Midway through Hustlers, the new Lorene Scafaria film that follows a group of New York City strippers who defraud their lunkhead patrons after the 2008 recession, Destiny (played by Constance Wu) receives a gift that shocks her with its weight. At a gilded holiday celebration, her friend and mentor Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) presents the younger woman with a box containing a formidable fur coat. “What was it?” Destiny asks giddily, then squeals upon finding out her new outerwear lived its first life as several chinchillas. The coat is lavish, gaudy, and ethically questionable. But it’s also a sentimental callback to when the two women first met years earlier: Destiny had wandered onto the roof of the club where Ramona held court, and the veteran dancer had ushered the new girl into the warmth of her massive fur.
In Hustlers, fashion isn’t just ornamental. The decadent caper, which is based on Jessica Pressler’s 2015 story for The Cut, uses its costuming in large part to signal its characters’ shifting relationships to the wealth that unites them. Destiny’s coat, for example, both mirrors Ramona’s ascent and hints at divergences between the two women: “When you see that first shot of Ramona on the rooftop, it’s [just an] iconic image of this incredibly beautiful woman draped in fur,” Mitchell Travers, the film’s costume designer, said when we spoke recently. “And then [after Ramona sees Destiny], it’s about ... the softness and the friendship and the protection that it provides.”
Travers noted that Scafaria had deliberately written the furs into the script as a symbolic item. The chinchilla coat marks the beginning of another chapter in Ramona and Destiny’s lives, one where the younger woman becomes second in command in this new hustle, which grows to include Mercedes (Keke Palmer) and Annabelle (Lili Reinhart). Travers explained that the gift is “Ramona’s signaling to Destiny, We’re similar. You’re like me. We’re taking care of this group together.” But, like the duo’s schemes, the coat isn’t a comfortable fit for Wu’s character. “That coat becomes a little bit of a burden on Destiny,” Travers said.
Destiny’s commingling excitement about and discomfort with her new riches is evident throughout the film. Hustlers first teases out this tension with period-specific visuals that celebrate its characters’ excesses. “I worked to follow those trends of the early 2000s,” Travers said. “I wanted all of the jeans to have top stitching and rhinestones, chain belts, and too many bracelets, and big rings and heavy jewelry.” There are individualized flourishes, too: Ramona dances in a metallic silver G-string; Destiny wears a rhinestone choker that informs club patrons (and viewers) that she’s SEXY.
Many of the scenes that follow the women’s initial (noncriminal) successes show them shopping for luxury clothing and accessories designed to call attention to their newly acquired riches. In one especially amusing—and very 2007—sequence, Destiny pays for a Gucci bag entirely in singles. When the cashier raises an eyebrow at the bills tendered, it’s Ramona who instructs the woman to mind her business and ring up the purchase. “You start to see that they are financially ascendant, and that they are trying to elevate their status with these flashy symbols early on,” Travers noted. “And you notice that the things they gravitate to are very logo-heavy items or things that really signal wealth in a pretty ostentatious way.”
But even before the 2008 financial crash radically alters all the characters’ relationship to money, Hustlers highlights how the women start to conceive of wealth differently when their spending is less driven by a fear of financial scarcity. “As the story develops and the novelty wears down, you can see that they start to spend their money on things that are a bit more serious. They pay off debts, they help the women around them,” Travers continued. “They’re not afraid of a Louboutin purchase, of course, but now they’re dealing with a larger level of wealth. They’re buying new homes, they’re buying new lifestyles for themselves instead of just new closets.”
When Ramona and Destiny are eventually arrested (along with the other members of their crew), the stakes of their sartorial choices are high. To craft looks that conveyed how each character would dress when faced with legal adversity, Travers turned to the film’s source material, and to celebrity news of the recent past. “The wonderful thing about the early 2000s is that scandal was really celebrated,” he said, noting that he studied what Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan wore to their court appearances. (Photos of Tila Tequila and Snooki were also helpful references.) “At that time, we were seeing images of what these women were wearing every single day in paparazzi photos on Perez Hilton and Just Jared and websites that documented their every move,” he continued. “And then all of a sudden, when it came time to present themselves to court, we got these really virginal, guilt-free, perfect versions of them that had nothing to do with the images that we were so used to seeing.”
That real-life inspiration is most obvious in Destiny’s post-arrest attire. In her interview scenes with the journalist reporting on the former strippers’ crimes, Wu’s character is cloaked in white. Her clothing drapes over her body, concealing much of her skin. Even though bold jewelry adorns her wrists, she’s muted; the blunt wig of her stripping years has been traded in for a demure bob. “We had the Rockstud Valentino shoes, and the leather skinny pants,” Travers noted. “And I just liked that it was Destiny’s portrayal of innocence.” (Ramona, the more unwavering of the two, was arrested in a black Juicy Couture hoodie and kept her gleaming chin piercing.)
For Travers, much of the thrill of working on Hustlers came from channeling the era in which the film is set. Though 2007 and 2008 were just over a decade ago, the time warp of Hustlers is jarring in its fidelity to the trends of those years. “What I found really refreshing about this script is that there aren’t many movies that depict this timeline yet in the way that you can go to Los Angeles and go pull costumes for the ’70s and the ’80s and the ’90s,” he said. That clear, industry-wide rubric doesn’t yet exist for the aughts, though, and certainly not for 2007 and 2008. “It was interesting to go back into a time that was a bit slower and a bit more steady, where we could see so many mistakes were made in terms of fashion.” Travers found the era, with all of its over-the-top glitter, strangely alluring: “There’s a lot of floundering, there’s an inability to edit, which I found really kind of beautiful about the period.”
Much of this stylistic showiness was driven by the period’s prerecession extravagance—an impulse that Travers wanted to emphasize. “There was a bit of a Great Gatsby quality to our film in that you really crave all of these symbols of wealth and luxury and you just want to be surrounded by them—until you are and ... it starts to feel heavy and like you’re drowning in all of these things,” he said. The choice Destiny faces by the end of the film is whether to hold on to these items and sink—or to abandon the objects that once symbolized her independence and seek out a different kind of freedom.