You’d think that Ruth Carter, the costume designer who has worked on some of the most culturally significant films of the past 40 years, would always be ready to take on whatever Hollywood threw at her. Since graduating from Hampton University in 1982, Carter has dressed Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey, and Halle Berry for movies like Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X, and B.A.P.S. In 2019, she made history as the first Black woman to take home the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, thanks to her work on Black Panther. So, when Carter arrived to set on the Marvel film’s sequel in June 2020, it’s safe to assume she was prepared. But Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is so much more than just another notch in the MCU’s belt. Wakanda Forever sets out to further Marvel’s multiphase story, while still paying tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman, the man who brought the Black Panther to life. Boseman’s legacy seeps through every aspect of the film, from the plot, to the cinematography, to the costumes.
“It’s a story of people coming to terms with the loss of their king,” Carter tells W. “The throughline is definitely the memory of T’Challa. It’s still a vibrant film, but there’s a sense of control in the lighting and costume choices.”
In 2019, Carter brought Afrofuturism to life in the world of Wakanda, and now, in the sequel, she has expanded the universe underwater to Talokan—while simultaneously honoring a larger-than-life legacy and introducing a new Black Panther. It’s enough to exhaust anyone, but Carter had to do it all while collaborating with Marvel, working with garments submerged in water, and mourning a friend. It’s no surprise that, when Carter got to finally sit back and enjoy the film after all her hard work, it was an overwhelming experience.
“All of those emotions came back and it was very difficult,” she said of watching Wakanda Forever for the first time. “But then, the second time, I saw it with an audience of fans and I was so proud of the reactions to the costumes and the characters. I just sat back and I went on the ride of Wakanda Forever. It was incredible.” Below, Carter breaks down the looks from the film’s main characters, talks changes she made to the new Black Panther suit, and the difficulties of working with clothes underwater.
When creating costumes for Wakanda Forever, Carter collaborated with Adidas and the School for Experiential Education in Design. And while Queen Ramonda is a traditionalist through and through—one who would never be caught dead in athleisure—her daughter, Shuri, lives in “the realm of technology,” Carter explains. So it made sense to put Letitia Wright’s character in the resulting modern pieces from the collaboration. That’s why Shuri is often seen in tracksuits and vests, wearing hollowed-out sneakers and modern, sheer jackets. The pieces certainly identify Shuri as a young scientist, but they don’t have the same bright color palette that made up the Princess’ wardrobe in the first film.
“I remember [director Ryan Coogler] saying he didn’t want to focus as much on the clothing and that it should reflect the somber mood of the film,” Carter says. Because of that, Shuri’s reds and oranges of Black Panther are replaced by grays and muted purples. That’s not to say Shuri doesn’t have some standout pieces in her wardrobe, however. The purple tracksuit she wears to visit Riri Williams at MIT is a product of the collaboration with Adidas and SEED. From the front, it seems like your basic nylon set, but Carter wanted to throw in “an element that made the suit special.” So, she added extra fabric to the back to create an attached cape, which comes to life as Shuri rides a motorcycle in the big chase scene.
When Shuri goes into the Ancestral Plane after taking the heart-shaped herb, we get to see a different aesthetic side to the princess. She emerges in a gauzy white dress—a long way off from her more androgynous tracksuits. For Carter, it was important that Shuri wear white in this scene, in order to honor her older brother, T’Challa, who also appeared in white when he entered the Ancestral Plane in the first film. “We tried a lot of dresses that day, but all of them were white,” she says. “It needed to have a beautiful flow to it in water.” A Jonathan Simkhai frock did the trick.
But Shuri’s most important look (and likely the most important look of the entire film) is the Black Panther suit. She is the first person to wear the suit and assume the title of the protector of Wakanda, following her brother’s death. The moment is a meaningful one, but it’s also empowering to have a woman step into this role.
“This is a woman's story,” Carter says. “It’s Shuri’s story, it’s Ramonda’s story, it’s Nakia’s story, it’s Okoye’s story—and they all have a level of brilliance and adornment to their costumes.” That is especially true with the new Black Panther suit, which is enhanced with silver and gold details, embellishments not previously seen on T’Challa’s iteration. “It’s a panther suit fit for a princess,” she adds. “It’s glorious.
Carter and Angela Bassett have had the pleasure of working together on multiple films over the years, including Malcolm X and Chi-Raq. So when it came to dressing Queen Ramonda again, Carter was more than ready. “There’s a wonderful sisterhood that has formed,” the costume designer says of her relationship with Bassett. “I know she has the ability to pull off any of my wildest dreams, whatever they may be.” And for Wakanda Forever, Carter’s dream was to re-introduce the Queen as someone who is strong and intentional with her outfit choices. Once again, Carter had crowns 3D-printed for Ramonda by designer and architect Julia Koerner, modeled from the traditional headdresses worn by married Zulu women. Through her looks, Ramonda establishes that she dresses for no one but herself. In one of the first scenes in Wakanda Forever, the Queen visits the United Nations. While most world leaders would wear a suit to such an appearance, Ramonda arrives in a deep purple halter-neck gown, with a gold collar and crown. “Ryan [Coogler] really loved that dress for that scene,” Carter adds.
Many of Bassett’s looks came in-house from Carter’s shop in Atlanta, but she also tasked India-based designer J.J. Valaya to create some of Ramonda’s pieces. “Everything in Wakanda was kind of upgraded from the last film, including Ramonda’s stature, but especially her clothes,” Carter says.
Danai Gurira’s general takes on more of a central role in Wakanda Forever, meaning there’s more of a chance to explore her character’s style outside of her usual Dora Milaje uniform. When Okoye and Shuri visit Riri at MIT, Okoye is in a sleek red bodysuit with a blazer and Louis Vuitton sunglasses. It has a “pedestrian” look to it, but even her off-duty attire is battle-ready. The bodysuit is courtesy of the Adidas collaboration and, according to Carter, features “body banding that athletes like, because it supports their knees and muscles.” An added Wakandan graphic down the front elevates the piece from “just an Adidas workout unitard,” to a bodysuit worthy of a Dora Milage general.
When we see Okoye later in the film, after she’s been stripped of her title, she’s back with the Border Tribe, wearing their customary blue in the form of a hooded bodysuit. “She wanted a hood because she didn’t want people to recognize her,” Carter says. Hoods also have an element of grief to them, the costume designer explains, which is why they’re seen a few times throughout the film, including in Shuri’s look for T’Challa’s funeral.
And while many of the costumes in the film can be categorized by either traditional royalwear or combat uniforms, Lupita Nyong’o’s Nakia brings in a more casual element. When we first see Nakia, she’s running a school in Haiti, dressed much more in the vein of a teacher than the undercover spy of her former life.
Carter wanted to “abandon” what was established in the first film, which saw Nakia in a lot of green, representing her River Tribe. “This time, we introduce her in a bright salmon dress. It’s really beautiful with her skin,” she adds. When Nakia decides to return home and take on the mission of saving Shuri, she returns to the color green in the form of a submersible suit. “I added a little bioluminescent color to [the suit], since she wears it to go deep into the dark ocean,” Carter explains, calling the addition “the brilliance”—just like the silver and gold of Shuri’s Black Panther suit.
Namor and the Talokanil
Speaking of the underwater world, much of Wakanda Forever takes place in the subterranean Talokan. Namor, the ruler of the Talokanil, introduces Shuri—and by extension, the audience—to this sub-aquatic society, rich with vibranium. Shuri touring Talokan is a moving scene; still, one can’t help but think of the struggle Carter faced in designing pieces that would live and die underwater.
“That was a learning curve,” she says with a laugh. “You might think you put something in water and it flows like beautiful silk in a ballet—but really, gravity just takes it up straight. We had to tether things together and weigh a lot of costumes down in certain areas so they could flow beautifully.” Constant tweaking was required, and every time the free-diving actors who portrayed the Talokanil emerged from the water, they were immediately surrounded by costumers making changes. “They were all wet and just looking for a towel and we’d be there, adjusting things.”
Carter, Coogler, and the rest of the crew worked closely with Mayan historians and experts to portray and represent the culture accurately through the Talokanil. It was important to determine how this tribe of people would wear their vibranium, and Carter decided to represent it with a blue stone color, seen in the jewelry worn by the Talokanil and Namor. “There’s a pyramid in Mexico dedicated to the Feathered Serpent, so that’s what you see on [Namor’s] neckpiece: the two-headed feathered serpent with a large pearl in the middle.” Carter says.
King T’Challa’s Funeral
Wakanda Forever opens with the death of King T’Challa, followed by a moving celebration of life that takes over the streets. It’s a beautiful sight, and one that is rooted in African culture.
“We spoke with historians in West Africa specifically, and they told us that in Africa, the color for funerals is usually white or red,” Carter says. The costume designer already felt that red had a life of its own in Black Panther, so she went with white for the funeral garb. Color is vital in Black Panther—whether it’s the blue of the Border Tribe or a royal purple for the monarchs. Now, white has taken on a life of its own, representing “purity,” as Carter describes it. Following his funeral, it will always be connected to the late King T’Challa as well.