Triple Costume Designers Guild awards nominee Michael Wilkinson is widely acclaimed for his futuristic, period and fantasy costumes in films such as Tron: Legacy and 300 as well as Zack Snyder’s dream-like Sucker Punch. He’s garnered a major Comic-Con following, having re-envisioned the iconic Super Man costume in Snyder’s Man of Steel and creating Ben Alfeck’s reworked bat suit for Snyder’s upcoming Man of Steel 2 (a costume he promises will make sense in Snyder’s newly established universe).
But Wilkinson came back to earth for David O’ Russell’s American Hustle, which has already received the 2013 Hollywood Award for Best Costume Design, and could very easily earn him an Academy Award on March 2. This intricate black comedy starring Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Christian Bale weaves the machinations of comb-over con men, Miami mobsters, and pompadour politicians (and their disco diva wives and girlfriends), all involved in the 1978 Abscam scandal.
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Besides stocking up on bolts of vintage polyester, Wilkinson speaks to the era’s more subtle fashion requirements. “We wanted to avoid the clichés that have to do with a 1970s film,” he says. “We really looked deeply into photographs of real people from the period for a more gritty real approach. We searched high and low to find exactly the right pieces. We looked at the costume houses of New York and LA. We contacted a lot of smaller collectors for the designers of the period who were very inspiring, like Halston, DVF, Gucci, YSL, and Christian Dior; all those great designers who were reinventing how women were dressing at that time.”
He continues, “We were trying to use as many authentic pieces as possible. But we had to make things from scratch because all of those dresses are now over thirty years old and were looking a little worse for wear. So, we had to freshen things up. For instance, we found this incredible sequin fabric that had the right amount of sheerness, the right amount of stretch to really take every curve of Amy’s physique and it worked out pretty good.”
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Russell’s shooting style often has even seasoned crew members leaping out of shots at the last second. “You have to be ready for anything to be seen,” admits Wilkinson. ”David shoots 360 degrees so we had a really head-to-toe approach to these costumes — the jewelry, the undergarments. We even had some period correct bras made for Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence by collaborating with Maidenform and their archives to get the absolute right silhouette for the costumes.”
Speaking of bras, there often weren’t any, Wilkinson says. Adams and Lawrence’s bold, sexy, plunging blouses and dresses required a lot of eyeballs. And rolls and rolls of double stick tape.
“The bodacious plummeting necklines meant we had to keep our eyes on the monitor to make sure there was nothing untoward happening,” he says. “So, there was quite a lot of double-sided tape and very careful watching of costumes to make sure that everything was exactly where it should be.”
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For Wilkinson, the experience was like a gourmet meal. “David O. Russell created this amazing story full of characters that are constantly reinventing themselves in order to survive and keep their head above water,” he says. “You know they’re really hustling. And they’re very unique, unusual, complex characters whose passions are spectacular. Their flaws are equally spectacular. So you have people dressing to be the people they are aspiring to be. For a costume designer interested in how people’s personalities are expressed in their clothing, that stuff is golden.
Adams character is a case in point. “Her character was fascinating because we see her starting off as like a small town woman who comes to New York,” he says. “She’s wide-eyed, full of dreams and she meets Christian Bale’s character who opens up a whole new world to her. He’s like a small time hustler conman kind of guy. But suddenly she has access to resources and the means to dress herself as the person she’s always imagined herself.”
The change in her personality stems from her new wardrobe, according to Wilkinson. “When she is seen feeling very confident, she wears an almost nude color Halston low plunging silk blouse, a suede tulip skirt with quite a high split and a waist cinching belt,” he says. “I think all of those elements and the tactile qualities of the fabric are luscious. The confident womanly silhouette really helps to tell the audience where she (her character) is at that moment in the film.”
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