting the trajectory of this astonishing character."

It sounds like she was really involved.
"Yes, absolutely. She was incredibly prepared. We had lots of discussions about her character. We loved how she would flip between supreme confidence and heartbreaking vulnerability in an instant. And, a lot of the choices we made with her clothes were trying to reflect that, with the soft, sensual fabrics that were both sophisticated and fragile. The way the outfits clung to her body in such a revealing way was both confident and also gave her a slight vulnerability. I think that really helped her find her character. She really checked her ego and her personal preferences at the door. She was so open to becoming this extraordinary character that wore such compelling and daring silhouettes to help her with her hustle.

I have some funny stories about working with Jennifer, specifically during our final fitting for the casino scene, the last scene in the film. It’s the white dress from the posters. We had been looking at millions of different options. In the end, I had designed a dress that I thought was what the director was looking for. It was a white metallic dress, extremely clingy and provocative, and had a raw element to it. At the final fitting, David wanted to see how it would move and look in the film, and the next moment I have Jennifer Lawrence, the world’s number one actress, sitting in my lap, squirming around, wiggling and being very flirty, which is the way she behaves in that final scene.

Jennifer Lawrence is amazing. She is so raw, unfiltered and fearless. She’s the kind of actress who can just look at a rack of clothes and pick out the perfect outfit for a scene. She is very intuitive and she has zero ego. It’s all about what’s right for the character and that was a thrilling thing to work with."