“Color follows me, I don’t follow it,” said Ruth E. Carter, the esteemed costume designer and three-time Oscar nominee who is known for her vibrant work on films such as Black Panther, Do the Right Thing, and Selma.
It's true—those familiar with the oeuvre of directors Spike Lee, Keenan Ivory Wayans, and Robert Townsend would be remiss if they did not acknowledge the immense body of work that Carter contributed to those groundbreaking films.
Her work spans decades. In the late 1980s, the designer was inspired by the bright pops of color that athletic brands like Nike were incorporating into their compression shorts and crop tops, which ultimately informed a “fun, young, and vibrant” palette for School Daze and Do the Right Thing, her first collaborations with Lee. Thirty years later, Carter’s costumes featured in Black Panther are recognized not just for their use of color but also for the explicit celebration of traditional African designs and Afrofuturistic ideals embedded in the clothes worn by the warriors, royals, and superheroes onscreen. The story of a reluctant king of one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world is a fascinating concept on its own, but it would have been boring to watch the narrative play out if the costumes worn by the various tribes and characters were not so visually compelling and intricately designed.
“Costume design and fashion sometimes can’t coexist because you can’t make everybody a fashion plate. Some of that has to tell a story,” Carter said about her process of designing looks for Black Panther. “Black people look great in color, and it’s a very intricate balance to not overpower the scene or what the person is saying,” the costume designer said, explaining the efforts she and her team took to both punch up and honor the Marvel comics upon which director Ryan Coogler based his film.
For a superhero blockbuster, Black Panther’s narrative is innovative because of its deft merging of past traditions with Afrofuturistic imagery, and included in the film’s costumes are a mix of these real-life traditional design elements, such as the Adinkra symbols painted on various outfits, with modern design elements, like the inclusion of chrome. The Isicholo (a South African woman’s traditional marriage hat) worn by Angela Bassett’s Queen Ramonda, and T’Challa’s supersuit, which is infused with vibranium to protect him from physical attacks—these costumes somehow feel both familiar and fresh.
With roughly six months to prepare the costumes worn in Black Panther, Carter worked closely with the production designer and director to capture the resilient spirit of the film's narrative. They had put together what Carter calls a “Wakandan Bible,” which outlined the tribes and people of Wakanda, as well as the real African tribes and cultures they were based on. “If you look at the Jabari tribe, they were influenced by the Dogon of Mali, if it was the Merchant tribe, they were influenced by the Turkana. It’s a collaboration,” Carter said. “I wanted to look at this and say, those neck rings that the Ndebele women wear in South Africa would be great in our piece,” she continued, adding that in the past, people have defined African art as simply primitive, without celebrating it for its innovation. “Now, I think people will be able to contextualize and look at African art, and appreciate it so much differently. That’s what we did: We appreciated it, we reimagined it, we took it to another level, another place, and there were inspirations everywhere!”
It was important for Carter to “put a Wakandan spin" on the costumes, rather than simply copying what has existed for centuries and haphazardly slapping together disparate designs together for the screen. For example, with T’Challa’s superhero suit (worn by Chadwick Boseman), there wasn’t a lot of time for dilly-dallying with trial and error. Marvel was very hands-on in providing initial sketches for the shape of the suit, but Carter’s task was to push the story of T’Challa forward with his costume. “For me, it was in the surface texture,” Carter said. “It was the texture that needed to connect him to Africa, so we came up with the little triangle in the pattern. The triangle represents the sacred geometry of Africa,” she went on. “When we printed the suit fabric, we did this triangle all over it, and it really did make it have this richer, more storied look. So now he’s not only a superhero, he’s also an African king.”
Much like Princess Shuri, T’Challa’s wise-cracking, tech-savvy sister, who designs his indestructible supersuit, Carter relied on 3-D printing technology to create a handful of the looks seen in the film. The Isicholo worn by Queen Ramonda in the scene where T’Challa returns to Wakanda was 3-D printed, as was her shoulder mantle. Just about everything else, according to Carter, was sewn in Africa. Antique pieces were also incorporated for the sake of authenticity.
The Warrior Falls scene, where the leaders of different tribes of Wakanda challenge T’Challa for the throne before his coronation ceremony, showcases the variety of colors and garments associated with each tribe. “[In that scene] a lot of people have turbans, a lot of people have striped pieces. They were not easy to get, and you cannot just go to Target or Macy’s and find those,” Carter said. “We built a lot of the beautiful ponchos that the women wear, and for the Miners, who wear orange, we made their work coveralls. We didn’t just want to throw African culture up there.” Wakandan garments exist on an aspirational yet attainable plane. “That meant we had to be fashion forward and think about different silhouettes, and think about not making it necessarily so familiar to the eye,” she said.
Carter has designed film costumes for three decades, receiving three Oscar nominations (for her period-specific pieces in Malcolm X in 1992, and Amistad in 1997), and winning the 2019 Critics Choice Award for Best Costume Design. It only feels right, if not long overdue, for Carter to be honored by IMG and Harlem Fashion Row as a kickoff to New York Fashion Week. A curated installation of her work from Black Panther placed alongside reinterpretations of her costumes by Ib Kamara—whom Carter said was inspired by characters in Baby Boy and School Daze as well as costumes worn in Black Panther—were placed on display on February 6 as part of the "Next of Kin" event.
The designer appears to be humbled by her influence, and willing to give advice to any up-and-comers who ask for it. “I get designers calling me—not only black designers but also white designers, all kinds of young designers—they call me and ask for advice about situations they’re in,” Carter said. “They figure that I’ve been here a long time and I’ve probably had to deal with some of the common problems that occur. Sometimes when you’re young, you don’t know how to work it out. I do my best to just answer them, and I feel good about being a role model,” she went on, before addressing the positive changes she has seen in the industry over the years. “I think in general there’s always been a push for inclusiveness and for women to be in key positions, and we weren’t talking about it enough, but now I feel like we’re talking about it. We’re pledging to create environments that help women instead of the unhealthy ones that have existed in this industry for so long,” Carter said.
With the Academy Awards looming, the red-carpet looks worn by the actors in Black Panther will be the subject of intrigue. As for Carter’s own red-carpet agenda for this year, she remains coy about whether or not she will pay homage to the film or the fictional Wakanda with her outfit for the evening. “I’m not saying, because I don’t want to jinx it,” she admitted with a laugh. “But I do have some plans.”