Oscars 2014: Nominated fashions are on display in Los Angeles

Best Picture nominee 'American Hustle': (L-R) Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) attempt to scam an under cover agent in 'American Hustle.' (Francois Duhamel, Annapurna Productions)

“When you put on a pair of polyester pants that are supertight in the crotch and slightly flared at the bottom, it makes you walk different.”

So says Michael Wilkinson, the Oscar-nominated costume designer recalling the “immediate and strong reaction” he got from the stars of “American Hustle” as they tried on their disco-era duds for the first time.

A selection of those pieces — from Christian Bale’s burgundy velvet suit to Amy Adams’ plunging sequined gown with the high center slit — are on view to the public in the free exhibition “Art of Motion Picture Costume Design” through April 26 at the FIDM Museum and Galleries at the Fashion Institute for Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles.

Now in its 22nd year, the exhibition brings together 100 costumes from more than 20 of 2013’s biggest films, including ones from all five 2014 Oscar design nominees — Patricia Norris for “12 Years a Slave,” William Chang for “The Grandmaster,” Catherine Martin for “The Great Gatsby,” Michael O’Connor for “The Invisible Woman” and Wilkinson. It also shines a spotlight on Jacqueline Durran’s 2013 Oscar-winning gowns from “Anna Karenina.”

Handmade, or store bought and then altered, these costumes serve as top-notch examples of the careful research and creativity that goes into transforming an actor into a legendary kung-fu master, a 1920s dandy or a slave.

“Clothes don’t just happen — they’re put together by the costume designer,” says Salvador Perez, the Los Angeles-based president of the Costume Designers Guild and a working costume designer on Fox’s “The Mindy Project.” “Whether it’s a T-shirt and jeans or it’s a Dompierre gown, it’s the costume that helps the character come to life.”

In the exhibition, visitors can get an up-close look at the pink seersucker suit worn by Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Great Gatsby,” and Jennifer Lawrence’s white “American Hustle” dress with rhinestone straps at the back. They’ll see many others from such films as “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Oz the Great and Powerful” and “Saving Mr. Banks,” all with their different points of reference.

“It’s about the details,” says FIDM spokesman Nick Verreos, a fashion designer and historian currently starring on “Project Runway: Under the Gunn.”

Among the costumes he singles out for their attention to detail are those from “The Grandmaster,” which takes place at a time in China when sewing was still done by hand. And so Chang’s were, too. For visual reference, he tapped his collection of photographic books of the era and spent two years searching out and acquiring beads, ribbons, lace and other materials for the authentic costumes.

For “The Great Gatsby,” Martin “incorporated a lot of current designs from Prada, from Tiffany, from Brooks Brothers and she blended them with period flapper 1920s costumes,” Verreos says. “It was her way of subliminally trying to get a contemporary-marketed viewer to feel comfortable. So when you watch the movie, yeah, there’s a ’20s vibe, but even for me — and I know the ’20s — I was like, god! That just looks so now.”

As a result, Martin’s work has influenced the world of fashion, from the red carpet to the runway.

“All of a sudden, everything was heavily beaded,” says Barbara Bundy, FIDM’s vice president and museum director. “We had ropes and ropes of pearls and little dressy evening bags.”

Norris had little information to go on when she set out to create the look of “12 Years a Slave.” The neutral, aged and distressed costumes were part historical research, part guesswork. One thing was clear: Slave clothing was largely cast-offs, including hand-me-down menswear and off-period dresses for women.

“You’re having to read books and hoping that somewhere in there, somebody will describe fabric or button placement,” Perez says. “There are not a lot of photos, so it’s a lot of work.”

For his work in “American Hustle,” Wilkinson set out to express the decade’s distinct style, from flamboyant, exaggerated lines to a more streamlined ’80s vibe. He tried to use as many real pieces from the 1970s as he could find, but because the surviving clothing is now 40 years old, it isn’t always in the best condition.

And so, he designed and made a number of the pieces worn by the stars, including all of Bale’s velvet suits and Adams’ wrap-around dress with the vintage fur for the Studio 54 scene. The two each had more than 40 costumes.

“We really cared so much about getting these characters right,” Wilkinson says. “And essentially that’s what costume designers are about: finding the essence of the character and expressing it using fabrics, colors and all those thousands of tiny little details that you can put into a costume.”

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