Ruth E. Carter’s resumé is extensive. The costume designer — best known for her work in films such as Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, and Selma — uses clothing to complement narratives. By incorporating styles and aesthetics that are otherwise ignored or abused, her work upends stereotype, lifting and reflecting the multivalence that blackness is constantly denied.
In 1997’s B*A*P*S, for example, there’s a scene in which two women — Nisi, played by Halle Berry, and Mickey, played Natalie Desselle-Reid — sit on a plane. Nisi reads an etiquette book, while Mickey scans a magazine. “Do you think we overdid it with our hair?” Mickey asks. Without hesitation, Nisi responds, “Nope.” Both women are dressed exquisitely in suits made of creamsicle latex and leopard print. Like crowns, their hair is piled high and licked with diamonds. To the ignorant eye, Halle and Natalie’s characters could be described as “tacky” or “ghetto” but with Carter’s design, they are eager, limitless women.
Throughout the course of her career, Carter has sifted through histories — real and imagined — with a rare kind of grace and precision. In 1992, she humanized the legacy of Malcolm X with a simple white thobe. A year later, she transformed Angela Bassett into Tina Turner, tailoring a creamy pant suit into a symbol of power, defiance, and grace. Carter has moved through time with elegance and empathy, extending the same thoughtfulness to Mende captives from the 19th century to a modern-day news anchor and her Louboutins.
Some of her more recent creations will appear in Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther, a movie that has set records even before its release. Each movie trailer and editorial that shows glimpses of Wakanada has been met with viral acclaim, in no small part because of Carter's brilliant costume work. Over the phone, we spoke about fashion and race, inspiration and history, and creating the power of Black Panther.
Would you consider yourself a historian?
I think of myself as a Monday night quarterback historian. I’ve worked with historians at Colonial Williamsburg and other places and they dedicate their lives to research. They usually have a focus and that focus is typically consistent within their interest. They usually know of so much more detail than I do. While I have the same interest and passion for clothing and history and the histories of blacks in this country and Africa and Africans, it’s a bit hard for me to stay consistent. It’s a project-by-project basis.
Cumulatively, as the 35 years have passed, I’ve revisited or linked really the years of research that I have done. When I take it from Amistad to Rosewood, to Malcolm X, I can see a chronology of the history of dress for African Americans from Africa to present day. [But] each section for me is short-lived. It’s just not long enough for me to really even consider myself a historian. I have to skim the pages of the history books. When I hit on something that is significant to the script that I’m working on, then I’ll read specific parts in-depth. But, I’m sure there’s a lot of reading and research that I’m missing.
I can’t even get into a deep conversation with a historian because it’s completely intimidating. I was interviewed by one at UCLA in front of an audience and I was just so scared she would ask me something, or want to engage me in a subject that I knew very little about. I’m very honest about that but it is humbling. The reasons why are so deep. How we came here and how we adopted a new style and how we kept in our subconscious certain things like color and texture, just the way of wearing things.
Black people have been excluded from factions of fashion and beauty for centuries. Does that ever inform your work? The exclusion from dress — having access to department stores like Macy’s and Richard’s, for example — is something that still permeates the fashion industry today in some ways.
Exactly. They didn’t think that they had anything, not only because of the black woman’s body type, but simply because [those institutions] didn’t want items to be worn by them. I think that identifies more with the mode of dress for African-American women because we were seamstresses. Under the social climate there were things that we didn’t have, so we had to make them. We did it in our way, as dressmakers, creating clothing to meet your specific needs. The socioeconomics and also the racism of that day informed what we could wear. I remember as a kid you could never get a pair of jeans to fit on your butt. Pants were not cut for women with curves and now that’s become something in vogue. But for almost ever, the cut of clothes was not designed for or with African-American women. If you look at something from the ‘60s, you’ll see that gap in the waistband. We had to buy a bigger size just to fit our hips but it never fit the waist.
What were some style lessons you learned growing up? What made you learn the power of clothing?
Funny as it is, I wasn’t a fashion kid. I didn’t grow up with a mom who could afford those things. I was a child of the ‘70s and the ‘80s, so I was more anti-fashion. I liked Madonna and the punk rock era. I had the scrunched down boots that I tucked my Girbaud jeans into. I had the dolman sleeve cropped leather jacket. That was my look as a kid especially with Lisa Bonet. I was on that track. My mom wanted me to be a "girly-girl," but I was always this creative kid so I gravitated towards things that were different but pop culture. Madonna was pop culture; Lisa Bonet was pop culture. I had Lisa’s haircut.
Even before then, as a kid, my mom had an old sewing machine, the kind that comes in a case. When I lifted up the lid of my school desk, there was a sewing machine beneath it and I taught myself how to sew. I did it only because I thought it might be kinda cool, not that I really wanted to have the clothes. I just thought it would be fun.
“So much has been missed by calling Africa the “dark continent” when it is full of light. Full of knowledge.” — Ruth E. Carter
What was it like entering the Marvel world? Did you feel a lot of pressure going into the role?
I didn’t have a Marvel background. That helped me because I went into the world completely naive and calm. I saw Avengers: Civil War but that was it. I went into my interview with Ryan Coogler with a lot of images from Africa, Afropunk, and art images. We were able to extrapolate a story with those based on what he wanted to do. There was a bible created by him that explained where people belonged. Certain people were a part of our merchant tribe, others were a part of Lupita [Nyong’o]’s tribe, the river tribe. There were eight or nine areas of Wakanda that needed to be explored.
The learning curve, for me, as far as understanding the different regions of Africa and the real ancient tribal elements was huge. We all know the Tuareg because we like to buy necklaces, and we know Ghana because we like Kente cloth. But there’s so much more. For a person who’s going to be creating a look for a group, you have to delve into the details and fabrications and explore how certain elements were really created: How did they get rings on their arms? How did they get rings on their necks? How are they coiled? How soft is the metal? All of that had to be answered so we could recreate something that was based on their cultures and show them in a beautiful, beautiful light. That’s where my head was, forget Marvel! I had to create Wakanda and that’s what they wanted.
Did you have an emotional experience when creating creating these looks? It sounds as if you were learning so much about modes of history that go unrecorded.
Yes. I didn’t know about the Dogon and that they were the first astronomers. And they lived in remote areas in the mountains and they had a high priestess who spent lots of time alone meditating. Part of our story was with a character whose people lived out in a remote area away from Wakanda and they were special in their skills and intellect. Very much like the Dogon. Ryan [Coogler] wanted to do a grass skirt, and the Dogon, during their solstice ceremony, they adorned these grass skirts. It just came together.
So much has been missed by calling Africa the "dark continent" when it is full of light. Full of knowledge. Full of creativity. It is massive and we only tipped the point of the iceberg because it is a world. From North Africa to South Africa. it is such a huge continent. And even like the Lesotho people who adorned the blankets, Ryan spent time with them and wanted to use the blankets. The fact that they were dying this wool and making these beautiful blankets...come on. Just like England and Ireland and Italy, Africa has a story too. A beautiful story.
The clothing in Wakanda is not only focused on aesthetics. It has to be functional, ready for war and combat. What are your thoughts on clothing being a kind of armor?
One of the things I did know from the comic books was that the Dora Milaje were the fierce fighters and protectors of the king. And in the comic books they’re scantily clad. That’s because comic books are developed for young boys. In the comic books you can do anything, you can soar in a sarong. But Ryan really wanted the Dora Milaje in the Black Panther to be fierce fighters and to have elements that are womanly but clothing that has a function. They have to be protective. They have to cover their skin. They have to have shoulder armor. They have to have areas where there’s vibranium — the strongest metal — so that they can protect the king. When I first started doing illustrations, I was going against that and making them look a little sexy. I kept thinking, Don’t they need to show a little skin? And he kept saying, “No, we have to be very careful.”
We’re already living in a culture that sexualizes black women and we don’t want to project [onto] these girls. That blew me away that [Ryan] had to tell me that. I was like, What was I thinking? I need to kick myself for even going that road. He was so right. Once the Dora Milaje was created, it was about fighting and being fierce. But it also had beautiful elements. I beaded the tapers; I connected their harness with leather in the same way South Africans do their beautiful, intricate leatherwork. The patterns of gold and red were from the Maasai tribe. I noticed Himba leather skirts in my research with rings on the edge so they make this beautiful [chime] when they moved. I found so much beauty to represent them as fierce warriors, fierce fighters, and fierce women that I didn’t have to show skin. We had a jeweler I found in New Orleans who did all of the metal work, the shoulder pieces. I wanted everything to have a handmade aspect that African jewelry captures. It really came together: fashion, beauty, and function, and projecting a positive image.
“I’m familiar with Kim Kardashian but when a black woman like Nicki Minaj does dresses similarly, she’s [regarded] as a video hoe.” — Ruth E. Carter
In terms of projecting a positive image across black people, did you find it difficult to challenge stereotype?
The way to project positive imagery was to be unapologetic. I feel like Michelle Obama did a great job of addressing everyone’s fears of the black woman. She was tasteful in every step, and also a little bit safe. I think it was appropriate for the first time an African-American woman was the first lady. We wanted to focus on her intellect and what she was standing for during her term. There’s another side to that. Why isn’t it the same kind of beauty if we’re doing a Sharon Stone moment? Why is 007 acceptable but when Idris Elba dresses similarly he’s a hustler or a pimp?
I think it’s about being unapologetic because there’s a lot that we cannot change about people and how they perceive us. We just have to write the stories. I’m familiar with Kim Kardashian but when a black woman like Nicki Minaj does dresses similarly, she’s [regarded] as a video hoe. I just think that’s something we have to work on changing as a society, and I feel like Black Panther can change the perceptions. I was in the Post Office and a black woman came in with a jumpsuit that was leopard print and padded. It was a soft fabric. She was very shapely. She had curves and a small waist and a big butt and it looked great on her. She didn’t look inappropriate, she looked great and confident. It was her body. She can’t just go somewhere and chop her body off and I feel like Black Panther is going to help people see our culture and help people see women like that and know she’s beautiful.
That makes me think of seeing the trailer for Black Panther during Super Bowl and really feeling like, This is a moment. Seeing a glimpse of this black world, seeing us in action, it felt like a moment.
Yeah, we needed a superhero. I’m more so speaking of a state of mind. We need a visual that empowers us. And I think that’s what Black Panther can do for us: empower the black community.