'American Hustle' is a portrait of swank '70s fashion
By Sandy Cohen
Published: Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
From Christian Bale's burgundy-velour blazer to Amy Adams' plunging sequin halter dress, “American Hustle” is a cinematic romp through the over-the-top styles of the 1970s.
Set in New York and New Jersey in 1978, the film tells the story of a pair of con artists (Bale and Adams) forced to work for a cocky FBI agent (Bradley Cooper) bent on bringing down powerbrokers and politicians. This decadent world of power, crime and big money comes to life through ostentatious fashions and outrageous hairdos. All the characters are reinventing themselves, and it shows in their clothes.
“They had ideas, they lived large, and they took risks,” costume designer Michael Wilkinson said of the '70s styles that inspired his designs. “Clothes were less structured, had less underpinnings — it was like people didn't give a damn.”
Though the Australian-born Wilkinson said his childhood was drenched in American pop culture, “I approached this as a research project, just like you would study about the Greek ruins or outer galaxy.”
He scoured Cosmopolitan magazine, along with advertisements, movies and TV shows of the era. “Goodfellas” and “Atlantic City” were particularly influential films.
“And ‘Saturday Night Fever' from 1977,” Wilkinson added. “(That) had the most pertinence to Bradley Cooper's character. He's a guy from the Bronx, and he lived life as a black-and-white moral shooter working for the FBI, and wears a cheap polyester suit that doesn't fit him so well.”
The character ups his fashion game after meeting the dapper con-couple.
“He ends up in a silk shirt and silk scarf, which are pop-culture references,” Wilkinson said. “And then he wears a leather jacket to the FBI.”
The designer relished time in Halston's vintage vault, to which he was granted access for the film, and he dressed Adams in authentic pieces from the '70s.
“The lines (of clothing silhouettes) of the late '70s, with designers like Halston, were reinventing the wardrobe of women,” he said. “It was about being comfortable in your skin and walking tall.”
Hair is so prominent in “American Hustle,” it's practically another character. Lead hairstylist Kathrine Gordon studied old issues of Playboy and high-school yearbooks from the '70s for inspiration.
She and Bale worked together to create his character's elaborate comb-over, complete with fuzzy, glue-on hairpiece. The film opens with a scene of its careful construction.
“I came up with this idea to stuff it,” Gordon said of the comb-over she cut into Bale's real hair. “And then (director) David (O'Russell) rewrote the script, and I taught Christian how to do it on camera.”
Adams wears styles reminiscent of disco parties, Studio 54 and “the Breck girl” ads of the era. Jeremy Renner, who plays a New Jersey politician, has a fluffy bouffant. Jennifer Lawrence, an unhappy wife in the film, wears bouncy, sex-kitten updos whether she's going out or not. And Cooper rocks a tight perm: He's shown wearing curling rods in one scene.
Wilkinson, whose film credits include “Man of Steel,” “Tron: Legacy” and “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part II,” said he especially loved playing with fabrics, colors and prints for Bale's charming con-man.
“I'm really proud of Christian Bale,” the designer said. “It shows the possibility of an expression of personality in menswear. He explores his character in his clothes, and he's a man of the world. He mixes prints!”
Sandy Cohen is the AP entertainment writer.
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