Michael Wilkinson, who is nominated for Best Costume Design Oscar for Sony/Annapurna’s American Hustle , began working with costumes on theater productions in Sydney when he was 17. After dabbling behind the scenes on several productions, his interest as a costume designer took hold and he eventually found himself working with director Jim Sharman (best known to American audiences for directing/co-writing The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Together they worked on such theater productions as Jean Genet’s Splendid and The Tempest at the Sydney Opera House. It was the opening night of The Tempest when the director gave him a book about Italian costume designer Piero Tosi, who had worked with such legendary directors as Federico Fellini and Franco Zeffirelli and was nominated for an Oscar in 1972 for his work on director Luchino Visconti’s Death In Venice. “He showed me that costume design is an art form,” said Wilkinson. The Italian master used texture, fabric and design to wrap the essence of the character around an audience, whether it be working-class people or those of the social elite. And Tosi’s artistry in that kind of diversity inspired Wilkinson.
Wilkinson also has worked with such diverse characters and time periods from the sci-fi drama Tron to dressing contemporary teens in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn to 1970s-set American Hustle. He was born in 1971 but says: “I was able to draw on a lot of memories. I have strong memories of the period. The interesting thing for me with this film is that all the characters are so wildly differently from each other, but what they have in common is that they are all using clothes as part of their hustle and to re-invent themselves, and that is true of all principal characters.”
Amy Adams’ character is trying to forget her past and trying to become the woman she always thought she should be. “She uses clothes in a very powerful way,” said Wilkinson, who used plunging necklines and wraps reminiscent of Diane von Furstenberg. “She is using her physicality in a very strong and sophisticated way. She uses designer labels. Her hustle is that she is from English autocracy and has powerful banking connections, so she is reaching into her imagination to use the references. And what she comes up with is ideas from Cosmo magazine and fashion designers to invent this wholly fictitious and beguiling character.”
For Christian Bale’s character — who is bent on “working from the ground up,” meaning the devil is in the details and that’s what can win or lose a con — Wilkinson also dressed him based on the character’s need to empower himself. “His hustle is to come across as a man who is sophisticated and who can be trusted,” he said. “His point of reference is taken from magazines, people he’s come across and people he’s imagined. In his mind, a sophisticated man wears three-piece suits and ascots and pinstripes, paisleys and polka dots.”
Wilkinson said that he and director David O. Russell clicked well together because they both understand the importance of the details. “You can tell so much about the character from the details … whether they have coffee stains on their clothes or do they keep the clothes pristine or do they keep wearing clothes even after they are worn out? The movie is character driven, and so it was ‘Let’s investigate what it is to be human’ and show using costumes the full range of human emotion. For me, American Hustle is a real investigation into the art of costume design.” Wilkinson also is nominated for a Costume Designers Guild Award. The ceremony is set for February 22 at the Beverly Hilton.