Are Your Costumes Telling Stories? Take a Look Inside the Costume Design for 'American Hustle'

What is a Costume Designer? And What Does a Costume Designer Do?

Making a film means getting really good at plate spinning, and oftentimes, the plate that falls first is the one that the wardrobe rests on. However, finding the right costume to dress your characters in not only helps tell your film's story, but it also raises the production value a great deal. We take a look inside the conceptualization of the costumes in American Hustle, revealing just how important the costuming in your film can be.

For a lot of low-budget filmmakers, getting your hands on any amount of money is a huge deal, and being frugal and smart about where it goes is the name of the game. Unfortunately, giving your film a decent costume budget is a difficult task, which means the thought behind costuming tends to only go shirt deep. ("Do the cops look like cops? Is my protagonist wearing pants? Yes? Move on.")

In a Hollywood Reporter article, five costume designers, Catherine Martin (The Great Gatsby), Michael Wilkinson (American Hustle), Mary Zophres (Inside Llewyn Davis), Trish Summerville (Catching Fire) and Daniel Orlandi (Saving Mr. Banks) talk about what inspired them to create the wardrobes for their respective films. Though most of us wouldn't even dream of having the budgets these artists were able to work with on just the costumes alone, their processes of creating outfits that both looked great on-screen, as well as added to the narrative is something we can all learn from.

For his work on American Hustle, Wilkinson had to find pieces that were not only right for the period, but right for the character's personalities, emotional states, and the overall theme of the film. Wilkinson says:

David O. Russell created this amazing story full of characters who are constantly reinventing themselves to keep their head above water. You have people dressing to be the people they are aspiring to be. For a costume designer interested in how people's personalities are expressed in their clothing, that stuff is golden.

According to THR's article, many of the costumes were made from scratch, and wanting to give the film a "gritty, real" look, Wilkinson studied photographs of people from the era in order to avoid overt clichés. In this exclusive clip from Variety, we get a behind the scenes look at Wilkinson's costuming choices on American Hustle:

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Most of us are familiar with certain tropes in costuming, like using a certain color to indicate an emotional state. Red is often used to communicate passion, love, anger, or danger, whereas blue is used to communicate sadness, (alternately) happiness, depth, or calmness. But, you can take costuming further than simple color symbolism. Oftentimes we remember a costume from a film because it encapsulates the personality of the character wearing it. Think Annie Hall -- Diane Keaton's shirt, tie, vest, and chinos (menswear) speak volumes about her character, a free-spirited woman trying to find her way. (Interestingly enough, Annie Hall's costumes came from Diane Keaton's own closet.)

To find out more about how the four other costume designers approached the costuming of their films, be sure to check out THR's post here.

What approach do you take when designing the wardrobe for the characters in your films? Are costumes an aspect of filmmaking you tend to put by the wayside? Let us know in the comments below.


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This is a stunning film!

January 12, 2014 at 12:51AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

Will Tenquist

"Interestingly enough, Annie Hall’s costumes came from Diane Keaton’s own closet"
In terms of my own deep love for Ms Keaton, that was certainly a factor.

Good piece. Costuming is incredibly important, even in non-retro, non-fantasy films.

As for the film - I'm going to be an old guy and say those that adore it haven't watched the films it so obviously steals from. Its a good film (eventually - what's with that 1st act?), but so were The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, Alex in Wonderland, The Last Run, Mean Streets, et al. Its the film equivalent of Daft Punk's 'Get Lucky'. A beautifully machined homage.

January 12, 2014 at 9:31AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


I've seen those movies and I loved 'American Hustle' :)

(I love 'Get Lucky, too!)

"We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice." - Francis Ford Coppola

“I steal from every single movie ever made. I love it -- if my work has anything it’s that I’m taking this from this and that from that and mixing them together. If people don’t like that, then tough titty, don’t go and see it, alright? I steal from everything. Great artists steal; they don’t do homages.” - Quentin Tarantino

January 12, 2014 at 10:15AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM

V Renée
Content Manager at Coverfly

Well said Renee, originality comes through the subtle changes and twists we make to our influences.

January 12, 2014 at 11:56PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM


Well said

January 19, 2014 at 8:00AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM