Film Review: “American Hustle” – A Fashion Perspective

Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams & Bradley Cooper

That dubious decade of dynamite design known as the 1970’s, rears its distinctive head in David O. Russells new film “American Hustle.”  Whether you love it or hate it, it can be fun to revisit the era when polyester ruled, hair loomed large and taste was reserved only for the mouth.  Movies such as “Goodfellas”, “Casino” and “Blow”  largely feature the same time period and demonstrate a similar  over-the-top aesthetic.  The movie’s plot based loosely on Abscam is almost a “Mc-Guffin” (see Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest”) meaning it is just a ploy to tell a story about the characters and their interactions.  The takeaway of the movie, at least for me,  was basically a tale of re-invention:  who is real and who can you trust?  I am focusing only on the fashion storyline for the purposes of this review.

Amy Adams as Sydney Prosser aka Lady Edith Greensley  never met a plunging neckline she didn’t like.  These are not just any garden variety deep v-necks but rather call to mind J-Lo’s iconic, oft ridiculed and satired green Versace Grammy’s dress when she was an item with P. Diddy.  Adams’s character wears these for everyday apparel and Adams herself has denied that double-stick tape was employed,  instead attributing the lack of a nip-slip to “good posture.”  Ummm, okayyy…even if she was maneuvering as if she had a book on her head during the duration of the movie I don’t think “the girls” would have gotten the memo. Her best look (aside from the macrame bikini at the beginning), is the fur coat she gets from “the vault” (things people brought in and never picked up) of Irving’s dry cleaning shop and a floppy hat. Her shimmery wrap “disco dress” custom made of sparkly fabric, while eye-catching, was unbelievably scratchy, she revealed in an interview. I noticed that her character never wore a pair of pants even though bell-bottoms were a ’70s era mainstay.  She is all about legs and boobs as her  Lady Edith is the quintessential con woman who dresses to distract and confuse her victims and gains power from doing so.

Amy Adams & Christian Bale

Conversely, Jennifer Lawrence (as Rosalyn Rosenfeld, Irving’s wife) wears the pants, if not in her relationship with her husband, then at least to dinner in the form of a leopard chiffon jumpsuit.  Her clothing is either loose and tent-like at home or at least one-size too small in the form of a too tight white Qiana-like gown (I can’t believe I’m typing the word Qiana on a fashion website)!  Michael Wilkinson, costume designer for the film, has said that he wanted something to be “slightly off” with Jennifer’s dress and have that quality where you can’t look away because you expect her to spill out of it at any moment.  Actually, as I recall, the ’70s polyester staple was advertised like mad in all the women’s magazines at the time as a “wonder fabric.”Christian Bale, con-artist Irving Rosenfeld, who lost 60 lbs for another David O. Russell film “The Fighter” and then went back to his normal weight, gained 40 lbs for this role.  He accessorizes his paunch with three-piece velvet suits, spread collar shirts and ascots and mixes polka dots, stripes and paisleys with aplomb.  He owns dry cleaning stores in Manhattan and the Bronx and there are two scenes where he stands amidst the rotating clothing racks just taking in the headiness of the spinning scenery, once alone and once with Sydney making it a near sexual experience.

Jennifer Lawrence & Amy Adams

Bradley Cooper, the FBI man, starts out in uninspired polyester suits and later buys a leather jacket.  In the scene where he and Sydney go dancing at Studio 54, he is decked out in full disco regalia complete with gold chains and white scarf. Jeremy Renner, the politico, wears bright blue and other flashy colored suits almost like a comic book character and outrageously flamboyant (read tacky) ties.  “It’s his own aspirational  dressing–with less resources,” is how costume designer Wilkinson explains it.If it’s true that the fifth character in “Sex and the City” is Manhattan then I’d have to say the sixth character in “American Hustle” is the hair.  Forget Tony Manero’s (John Travolta) in “Saturday Night Fever” hair scene, this puts that one to shame for sheer intricacy.   You remember it, as he’s preparing to go out dancing but must get through dinner with the family first, there’s a sequence where he’s blow drying, brushing and styling each strand into perfection only to have his mother strike him near the follicular area.  He screams in pain but it’s not the pain of a head injury…more like the pain of having spent an hour coiffing himself only to have his crowning glory mussed up.  There is actually a parallel scene with Christian Bale’s character Irving Rosenfeld and his elaborately ridiculous combover which consequently is dismantled by a blow.  Bradley Cooper’s character FBI agent Richie DeMasso sports a curly perm which he does himself as we witness him in curlers.

We also get to see Amy Adams in curlers but surprisingly the only one who retains her bulletproof ‘do is Jennifer Lawrence’s Rosalyn Rosenfeld, especially since she’s the Long Island housewife lounging around in muu-muus and setting fire to the kitchen.  Jeremy Renner’s character NJ mayor Carmine Polito sports a sky-high pompadour not to be outdone by the others.While I was slightly let-down (my hopes were as high as the hair) by this movie  and feel that the trailer promised more fun than the movie delivered, if you enjoy the extremes of the decade of questionable couture otherwise known as the 1970’s, you may enjoy this movie for the fashion quotient alone.

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

  1. Dear Laurel,

    Thanks for the fashion report on American Hustle of the 1970s.
    I just need to say I have been in fashion for decades in New York, worked for Halston in the 1970s and regularly attended Studio 54…then owned by Rubell and Schragger. Nobody dressed like this. The fashion was very different. Unfortunately the costume designer for the film got it wrong. The 1970s was owned by Halston in New York and Yves St.Laurent in Paris. NNorth

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