Creating ‘American Hustle’s’ Sexy, Oscar-Nominated Look: From Pasties to The Plaza

Production designer Judy Becker and costume designer Michael Wilkinson on crafting American Hustle’s style, Bradley Cooper’s tight pants, and a last-minute pasties hunt for Amy Adams.

Sony Pictures

American Hustle, filmmaker David O. Russell’s dizzying mélange of A-list stars, outré hairdos, and deceit, is not without its plaudits. The movie’s received 10 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director, and became only the second film since 1981 to receive nods in all four acting categories. It’s also strutted and sauntered its way to over $215 million worldwide.

The ‘70s-set film, loosely based on the FBI Abscam operation, centers on Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), a con artist who, along with his fake British mistress, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), cuts a deal with FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) to help him corral some corrupt politicos. Things soon spiral out of control when the mob, and Irv’s unruly wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), gets involved.

And, while Hustle does boast a coterie of fabulously bonkers performances from its game cast, one of the film’s biggest strengths is its stylish look, courtesy of Oscar nominees Judy Becker (production designer) and Michael Wilkinson (costume designer). And, with an overall budget of just $40 million—meager by Hollywood standards—creating this look was no easy task.

“You tend to see a lot of kitsch, or you see a lot of grit, grime, prostitutes, dirty, and scariness in movies about New York in the ‘70s,” says Becker. “This movie wasn’t Taxi Driver. For my crew, I requested The King of Comedy as a reference, since it’s set in the more glamorous Midtown Manhattan that we were trying to portray.”

Becker and Russell had previously collaborated on The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and the aborted Nailed, so they’ve developed a shorthand. But Hustle presented its own unique set of challenges. For starters, it’s set in New York City, Long Island, New Jersey, and Atlantic City during the ‘70s, so the crew had to find a viable location that resembled the period and place. Becker began scouting locations for two weeks in Nov. 2012, and settled on Boston and nearby Worcester, since it was littered with period buildings from the ‘70s. Then, just after Thanksgiving, the production design team entered into a 12-week pre-production process (a bit longer than Becker’s standard 8-10 weeks), where they took over a stage in the warehouse of a granite and marble dealer in Woburn, Mass.

“We built two different versions of The Plaza Hotel—the crappier version in the beginning, and the ‘General Sherman Suite’ version—as well as Sydney’s apartment, Carl Elway’s apartment, and the back room of the casino where Robert De Niro appears,” says Becker.

Additionally, Becker and her team constructed a disco bathroom in a separate warehouse—where Cooper’s character almost has sex with Adams's—and found an empty office building in Worcester that they transformed into both Bale’s character’s London Associates office, as well as the office of Cosmopolitan magazine, where Adams’s character briefly works. They shot for just two days in New York for mostly exteriors, including The Plaza, and a scene where Bale and Adams’s characters dance in the middle of Park Ave.

Since the film was shot in Boston and Worcester from March to May 2013, production was slightly delayed due to the Boston Marathon bombing (no one was harmed and no sets were damaged).

“We were shooting in Worcester that day,” says Becker. “We were shut down the day after because they shut down the whole city, and then there was the manhunt. We had been shooting right near where the bombing happened, but we’d finished. I was shooting during 9/11, so it brought back some really awful memories.”

For Russell, it all starts with the characters and flows from there, so both the film’s sets and costumes were designed through the heads of the characters—how they see the world, and what these characters say about the time.

“How they present themselves to the world says a lot about how they feel about themselves,” says Wilkinson, Hustle’s costume guru. “They use clothes to empower themselves.”

Wilkinson, who’s primarily known for bigger productions like The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn and the upcoming Superman-Batman film, shot extensive camera tests with the actors and Russell where they all conceptualized how the characters would look, from their shoes to their flowing dresses and polyester suits. And there was no shortage of costumes on set. Bale’s and Adams’s characters have over 40 costumes each in the film, and Cooper’s has dozens as well, so they ended up creating massive closets to house each character’s outfits.

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Since Russell, according to Becker, “becomes amazingly, creatively alive during production,” the entire cast and crew must be on their toes for any ideas that sprout up in the heat of the moment. Wilkinson recalls one particularly exhilarating day on set when they had to pull off an entire montage sequence that covered six different script days in Bale’s character’s office.

“It was just Bam! Bam! Bam!—costumes flying across the set as we changed from one script stage to the other,” recals Wilkinson. “After that, I remember popping downstairs and Jennifer Lawrence had just arrived in town, so we did the final fitting for her white casino dress. David wanted to see how it moved, so the next thing I knew we were having a mini-rehearsal with Jennifer sitting on my lap and pretending to spill champagne all over me, and then we rushed to the room next door to shoot the wedding portrait that sits in their living room. Jennifer jumped into an early ‘70s wedding dress and I realized that I didn’t have a yarmulke for Christian Bale, so I rushed to the restroom, got some paper towels, cut them into a circle, and got a Bobby pin. We improvised!”

Another crazy story involved acquiring the stripper outfit—including pasties and beaded panties—that Adams’s character wears during a flashback sequence. The idea for the scene came to Russell just 18 hours before it was to be shot, so the costume team had to seriously pivot.

“We were shooting it in Boston, and I hopped in a car and drove through Boston to try and find the perfect ‘exotic dancer’ costume for Amy,” says Wilkinson. “David shot me a text saying, ‘Valerie Perrine in Lenny,’ and the costume gods were looking down on me because Agent Provocateur was open on High Street in Boston, and we found the most beautiful pair of nude-toned beaded knickers and pasties.”

Wilkinson modeled Adams’s character’s glamorous look on several icons of the era, including Bianca Jagger, Jerry Hall, Catherine Deneuve, Faye Dunaway, Cybill Shepherd, and Lauren Hutton—jetsetters who wore slinky outfits designed by the likes of Halston and Diane von Furstenberg. Adams, of course, dons a series of chest-baring dresses throughout the course of Hustle, and Wilkinson insists that they remained period-correct in their non-use of tape.

“We liked the duality of these low-plunging costumes because Amy could slip from being confident to vulnerable,” says Wilkinson. “I remember Amy wearing these very minimal, silk jersey Halston dresses for the first time and feeling very out on a limb, with not a lot between her and the world.”

In addition to Haltson and Diane von Furstenberg, Wilkinson used outfits from several other high-end designers like Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Ossie Clark. He also designed several of them from scratch.

The biggest hurdle for the costume team when it came to Bale’s character, meanwhile, was in the jewelry department—especially during the scene where you see his gut exposed at the pool party.

“It was tough to get the Star of David to nestle within the right patch of chest hair,” jokes Wilkinson. “I got to give Christian a little lesson in Yiddish-isms,” adds Becker. “I taught him shiksa, since his wife in the movie isn’t Jewish, and he asked me what a meshugganah meant, which was fun.”

Wilkinson used Saturday Night Fever as a model for Cooper’s character, and even ended up locating the three-piece white suit Travolta wore in the film and showed it to Cooper to communicate what he was looking for.

“We used a lot of the style lines from that suit for some of Bradley’s suits,” says Wilkinson, before chuckling. “The first time he tried on a polyester suit with the tight pants he had a visceral reaction and commented about how tight they were in the crotch area, which he wasn’t used to.”

One of Becker and Wilkinson’s biggest hurdles involved Lawrence’s character—a fiery Long Island housewife with a bizarre sense of sartorial and decorative style, ranging from a white leotard (which Wilkinson says Russell “felt very strongly about” including) to her wacky home.

“We wanted it to be that every time you saw her, there’s something not quite right about the way she put her outfit together—whether it’s the strange layering of a sheer, white leotard underneath a billowing printed muumuu, or when she’s dressed to the nine’s at the casino, the dress is too tight and low-cut, with a certain ‘Long Island flavor’ to it.”

“We used lot of patterns from the era and made the house over-decorated, since she’s a character who has a lot of free time and sublimates a lot of her frustrations and depressions through decorating and redecorating her house,” adds Becker. “A lot of Mylar foil-printed wallpaper, trendy accents, and I found her bedspread at the Brooklyn Flea Market. There are a lot of warm colors in the home—oranges and yellows—that clash well with her sexy outfits.”