As I watched, mesmerised, the costumes of Black Panther on the huge screen of a movie theatre in Chicago, I realised that not only I was looking at an astoundingly creative body of work, I was also entering a new and ground-breaking vision of the world. I couldn’t wait for the film to finish, not because I did not enjoy it, but because I was eager to find out who the costume designer was. Once the name of Ruth E. Carter finally appeared on the screen, my immediate response was: “Who else?”
Ruth Carter’s career started in 1988 with Spike Lee’s first film School Daze. It has grown alongside Lee’s own progress as a director. Together they have contributed to the rise of black filmmaking, starting in the 1990s and continuing with Malcom X, Jungle Fever and with Ruth’s designs for epic movies such as Amistad, Selma, and many others.
Earlier this year, her work on Black Panther earned her a well-deserved Academy Award. With this accomplishment Carter has made history, all the more because she won it alongside Hannah Bleacher, the Production Designer for the same film, both marking the first African American designers to win in their categories.
Carter was able to share the joy of her victory with director Spike Lee, who received his first Oscar, and with actors Mahershama Ali and Regina Kings, in an indeed unprecedented celebration of black talents in the film industry.
Throughout the years, Carter’s work has stood out not only for her great costumes, but also for her wholesome portrayal of African American culture. Her style and aesthetics steer away from easy stereotypes and clichés while redefining Black roots and redirecting the future. To a careful eye, it appears quite obvious that to produce such results, Carter must have dug deep into the past.
AL: A throughout research is the very first step of a designer’s creative process. As the African American community has been underrepresented in historical archives, what criteria has guided you to find and select the sources for your work? In your long and outstanding career, which projects have been the most challenging from this point of view?
RC: As a college student in the South [Ruth Carter studied at Hampton University, in Virginia], I was introduced to parts of the Black history of the antebellum South and colonial times, as well as to many fascinating stories of African Americans. During the school year and summers, I was responsible to recreate and to read about people that lived in Colonial Williamsburg or in Virginia during the times of slavery. There were actual small libraries that held documentation about their lives and what they did. I worked very closely with some pretty special people who were historians and had a Ph.D. in African American history. They guided me through a lot of these untold stories. I fell in love with those people I was reading about and I understood so much more about history, a version of it I didn’t see presented in film at all. I was always interested in those stories, in the truth of them about the brutality, or the lack of resources, or the lack of health care, and yet how these people survived and how they lived. So, I was exposed to that.
As I began a career in costume design, that continued to be my approach to history. Whether it was telling Tina Turner’s story, or Amistad and Roots, I was more interested in the rawness and the realness of the story. That was my journey. That was my quest. When you put it in the context of Black Panther, there is an even greater void and lack of information about Africa, because not only is there a great dearth of resources about the continent, there is also a missing history in America about how Africa links to the African American experience. Many of us go back in history and we stop at slavery. We don’t take a step further. Even the invention of the Ancestry.com and the DNA searches does not give us a name to hold on to.
AL: Black Panther presented many boxes to tick: The re-interpretation of the superhero character from the 1960s comic book, with its already established aesthetics; the technical requirements of this particular kind of costumes; the representation of an African heritage with its various ethnic groups, unspoiled by Western colonization; the vision of a highly technological future and its reflection on the imaginary land of Wakanda’s everyday fashion and attire as seen, for example, in the city dwellers and Shuri’s (T’Challa’s young and trendy sister) style; the attractive and vibrant color palette distinguishing all the different characters and tribes and, finally, the representation of empowered female characters such as the Dora Milaje warriors, Queen Ramonda, the tech-savvy Shuri, and the spy Nakia.
Where did you draw your inspirations and how did you define these characters? How did you face the technical aspects of the superhero costumes and how did you connect it to the African theme of the film? Can you tell us about all the craftsmanship that was used for building all the amazing fabrics, materials and accessories? And what about the technologies employed? Did you draw inspiration from any contemporary fashion and did you collaborate with any fashion designers?
RC: One of the most difficult things to do as a designer is to rally the troops, to get everyone on the same page with the artistry. I treated three of my assistants as if they were curators. They had to cure right. For each tribe, they had to delve into the jewellery and the color palette from that particular tribe so we had a good understanding of the contents of these traditional costumes and what they were made of.
And so, while working on Black Panther, understanding the tribes was a number one priority. We organized the work in such a way so that they wouldn’t intermix. It was one tribe, one region, and their lifestyle. So, really, going back to the history books and the photo essays that have been done on these ancient tribes was our first step. I used not only photographs, but also texts in order to understand what I was looking at. For example, when you look at the Tuareg of Mali and you see that the men cover their faces and the women do not, you want to know: Why is that? When you see that they love the heavy silver Bedouin jewelry, so beautifully made, you understand that they are beholden to silver more so than they are to gold. That is their resource. For a story like Black Panther, that is a goldmine because when I use silver that’s not a fictitious metal. Here are the Tuareg adorning themselves in it. And you know, we traveled around the continent, there is so much beauty to be seen there and utilized.
Given the tribes had been already chosen, it was very clear what the color palette was. The royal family had a color [black] and in some ways, honoring the [Marvel] comics. Having a very specific and a very saturated color palette really helped connecting it to a tribe. I think that even though we were very vocal and specific about which tribe had which color, it was usually based on their origin. To me, it also always really connected us to the comics.
AL: And there are thousands of tribes, so how did you pull them together? In the end, the film portrays five main tribes. There are The Merchart Tribes, inspired by the Tuareg; The Mining Tribe, clad in ochre color; the Jabari Tribe, whose leader, M’Baku, T’Challa duels against and defeats; The River Tribe, who wear the traditional shells and their dominant color palette is green; and the Border Tribe, in all the nuances of blue.
RC: Mr. Coogler decided on a strict color palette: Chadwick Boseman, who plays T’Challa, the Wakanda royal who is also the Black Panther, wears black; Danai Gurira and her band of female fighters, the Dora Milaje, are in vibrant red; and Lupita Nyong’o, as the spy Nakia, is in shades of green. That was something that Ryan [Coogler] had thought about before I came on. We had organized information and selected twelve tribes. Mr. Coogler then connected them with certain fictitious tribes of Wakanda. The Merchant Tribe is inspired by the Tuareg. The Mining Tribe resembles the Himba of Namibia, known for their red ocher body paint and leather headpieces. 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, were also inspired by real artefacts. If you look at the Jabari tribe, they were influenced by the Dogon of Mali.
The design and production process
AL: And how long did this work take?
RC: Six months. We began our work in July and we started shooting in January. The work on the heroes suits is a long process. Marvel was in the midst of creating not only Black Panther but Infinity War. They had specific designs in mind and they had their visual development team. They presented me with a dynamic drawing of Killmonger, the Black Panther suit, the Shuri battle suit, and the Dora Milaje. That means that they were in some kind of superimposed setting. And what I found with their pieces is that these drawings were not really connecting to Africa. It was a very broad stroke on culture, it was just a very broad stroke on a superhero suit. So I had to give it the story. We took what they did and we embellished it and we added lots of detail. I had some pieces made in India. I also worked with embroiderers in Los Angeles for some of the costumes. I had a shopper in South Africa. I also had one in Ghana. My South African shopper did a lot of traveling, she went to the Maasai community as well as up in the Ethiopian areas and she sourced a lot of things because I wanted the inspiration to come from real artefacts. Yet with Shuri, the young princess at scene of the Warrior falls, I knew she needed to not so much the cultural elements but something more forward thinking. So I researched some of the modern designers like Stella Mc Cartney. I studied Stella McCartney because I loved how she recycled clothing and I just thought, that is brilliant, that’s what we should be doing, that’s something Shuri would do as well because Wakanda is a sustainable place.
AL: Time seemed to be a real constraint…
RC: Yeah. When I reached out to the Nigerian fashion designer Ozwald Boateng, he wanted six months to make the suit. He wanted to produce the fabric. And I said “guy I’ve got two weeks. Can you just send me something?”
AL: How was your collaboration with director Ryan Coogler and with all other visual departments, such as production design, hair, makeup, etc.
RC: I didn’t have any collaborations because nobody knew what we were making. And then there are millions of sharks in the pool that swim around after the movie opens and said, you know, even before it opens, they want to put out a jewellery line. I just didn’t want that. To me if your motivation is money then you’re probably not going to be successful. If your motivation is because you love it so much that you want the world to enjoy it and it has some kind of purpose, then that’s what drives you. There were so many meetings, I was not used to that. I felt like it was a little bit impeding on my timed design. I can’t offer something new three times a week. I need a day, or two, or three to sort things out, especially because I’m working with so many illustrators and they all have a different artistic point of view. And I’ve got to get everybody on my page, not their page. Once those illustrations were approved, hair and makeup came on board. Because we had very little time to really develop hair styles, the natural hairstyles came up for Lupita.
Women fighters: The Dora Milaje
RC: The Dora Milaje had a ranking system with their hair, the less hair they had on their head, the higher rank they were. And that led all the way up to Okoye who was the leader and was completely bald. But at the very last minute, Ryan Coogler decided that all of the Dora would have bald heads. They were in uniform and at the same time I gave them little tiny things that would define them, because they come from different tribes. Once their heads are shaven, you don’t know what tribe they come from. I then decided to give them some kind of spiritual piece, little things, like an amethyst or a jade, and a tribal piece. Some of their arm rings were in two pieces instead of one solid piece. There were just slight little things that defined them, because they were supposed to be exact duplicates of each other. And I thought, how realistic it is that, even though it is their uniform, they live in this uniform every day. It was a very specific and deliberate approach to their costume. I think that the infusion of the African elements helped tell their story.
When I got the sketch, I also adjusted the costume around the female form. So they wear what I like to call “a leather harness” and instead of cutting the bust in half, I have the tabard [a sleeveless garment] starting just under the bust so that the harness can travel around the bust area and can tighten at the waist and in the back with the leather black skirt. It was a way to examine some of the elements of tribal beauty, like scarfs. The costume tells you that this is a story of craftsmanship. Combining the beauty of craftsmanship and the artistic beauty of the scarification and the colors honors the female body in many ways. It means also honoring the female form, not exploiting it, not putting women in heels. Adding such a layered image also honored the African female who does a lot of this crafts work.
The Doras were supposed to be the only ones in that vibrant rich red and I saturated the red even more because when I look at the Maasai, the red that they wear is somehow vibrant. I thought, if anyone is going to be associated with a red, it had to be that red. Yes, absolutely.
Afrofuturism and Social Awareness
AL: As an African American female artist exposing a vision of the future from a completely different perspective, do you consider your work to have a political impact/social value? Has the awareness of this value influenced your design decisions and could you give us some examples?
RC: Absolutely. Because it was on the scale of a Marvel film, there were a lot of people who probably did not know me, who were unbelievers, I think, because I didn’t follow the superhero model and had never done a superhero film. I think the film had an impact to what costume design is because the audience did see something that they are not used to be seeing in a superhero film, and that is the detail and the story of the costume. I think that that has changed the game a little bit. What I helped to do with Black Panther was opening up the playing field and really show the value of what costume design can bring to that genre especially.
AL: Are you also thinking of you as an African American winning an Oscar for the first time in this category?
RC: Yeah, well, I’ve always thought about being the first. I really wanted to be the first, I know I could check that box. I always wanted to be the first. And I just felt like I was deserving it. And I don’t know why I felt that way. That’s just my inner secret, that I worked so hard for so many years telling the African American story and I tried really hard to be authentic. So the social impact brings light to all the films that I’ve done. It brought a light to how important it is to the culture to have our stories told and I think that is the value that we have. We won it. To bring awareness to the culture into our own social trajectory, how our history lays out, and how we can connect that social and visual history right back to Africa.
AL: What are your future plans and what is your message to the younger generation of designers?
RC: Well, I feel like in some ways I can get out the way and let some of these other designers take some of these historic films, because now everybody who has anything to say about history they offer it to me. And I think about, you know, some of the younger people who are just behind me wanting to have an opportunity, to have a voice in it. I’m happy to see them still happening and opening the door for others to create our stories.
For me, I’m interested in some of the opportunities or some of the things that I’ve always wanted to do and had ideas about. There are some scripted shows that I got to even wrote that I’m interested in producing. I love documentaries and I have a couple of ideas for documentaries. I’m interested in not only producing a documentary on costume design and costume designers, that is super interesting, I also have other outside interests about people and I’m interested in furthering development on the psychology of people and intense stories like that artistically. So I want to produce, create some cool documentaries.
AL: So, last question is, are you ever going to come to Italy?
RC: I was there, I was in Rome. Yes yes. And I had an amazing time, but I am dying to come back.
AL: Thank you so much.
RC: You’re welcome. Thank you. I hope to meet you sometimes. And I enjoyed the talk. Thank you so much. Good bye.
Anna Lombardi is a Costume Designer from Rome. She graduated with a BA in Fashion Design at Central/Saint Martin’s in London. She has been an assistant to Academy Award winning designers such as Sandy Powell, Alexandra Byrne, Colleen Atwood, Gabriella Pescucci, Janty Yates on movies such as Gangs of New York (M. Scorsese), The Aviator /M. Scorsese), Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (John Madden, The Borgias (N. Jordan) All The Money in The World (Ridley Scott) and many others. In the last decade she has been designing for short-movies, theatre shows, Tv shows such as The Amazing Race and American Next Top Model, The Sopranos, Tyrant and feature films such as Anita B. by Roberto Faenza nominated for Best Costumes in the Feature Film Category at the Premio di Berenice Awards; Voice from the Stone by Eric D. Howell; Brutti e Cattivi nominated for Best Costumes at the Academy Davide di Donatello Awards.
Cristina Lombardi-Diop is a cultural critic based in Chicago, where she teaches courses on contemporary African literature and film, gender studies, and Italian postcolonial studies at Loyola University. She holds a Master degree in African Studies from Yale University and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from New York University. She is the co-editor of Postcolonial Italy (2012, translated in Italian as L’Italia postcoloniale, 2014); of a special issue of the Journal of Postcolonial Studies on Postcolonial Europe (2016); and co-author of Bianco e nero: Storia dell’identità razziale degli italiani (2013). Lombardi-Diop has published widely on such topics as white colonial femininity, the Black Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and African diasporic literature in Italy.
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