“I’d just worked on Man of Steel  with the producer Chuck Roven, who was putting together American Hustle ,” states Michael Wilkinson. “Chuck thought that David O. Russell [Silver Linings Playbook] and I would be a good fit, and he turned out to be right. When I met David, I recognized someone who shared my passion and fascination for the way people use clothes to present themselves to the world. The choices that people make when they dress themselves, and the messages that they give out to the world , both consciously and unconsciously by using colours, textures, silhouettes; all of these things matter deeply to David, and they do to me as well.” The Australian costume designer notes, “It’s amazing working with David, because he encourages you to go deep with your exploration of the characters, to stretch your creativity and go outside your usual comfort zone into a space where really interesting and original work is done. I’m grateful to him for helping to push me to a new level.”
“David talked passionately about each character,” remarks Michael Wilkinson. “To him they weren’t just theoretical concepts, but living, breathing human beings. David referred to many real people from the seventies as inspiration, we looked at lots of films and photos together, but above all he wanted the film to be entirely original, to avoid any clichés or obvious choices.” Cinematographer Linus Sandgren (Promised Land) and Production Designer Judy Becker (Brokeback Mountain) were also part of the conversation. “We had to make sure that we were on the same page about the works that we wanted to create. We talked a lot about colours and textures, about wanting to avoid the endless browns and earth tones of the seventies, about introducing pops of accent colours and steely tones to conjure the decade’s transition towards the early 80s.”
The Abscam operation run by the FBI to investigate and prosecute political corruption was used as a starting point. “At the beginning of the process, I researched the historical event, but I quickly cut myself loose when I realized how loosely the film was sticking to it,” states Michael Wilkinson. “Our film became entirely character driven, not a historical re-enactment.” Fashion constantly changes from decade to decade. “I have a real fondness for 70s clothes; it was an era for clothes when ideas were big, people lived large, took risks, and didn’t give a damn. Today we’re much more conservative, we hide in our clothes rather than using clothes to express ourselves. In American Hustle, you see so many different silhouettes and ways of dressing; there’s a diversity of clothing choices that match the wide diversity of people.”
“We looked at endless photographs of ‘real’ people from the period; mostly the hard-hitting social documentary photography,” explains Wilkinson when discussing the visual research he conducted for American Hustle. “But we wanted to cast the net wide to cover the full spectrum of pop-culture references that would influence our characters. We also looked at cheesey magazine shoots, advertising, and high fashion: Halston, Diane Von Furstenburg, Gucci, Yves St Laurent, and Christian Dior. We watched every film set in New York and New Jersey in 1978. Then we searched high and low for the right costumes – in the film studios’ costume rental house in LA, at the private costume collections across the nation, in the vintage stores and flea markets. Sometimes we couldn’t find what we needed for our very specific, idiosyncratic characters, or the clothes from the period were too tired-looking; in that case we made clothes from scratch especially for the film.”
“Amy Adams [The Master] and Christian Bale [Empire of the Sun] ended up having about 40 changes each, slightly less for the other principals,” states Michael Wilkinson who also had to dress Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy), Bradley Cooper (The Hangover), and Robert De Niro (Heat). “When you’re working with David, things are organic and constantly developing – we created extensive closets for each character so that we were ready for anything!” The wardrobe provided an opportunity to emphasize certain character traits as was the case with Victor Tellegio who is portrayed be De Niro. “The goal was to portray enigmatic mafia boss who likes to keep to the shadows. The strategy was the subtle choice of nondescript clothes, but combine with a few thought-provoking details – rare and expensive watch, tinted glasses, and silk polo shirt.” Wilkinson explains the approach taken with the other principle cast members.
Goal: to portray cultured “man of the world”, someone trustworthy, with great judgement.
Strategy: expressive combinations of patterns (stripes, paisleys, and polka dots and fabrics, signature flourishes (ascots, contrasting vests, and old jewellery).
Goal: to portray emotionally unstable, bored suburban housewife.
Strategy: contrast frumpy housedresses worn at home with dressed-to-kill evening wear.
Goal: portray sophisticated woman, treading the line between supreme confidence and fragile vulnerability.
Strategy: to use high-end vintage designer pieces and custom made-to-order costumes, combine body-hugging, dramatic lines with soft, sensual fabrics.
Richie Di Maso
Goal: to portray a conservative FBI agent whose world opens up when he meets a worldly, sophisticated couple, Irv and Syd.
Strategy: start with ill-fitting polyester suits and garish ties, and move on to leather jackets, silk shirts, cool sunglasses and three-piece suits.
Goal: to portray a charismatic local politician from working-class New Jersey
Strategy: develop signature style with pastel-coloured suits, bold ties and pompadour hair-style.
“I’m fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to tackle a wide range of genres with my work,” reflects Michael Wilkinson. “I’ve done big superhero films, gritty contemporary films, epic period films, and science fiction. I like mixing things up; it keeps me stimulated and challenged as an artist. I was thrilled at the prospect of doing a film set in the 70s – such an exuberant and expressive time for clothes!”
Images courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
Many thanks to Michael Wilkinson for taking the time for this interview.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.