Doing the costume hustle

Directed and co-written by Mamaroneck High School graduate David O. Russell, “American Hustle” is a critical darling of the current awards season, a must-see movie with a powerhouse cast anchored by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. Set in 1978 and loosely based on the real-life FBI Abscam scandal, the film is a raw, enjoyable caper about con artists, crooked politicians and undercover agents. It also features some of the most unforgettable, eye-popping costumes to hit the big screen in the past year, earning one of the flick’s 10 Oscar nominations, which also include nods for Best Picture, Best Director and the four lead actors.

Nominated costume designer Michael Wilkinson created an outrageous, Studio 54-worthy wardrobe that highlights the sexiest, slinkiest styles of the 1970s, complete with plunging necklines, second-skin silhouettes and plenty of glitz and glamour. Yet Wilkinson – an Australian-born industry veteran who previously worked on “Man of Steel,” “Tron: Legacy” and “300” – has done more than give a nostalgic salute to the disco era’s most over-the-top fashions. His designs are carefully crafted and calculated, intended to express the film’s theme of reinvention visually.

Because in “Hustle,” all of the larger-than-life characters are remaking themselves, from Adams’ Sydney, a small-town girl turned big-city grifter, to Cooper’s Richie, an over-permed G-man who still lives with his mother. Wilkinson examined magazines, advertisements, TV shows and movies from the ’70s for inspiration, and he and his team rummaged through vintage boutiques, thrift stores, flea markets and costume rental houses to collect real pieces from the past. They were given access to Halston’s archive vault, too, and allowed to borrow original garments like the deeply V-necked, apricot silk blouse that Adams wears in the opening sequence. The designer wasn’t a slave to the period, however.

“When you’re working with David O. Russell, there’s this encouragement to be wholly unique and to avoid clichés and to create a cinematic universe which is original – as original as the characters that he’s writing,” Wilkinson recently told The Huffington Post. “So, at a certain point, I think I cut myself free of the absolute need to be 100-percent authentic and it was more about telling the story using the clothes.”

The result? Ensembles that feel as fresh today – Bale’s much-discussed comb-over and furry chest hair notwithstanding – as they did 35 years ago.

Adams, especially, is a modern throwback, with more than 40 costume changes to mark her journey throughout the film. Her fashion evolution consists of vintage Bob Mackie and Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses (both with stunning, navel-grazing décolletage); oversize Christian Dior sunglasses; platform Charles Jourdan pumps; and fur-collared coats, as well as a classic gold horsebit necklace and a python-and-bamboo Lady Lock handbag from Gucci. But Wilkinson had many pieces made for Adams from scratch and the most memorable leave little to the imagination. The actress turns heads in a come-hither, macramé swimsuit and a sheer, sequined gunmetal evening gown in two key scenes.

In Vanity Fair’s January cover story, Adams said that she needed two things to pull off her mostly bra-less attire – confidence and “sort of a laissez-faire attitude about what your breasts are doing.”

As Rosalyn, the unpredictable wife of lead hustler Irving (Bale), Lawrence had to adopt a similarly brash attitude – even if her well-toned assets weren’t displayed quite as often. The actress sports sloppy velour sweat suits and oversized muumuus when Rosalyn is hanging around her Long Island home. But at a casino party, she’s a showstopper in a clingy white rhinestone number that Wilkinson purposely had made a size too small.

“Rosalyn is a master of emotional manipulation. She really knows how to work a person over, and she uses her sexuality to push her agenda,” Wilkinson says in the film’s production notes. “At the same time, we had to balance that against the fact that she lives this totally boring existence in the suburbs.”

That doesn’t mean the men are overlooked when it comes to the movie’s style. Bale’s signature look involves ascots and contrasting vests, and Jeremy Renner’s New Jersey mayor is outfitted in pale-colored suits much like those the Rat Pack wore back in the day. Cooper, though, has the biggest sartorial shift, a transformation that Wilkinson has said was influenced by John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever.” The star dons cheap polyester suits and tacky ties at the beginning. But once his character falls under the influence of Irving and Sydney, he starts to wear silk scarves, gold medallions and leather jackets.

Ultimately, Wilkinson believes his costume choices reflect the self-assured philosophy of the time.

“It’s an era when ideas were big and people lived large and took risks, both in their lives and with their fashion choices,” he said in Elle. “They didn’t give a damn. That’s a healthy message for people today.”

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