Behind The Scenes with Oscar Winner Ruth E. Carter, Costume Designer from Black Panther

January 28, 2019

By Paul & Teresa Lowe  www.chronicletravelers.com

Oscar-nominated costume designer Ruth E. Carter says, we all knew Marvel's Black Panther project was special but the 'off the scale' reception by audiences is mind blowing...the world is seeing 'us'. Carter is the super creative woman behind the stylish and statement-making garments seen in the runaway hit movie. 

Ruth E. Carter is a name you've seen many times during the ending credits of major movies for the past 30 years. Her work in Spike Lee's 'Malcolm X,' and Steven Spielberg's 'Amistad' received Academy Awards nominations. Other Carter creations are seen in 'Selma,' 'What' Love Got To Do With It,' 'School Daze,' the TV show 'Seinfeld,' 'Frankie and Alice,' and Lee Daniels' 'The Butler.' Her latest costume work in 'Black Panther' has garnered a lot of praise – it's definitely not the conventional superhero movie clothing.

Speaking with the delightfully relaxed, upbeat and even laughing Carter, on what she called a rare calm morning for her, she shared how the concepts of clothing in “Black Panther” came to life and 'popped' on the movie screen. Carter worked closely with another super creative Black woman, Hannah Bleacher, the movie's Production Designer and a team of researchers.

Paul: How did your desired looks finally stitch together?  

Ruth: “My team really pushed me. We had a lot of ideas and incorporated them into a visual look borrowed from many groups of people of Africa to showcase a rich heritage.”

What appears in the 'Black Panther' movie seem to be several tribal looks and symbols from the Nigerian people. Also, looks that resemble the clothing of the Dinka, Zulu, Suri, Maasai, Turkana, and Xhosa people. The imagery of the female warriors or the Dora Milaje (the adored ones) seems to resemble a group of women called Ahosi and Mino (King's wives or our Mothers). Another look seems to be inspired by a group of female protectors called the Dahomey of western Africa.

Carter envisioned Afro-Futurism while blending familiar garments but with the twist of incorporating hi-tech wearable functionality suitable for the nation of 'Wakanda'.

Teresa: How did you get the unique regal look of the queen?

Carter: We used the help of 3D printer technology to sculpt the headdress and shoulder garment of Wakanda's Queen Mother 'Ramonda.'  The queen is played by Angela Bassett.

Carter caught the showbiz bug while attending Hampton University, an HBCU (Historically Black College/University) in Virginia. (Also attending during the time was her dorm mate Robi Reed, who is today an influential Hollywood casting director).  Carter landed opportunities in the university's costume department. Her career course was set.  She graduated in 1982 with a theater arts degree.  Later on, Carter got her first major movie break when Director Spike Lee called her to work on his project - 'School Daze.'

Carter wants future artists to know that working in showbiz as a costume designer requires long hours, true dedication to a craft and sometimes some difficult personal sacrifices, but there's nothing else like it-nothing more rewarding. She stresses the job is about serving – creating and bringing to life the cinematic vision of the film's director, not your own. 

The movie: 'Black Panther' is about a king (Chadwick Boseman) who returns home to his country of Wakanda – cloaked in secrecy and never tarnished by Western colonization - but his rule is challenged by a conflicted rival (Michael B. Jordan).

This is simple, entertaining storytelling that's done very well by director Ryan Coogler. This film has some real emotional components. It's a movie that's really fun!