INTERVIEW: All hail the fashion Queen of Wakanda, costume designer Ruth E. Carter
By Erin White
December 13, 2017
Royalty in her own right, ‘Black Panther’ costume designer Ruth E. Cater, Academy Award-nominated costume designer, is the mastermind behind some of the greatest fashion moments in cinema over the last 30 years. Her big break happened when a friend and fellow alumni of Hampton University connected her with soon-to-be legend Spike Lee, who hired Ms. Carter as the head costume designer of School Daze. And the rest, as they say, is history. In addition to creating the looks and costumes on each of Lee’s films from Do The Right Thing to Malcolm X, Crooklyn, to Chi-Raq. When not working Lee, Ms. Carter has worked with director Ava Duvernay on Selma, Lee Daniel’s The Butler, Being Mary Jane, What’s Love Got To Do With It?, Four Brothers, Baby Boy, and my all-time favorite Black Girl 90s films B*A*P*S (internal screaming).
And as iconic as Ms. Carter’s career has been until this point, it’s hard to imagine a more exciting project than her most recent work on Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther. Ms. Carter was generous enough to chat with me about the film every Black person on the internet is already mentally standing in line for ahead if it’s Black History Month release and as we at AFROPUNK make our way across the African continent to the first ever AFROPUNK Joburg!
Erin White: Let’s get into Black Panther. Have you been able to see the movie yet?
Ruth E. Carter: No, I haven’t. I know there was one test screening and then a screening for the director, which I heard was three hours long.
EW: Oh, wow.
REC: I think a lot of people won’t mind that (laughing)
EW: What are you most looking forward to seeing once you’re able to?
REC: I’m just really, really hopeful that there is this synergy and a cohesiveness that really connects the ancient African feel, the futurism, and connects it to what people are feeling and thinking today with their lives.
I feel like [Black Panther] is a “feel good” film and even though there are battles in it, and there’s some inner conflict amongst the African tribes in this film, and the King and his half-brother, I hope people will take that story and make themselves into a King. Or into a Wakandan countryman. Or a citizen of Wakanda. And want viewers to be sort of engrossed in, or apart of, this republic. That’s what I hope for everyone with this film.
We haven’t had our own superhero, a Black superhero, and I think that it’s important in the community right now. And I think that when they see they the women in this film, Queen Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett) and Dora. Who are the toughest fighting force, they protect the King. I hope that they’ll [audiences] will feel a sense of empowerment.
Especially now when we’re hearing all this bad news about the female victims of these molestation and sexual harassment cases that have been going on for years and years. This is a film that makes you wanna Be. It makes you wanna Act. It makes you wanna move and rejoice.
The costumes the sets, and the music. And it makes you feel as good as you felt watching Saturday Night Fever. Afterwards, it made you wanna go to a disco [laughing]. I think it will remind fans of any time they left a theatre and really thought “Wow, that was an experience.”
EW: Your expansive body of work has interpreted and inspired some of the most iconic aesthetics of the African Diaspora, which has been canonizing in film and in our real lives. How did you ground such a fictional world in reality?
REC: I needed to have a story. Everything needed to have a story. And they gave me a blueprint with districts, just like you would see in a real city, with a young area, and there was an area where this tribe lives and things, but I needed more of a story.So, I dug a little bit deeper into the stories of the ancient African tribes and I found out that the Dogon were the first astronomers and they lived in a mountainous area where they did ceremonies once a year for the solstice. I just felt that there was a story behind why they wore certain things. There’s a tapestry in front of the door that’s beaded in the tradition of African skirts or there’s a modesty piece that young girls wear before they’re married and it’s beaded and sometimes they have bells on them. So, I just decided that if this was going to represent this area of Africa that was not known to anyone else and that cared about the environment, they were forward-thinking that they would also take pride in what the were surrounded by all over the continent and that they would preserve it in many ways and kept it in many ways and still moved forward and infused technology.
So, the story of who they are and the story of Africa as we know it is so rich I found that, if I wanted, to you know, but the Zulu hat on Ramonda as a married woman, it was appropriate and it had a story. Or if I wanted to infuse a language or sacred symbols, they had a past. And I felt that that would make them real as well as because we were embracing many cultures from many different places around the continent, Wakanda became the nucleus of the continent as well as well as being fictitious.
That was my methodology around gathering pieces. And I sent people around Africa to look for some of the traditional pieces. That, largely, a lot of these nations don’t exist anymore. And the ancient looks. And everyone is in the cities now. And Africa is just as metropolitan as New York City or Paris. So, it was very difficult to find the leather drapes that the Himba women wore in times past.
I sent out shoppers and I found that leather hide that was beaded and I saw that they also infused metal, you know, with it. The rings that other tribes wear around their necks and around their arms was also brought about by Ryan Coogler and the rest of the Disney team who needed them [the characters] to have a form of protection. But I wanted to see what they really looked like and I need to understand the width of the rings and I really need to understand how that came about. So they found some and they sent them to me. And the ones that I made were the same width and density of the historic ones, but I made them my own. It was exploratory and it was actually paying an homage to history and because these shapes are so interesting it was easy to infuse technology into them. Things could light up, or they just had their own sense of power when the actors wore them.
EW: And I read that you had employed 3D printing to create some of these looks?
REC: Oh, yes, of course. Part of our process was, you know, we used different techniques to create textures and prints and patterns and one of the ways superheroes are created, we 3D print on fabric which allows you to have a surface that could look beaded but it’s actually molded or screens on fabric. It has a hype to it so that you can make it look like anything.
Also, Ramonda, the Queen, is wearing the Zulu hat and the hat had to be perfectly round at its crown. Also, I wanted to…I kinda felt like if she was the Queen then they would use their technological skills in a beautiful way especially for her. So, she has a crown and a mantle, I call it because it sits on her shoulders and it’s curved in a round shape. And we had it 3D printed in Belgium there is a professor at UCLA who has cornered a technique of 3D printing garments and they use a special material that’s flexible so you can actually wear it. It won’t crack and break like a toy. And the printer that they use in Belgium aren’t here quite as big yet and in Belgium they’re able to make larger pieces. If we were to do it here [in the United States], I don’t think that the material they use has been developed in quite the same way as it has in Belgium, which is why we had to do it there.
I took African lace and I asked her (the professor) and I asked her to shape it after designs I took from high fashion. Gareth Pugh has done the same shape in leather.
I wanted it to not look as heavy as the Gareth Pugh piece, I wanted it to be light which is why I used the African lace. And we printed it, it comes out either white or black and you have to kind of spray them. ANd I decided not to spray or paint them too much because I wanted them to look like they were 3D printed out of the machine and placed on her shoulders. That was one of the ways I was very adamant about getting done. It’s a long process, they do prototypes, and I just needed her to have this wonderful piece on her shoulders to represent, you know, with the African lace their pride as well as the technology they have for them [In Wakanda].
EW: And how much freedom did you to go where you needed to go to achieve these looks? Where you able to do your own thing and explore?
REC: Yes, well, Marvel let me know from the very beginning that they were prepared to have outreach in different places, wherever I wanted to go to get materials or have things made. And our schedule was very, very tight so I couldn’t go myself, but I did have outreach with friends and professionals in other countries that were anxious and eager to help me out.
EW: While you were developing looks for this film, were you conscious of New African aesthetic, the modern looks of the continent now. Was conveying that something you were conscious of while working on this film?
REC: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely wanted very much to incorporate young, New African fashion designers. Ikiré Jones is one of them, one of the people we reached out to. And his stuff is worn by the King at the end. Also, Ozwald Boateng, even though he’s in London he does represent you know, his African roots by the beautiful colors and suits that are perfectly tailored.
For the most part, the AFROPUNK movement was a big exciting inspiration for the different districts where modern pieces are combined with African elements and beads or fabric, and hair. And people already knew what that look was because the AFROPUNK Festivals are held around the world [and now in Joburg] so when a scene required that, we really showed up with a great representation of what that looks like. And we just had to tweak it slightly for Wakandan society, but for the most part, I’ve always been a proponent of showing that Africa is a beautiful, burgeoning, modern place and you can vacation there, find fashion, food, and culture there. Everything.
Thanks, Ms. Carter!
‘Black Panther’ comes out in theatres around the world February 2018!