When the first teaser for Marvel’s Black Panther movie dropped during Game 4 of the NBA Finals, Ruth E. Carter wasn’t even watching the match. “I didn’t know the trailer was going to drop when it did, so I had to hurry up and turn the TV on,” she laughs. The clip was barely two minutes long, but it ignited a frenzy of interest in the upcoming superhero film that well-established franchises like Spider-Man and Superman have struggled to keep up with—thanks in no small part to Carter’s Oscar-nominated costume design skills.
Drawing on the traditional dress of the Maasai, Tuareg, Turkana, Xhosa, Zulu, Suri and Dinka peoples, Carter created a vision of Wakanda—a fictional techno-futurist African state somewhere to the east of Uganda—that has deep roots in African history but feels breathlessly contemporary. Think Lupita Nyong'o in intricately beaded armor and gold neck rings that recall those worn by Ndebele women in South Africa—but equipped with deadly weapons made of Vibranium, the powerful metal that powers Wakanda’s immense wealth and technological superiority.
Or, in the words of one fan: “These costumes are THE ABSOLUTE FLYEST BADDEST SWAGGEST SMASHEST costumes in a Superhero film ever! E-VER!”
Unsurprisingly, people wanted to know who the person responsible was. “I just started noticing a stream of tweets coming through asking me questions, so I just started honestly answering,” Carter recalled. “And then there was more and more and more…” (The trailer which has since been watched on YouTube over 34 million times.) She found herself on her feet, in front of her TV set, tweeting back ten to a dozen. “I was like, OK, wow, this is big, they are enjoying the costumes.” Carter says she gained 2,500 new Twitter followers overnight—she saw people screengrab every frame in the teaser to pore over the film in detail.
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Costume design is one of Hollywood’s hidden arts. Most viewers will never register when a film that truly nails its costumes—the job of a designer is to bring a director’s vision to life, not to make outfits that hog the spotlight and overshadow the actors. On the other hand, people immediately notice when costume design goes dramatically wrong (think: rubber nipples on the Batman suit).
Over her 30-year career, Carter has designed the costumes for everything from straight-up historical drama (Selma) to action flicks (Shaft) to rom-coms (Love & Basketball). She’s outfitted everyone from Halle Berry to Samuel L. Jackson to Eddie Murphy. Now she’s doing Black Panther—the first Marvel superhero film fronted by a black actor (Chadwick Boseman), and the first in to be directed by a black man (Ryan Coogler), too. “I’m so proud my career has gone in that direction,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to be part of representing black culture.”
When Carter was growing up, she accompanied her mom on trips to New York to see seminal black theater productions like For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf and Mama, I Wanna Sing! on Broadway. “I was in love with costume design before I even realized it was costume design,” she says.
At Hampton University, she pretty much taught herself costume design by volunteering to do the clothes for every play and musical going. As a young theater designer in Los Angeles, she met then-emerging filmmaker Spike Lee and signed up to do the costumes for School Daze—the birth of an ongoing collaboration that has seen her work on a dozen more of his films, including Malcolm X and She’s Gotta Have It.
“When I got [the job for] Malcolm X, the first thing Spike told me was, ‘Don’t think about winning an Oscar or anything like that—just do the work that you do. Do what God gave you the talent to do.’” Carter was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost out to Eiko Ishioka on Bram Stoker's Dracula that year. She was nominated again five years later for Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, but lost to Anne Roth on The English Patient.
Carter doesn’t waste time worrying about what could have been. “I’ve been a member of the Academy for over 25 years,” she says. “Even though I was on the inside, I never felt like an insider. I felt like an outsider on the inside.”
Instead, she’s more excited about how Hollywood finally seems to have got the memo on better representation. “I’m on the diversity committee at the Academy,” she says. “Now, I think we’re starting to see more diversity… They gave Spike Lee an honorary Oscar some time ago; Ava DuVernay and her accomplishments are embraced and acknowledged. They’re including more people of color in the membership every year.”
Still, she says that entering the orbit of Marvel Studios—a behemoth movie-making enterprise that has grossed over $13 billion worldwide over the course of 17 films—was “quite daunting.”
“It’s a vast world that I’m unfamiliar with,” she says of the Marvel universe. “My learning curve about this story was is huge… But after it was all said and done, I realized that I follow my gut, my instincts, my passions, my pride, my love of costume, and I transferred all of those things into that project. I gave them—I feel—something different than they’ve really had before.”
She approaches designing for an Afrofuturist superhero epic the same way she does a period film: research and teamwork. The Hollywood Reporter reports that Carter was in charge of a team of five illustrators, 14 designers, fabric dyers, jewelry makers and more. There were research trips to Ghana and South Africa to source textiles and inspiration, and references to couture from Yves Saint Laurent and Issey Miyake.
“People need to see and look at it and relate to it,” she says of the costumes. “So even though it’s this fantastical place and it’s Wakanda and Marvel, we want people to say, ‘Yeah, that’s what I envisioned. That’s the queen I envisioned.’”
The queen she’s referring to, of course, is Angela Bassett, who plays Ramonda, stepmother to Black Panther protagonist T'Challa. “I dressed her in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, and I dressed her as Tina Turner, and in Black Panther, she’s the queen of Wakanda,” Carter says of the Oscar-winning actress. “She is so regal, she carries it off so well. She’s one of my favorites.”
Still, it was a new experience for her to see people cosplay in costumes from a movie that hasn’t even hit cinemas yet. “It’s a proud experience because I feel that we have created a mindset,” Carter says of the enthusiasm around the film ahead of its February release.
“Now when you see a girl at the grocery store, the post office, or anywhere, and she’s wearing some big old African balloon pants and she’s got her head wrap, you won’t say, ‘What the heck?’ You might say, ‘That’s Wakanda. That’s Black Panther.’ Even though it’s a made-up place, at least it brings an understanding of the diversity of Africa and the continent.”
Black Panther is out on 12 February.