Profile: Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black Panther
It’s almost impossible to visualize a contemporary black film in which Ruth E. Carter has not had a hand. With over 40 films under her belt, the now Academy Award-winning costume designer has been responsible for capturing the black experience on screen sartorially, as well as for bringing some of the most notorious and recognizable film characters to life.
Ruth Carter was born and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts in a single-parent home, as the youngest of eight children. Initially, her sights weren’t set on costume design, but sewing and creating were hobbies to which she eventually found her way back in college at Hampton University, where she was plucked to design for university productions. Carter’s costume work in the theater earned her an internship at the Santa Fe Opera, which then led her to work at the Los Angeles Theater Center.
At the same time, she was doing freelance work at a dance studio in South Central, she crossed paths with the up-and-coming independent filmmaker Spike Lee who eventually became her closest collaborator. At the time, there weren’t many well-known black costume designers in the film community, so Lee took this as an opportunity to foster black talent and create opportunities for creators in the film industry.
In its 91-year history, the Academy has done a substandard job in recognizing and awarding black talent within the motion picture industry. The overlooking of Carter’s contributions to the industry, alongside the cultural impact of the work she’s done over the span of three decades is a prime example of how the Academy has been reluctant to examine or acknowledge black art on the same scale that it has done for other creators. It wasn’t until 2015—when April Reign created the momentous viral campaign #OscarsSoWhite—that the Academy recognized, in a way, that it has failed the very people that it aimed to please with what is regarded as the paramount celebration of film. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite allowed movie fans from around the world to express their grievances regarding the long-standing lack of diversity among the Academy’s selections as well as within the Academy itself. The wave of criticism that it initiated forced the Academy to come to terms with the fact that maybe it’s out of touch with today’s audiences’ expectations of such an institution.
This year, Ruth Carter won the Academy Award for “Best Costume Design” for the massive movie adaptation of Black Panther. The cultural impact of Black Panther comes at an unprecedented moment in history in which black representation in film is being unapologetically and vigorously demanded. The movie has made history as the first comic book adaptation that centers black characters in and outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In Black Panther, the costumes exist at the intersection of technological advancements and impeccable style. They serve as a substantial storytelling tool that stands out in almost every frame of the film. Carter’s genius designs have granted her her own place in the spotlight as she’s birthed a movement backed by her unique interpretation of Afrofuturism, one that conveniently translates as stylish on and off screen. In various interviews, Carter describes herself as “anti-fashion,” and makes a clear distinction between fashion and her craft of costume design.
However, it’s hard to simplify her work, because it has transcended costume design as we know it. Fans everywhere are celebrating looks from the movie in intricate cosplay adaptations and they are even incorporating a bit of Wakanda in how they dress from day to day. Much can be attributed to the success of the film, but it would be hard to imagine this particular cinematic universe without the backdrop of beautiful clothes.
Up until now, much of Carter’s design trajectory and mastery have encapsulated a specific moment in time, whether that be slave-era uprisings, the Zoot Suit Riots, the civil rights movement, or Atlanta in the 90s. But with Black Panther, the landscape of Afrofuturism allowed the designer to leave much to her imagination while referencing a wealth of traditional dress that already exists. "I wanted to respect the comic book legend and the Marvel fans and what they expected to see and what Marvel wanted," she told The Hollywood Reporter in a recent interview, "but I really needed to bring in the detail." Creating innovative design mediums for the characters while still remaining ”visibly African” dispelled a lot of preconceived notions about African cultural garb and how it can function. Carter incorporated inspiration from many tribes and populations across the continent, which is reflected in many of the textures, patterns, and fabrics portrayed on-screen.
Capturing the diversity of African dress was a priority throughout Carter’s process, as well as the intersection of technology needed to reflect the advances that Wakanda had made as a nation, even down to its clothes. She told CNN: “If [Wakanda is] a melting pot of all of these different cultures, and they're moving forward with all of their forward-thinking and technology, I don't think that they necessarily leave their cultural colors." It should be noted that modern technology played a role behind the scenes to create Queen Ramonda’s (Angela Bassett’s character) Zulu-inspired Isicola flared crowns: these were 3D-printed by wearable art innovator and tech maven Julia Koerner. With the help of an international team of researchers and expert craftspeople, Carter was able to source things such as jewelry, armor, and fabrics from the many regions of Africa. She drew inspiration from the Maasai women of Kenya and also noted the Himba, Tuareg, and Dogan people as points of reference.
Costume design is an essential piece of filmmaking that communicates numerous elements about a character’s personality to the audience. It’s what makes the character believable and relatable, and it serves as a signifier of transformation as the character develops throughout a film. Through the mastery of her craft, Ruth Carter has allowed us to step into the many worlds she’s created and to connect with the characters, which help us gain a better understanding of the stories being told. Is it any wonder that she has become one of the greatest storytellers of our time? Taking home the Oscar was not only a victory for her, but also for the wave of black creativity she’s inspired and will continue to inspire throughout her career.