Costume designer Michael Wilkinson’s main accomplishment with American Hustle has largely been overlooked in favour of praising him as some kind of vintage stylist with an eye for provocative gowns and desirable heels. The truth is he has carefully brought to life a world, not of parties and glamour, but cheap sex and dirty desperation. The costumes in American Hustle do tell a story, particularly through their ever darkening colour palette, yet Wilkinson’s deftest skill is reflecting an era when fashion was as confused as the politics surrounding it. American Hustle is an unapologetic tale of low down dirty double-crossers whose clothes, like them, were a lie.
A minor sartorial moment late on in the film neatly demonstrates Wilkinson’s commitment to interpreting a very real vision of Disco seventies New York. As Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) confesses his part in the entrapment scam, well meaning Mayor Carmine Polito’s (Jeremy Renner) shirt collar is shown as being quite filthy – evidence this is not a catwalk show but authentic clothes these people wear. Also there is a figurative meaning, that Carmine has now been exposed as ‘dirty’ within the eyes of the law and would soon be ‘having his collar felt’ (arrested).
Aspirant mover and shaker Sydney Prosser, aka Lady Edith Greensly (Amy Adams), wears her finest clothes in the prologue and epilogue of the story. All throughout, despite the furs and expensive frocks, she looks all kinds of trashy. Not mutton dressed as lamb, more lamb with too much mint sauce. These outfits reflect an attempt to elevate status based on a notion that those Sydney wishes to impress will read her by what she wears. Sydney misunderstands. Those with serious money try to hide their wealth beneath a veneer of secrecy, and even possibly embarrassment. Lady Edith would be a member of the aristocracy and not likely to have her breasts a hair’s breadth from leaving her blouse. This is how Sydney gets it wrong. She is a hustler and hustlers lie for a living, sometimes based on nothing more than what they have read in a magazine.
The first properly decent clothes Sydney ever owns are those left behind in a dry cleaner’s, and already somewhat out of date. This is why Sydney does not have a definable style as such, because she is a creation – or rather Lady Edith is – based on the tools available to her. Only at the end of the story does she seem to be dressed as herself.
The male characters in American Hustle, like Sydney, aspire to fancy clothes. Irving not so much, he is styled by Sydney and only really interested in his comb-over. FBI agent Richard ‘Ritchie’ DiMaso, however, changes from horribly mismatched jackets, shirts and ties, to brown and air force blue suits with sober shirts and calmer ties. He is attempting to project an image of professionalism and, to their marks, wealth. Again though, he fails to understand that those with real money and power hide their status. Highborn author of the James Bond books, Ian Flemming, would reputedly wear his Savile Row suits into the ground, so much so that he was basically just taking the buttons back to his tailor. Note all the suits worn by the (admittedly corrupt) officials the American Hustle group are scamming are heavy dark wool and pinstripes, which Irving actually adopts for their final sting. Amazingly Richie even comes to believe he is a fashion icon of sorts, that by spending more money on clothes he suddenly has more taste. “Are you dressing him like me” he asks Sydney. “No…” she responds feeling Irving’s lapel “This is velvet!”
Rosalin Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence) is an emotionally manipulative agoraphobic. She likes to be involved to know she is not missing anything, but needs to get blind drunk just to be in company. Really she would rather just put on a fancy frock and stay home with Irving. At one point she frantically dusts her house in a cheetah print dress and Marigold gloves while singing along to Live and Let Die by Wings. Although, most of the time Rosalin is a homebody with far less interest in glamour than Sydney. The fur coat Rosalin wears is a sign of the times more than an attempt to elevate social standing. Her con is a lot weaker than Sydney’s.
Both male leads are in plaid and multi-pattern for the first part of the story. Richie is an embarrassing mess, even more than Irving whose primary problems are his hair and weight. What’s interesting is that both of these men hark back to the 1920s in their overall semblance. The twenties was the era for experimentation and ‘dressing soft’. With a tweak here and there some of their outfits would not be out of place in Gatsby’s world. The only tangible difference is fabric; whereas the twenties were satin and linen, the seventies were polyester and nylon. It just shows how important fabric is to the equation. Nonetheless it is clear Wilkinson used silk and wool for some of Richie’s plusher ensembles. There will be those who can pull off the wildest patterns the seventies has to offer with aplomb, but head-to-toe manmade fibres will always be just as nasty in one colour as three.
What Michael Wilkinson achieved with American Hustle has essentially been misunderstood by an overexcited media fawning over his Gucci and Halston inspired wrap dresses and luxurious fur coats. This film was never intended as a glamorous game of vintage dress up, not for the actors nor the characters they play. It exposes the grubby, tacky side of the 1970s, the worst the decade has to offer. Covet what Amy Adams wears all you wish, but just think about her character for a moment and consider what you’d be saying; that you aspire to be something better? Or you’re a cheap phony desperate to be real? American Hustle is not a fashion movie, but a deliberately manipulative story of real people who just cannot get it right.
American Hustle is currently on general release.
© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.