Ruth Carter has been a costume designer in Hollywood for 30 years, and was nominated for an Academy Award for her work on both Steven Spielberg’s Amistad and Spike Lee’s Malcom X. As with those two films, much of Carter’s most memorable work has been authentically recreating the look of clothing from another era, as she did with Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and the 2016 television miniseries, Roots.
But it is not recreating the past, but rather envisioning the future, that Carter does in Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. With little to go on beyond the Marvel comic books on which the movie is based, she designed the costumes that have gone a long way in creating the Afro-futurist vision of the film, which opens Feb. 16.*
Carter recently joined Kurt Andersen on Studio 360, which is now a Slate podcast. (A link to the audio of their interview follows this excerpt.)
Kurt Andersen: So Ruth, after doing these totally realistic evocations, what was it like to do this big superhero picture?
Ruth Carter: I feel like I have been doing superhero movies all along. It’s the same thought process. You know, Thurgood Marshall was a superhero. So there really is no difference in terms of the thought pattern. But I get what you’re asking me. You know this is a guy who could have, you know, exceptional powers who wears a skin suit, a cat suit, and he is the king of a fictitious country. So how do you how do you prepare for that? And you know I feel like it’s the same, it’s the same. You do a lot of research. The team at Marvel were already well into what they call visual development so they had images that they showed me my first day of, you know, the new Panther suit and of the, you know, Dora Milaje.
The Dora Milaje being elite female warriors.
The fierce fighting force! Yeah they protect the king, the Black Panther who’s the King.
So talk about designing costumes for a very specific real time and place, like what you did to recreate 19th Century England and America for Steven Spielberg in Amistad.
Well he flew me all over the world to look for these pieces because you have to basically go everywhere for this stuff. But I came back with courtroom etchings from a flea market in London somewhere. I came back multiple times with different aspects, like he wanted to know what the Africans look like in court. And I had read that the missionaries gave them all these really clean white shirts to wear to the courtroom and someone wrote that they look like doves sitting in court. And so I wanted to present the doves in Amistad.
It’s really interesting that example from Amistad and the doves it’s like a fiction writer writing historical fiction, like finding this bit of reality and then summoning that into the fiction that any movie is. That’s really interesting.
Yes, yes, yes.
For other period pictures, of which you’ve done many—Malcolm X, Selma, The Butler, others—how do you go about doing the research?
A lot of times it’s a little bit daunting to know that you’re going to be responsible for recreating something that already exists—so there’s going to be the criticism if you don’t get it right. I try to look at the environment in the world first. So I might look at documentaries about this particular point in time. I did this with Amistad, I did it with Roots. Then I have my own personal library and I comb it for anything that could relate to what I’m doing—and it’s hundreds of books. It runs the gamut—from every historical picture I’ve done, I have a part of it in my library. And then I go outside. I can access the Library of Congress. I can go to photographers’ for reference. On Marshall I found Teenie Harris, who was a Pittsburgh-based photographer, and his collection was a lot of candid photos of people enjoying themselves in the 1930s and 40s.
Knowing what I know about what was happening in and around them in their society and the culture at the time I start looking at them and saying, wow you know how did they break through those barriers and how did they create a look for themselves that spoke to where they were at that time? And so I relate those pictures to the story of the film. So if the NAACP or if it’s Malcolm X giving a speech and not only look at Malcolm X but look at all the people around him.
Before you start drawing your own designs, how long does that research period last typically?
It depends on how much time you have. On Malcolm X Spike Lee contacted me months before I was on the actual film and I wrote the Department of Corrections in Boston because he was incarcerated in Boston in his early years. And so I wanted to look at his file. I wanted to read his letters. That was months ahead. They granted me permission. And they sat me down in a cubicle and I read his letters and I looked at his booking photos and all the all of the details that they write down about the person. And I was able to Xerox a lot of pieces and then you know come back to New York once we got started with this background for that part of his life. So I had maybe 14 weeks of prep on Malcolm X. I’m always researching. On Amistad, I brought a library to the wardrobe truck and I had books because we were dealing with a period that was so long ago there were weren’t even photographs to look at. I had to look at a lot of art books and art history and understand like the artist’s direction and the composition, because we’re painting a picture too. And I really wanted some of these images that I see in the research to come to life. On Selma I had pictures of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
And I really wanted to make sure that those first 20 people who were in the front of the line really looked like the first 20 people in the actual march. So if someone had a cap on and I was racing in there to make sure that cap was pitched right, or there were enough trench coats or whatever it was. And so that research process and that implementation happens constantly throughout the shooting.
So the Black Panther: not a real person, not a real place, not a real time, all entirely fictional. So there’s not references in the way there are about Selma or the Harlem Renaissance or any of the rest.
I needed to make him a part of the real world and I needed to connect to Africa in a way that people could see that he was a part of that continent.
Of the real Africa on some level.
Of the real Africa, and that they paid homage to the ancient African traditions that are disappearing and that they knew from which they came. So I looked at the Surma stick fighters and how the men draped the cloth around their bodies, and I was inspired by that. I looked at the Tuareg people and how they used the beautiful purples and gold and silver. And I looked at the Maasai warriors and infused that red color onto the Dora Milaje. And I needed something like that. I needed Ryan’s direction.
That’s Ryan Coogler.
Yeah Ryan Coogler, our director. You know I needed him to say the women in the Dora Milaje don’t need to be, you know, scantily clad. These soldiers need to have protection. They need to have arm rings and neck rings that are not only paying homage to ancient tribes but it’s also really practical as far as protection as a fighter. I want the women to have this split toe boot and be in flat boots, not have on heels like we see a lot of superheroes. You know we don’t have to do that. We can do something different we can be we can be unique, and we can actually be more realistic and it will still be appealing.
You mention the Dora Milaje, the soldiers one of whom is played by Lupita Nyong’o. So talk about her costume from top to bottom and the various inspirations for each bit of it.
Lupita’s Dora costume was the conception of Ryan Meinerding’s team at Marvel. So what I have interpreted from their initial concept was the Dora Milaje wear a battle harness. So the heart I connected by the leather strapping that you see going around her shoulders and being down her front—that’s connected to a tabard in the front and also connects to a skirt in the back. Because there is this long vertical tabard down the center front, I felt like it needs to have some type of purpose. So I use the the intricate beading that you see in ancient African tribal ceremonies which you know for the Maasai is this is this gorgeous red beading
The drape in the back I made up in leather because of the Himba tribe. The head of the tribe wears these leather drapes that have these rings and studs on them made out of metal so that when they move you hear this jingling—it’s a very light sound, but you can hear it. And when all the girls are dressed and they’re coming to set you actually hear them approaching.
It’s magnificent and it should go in a museum. It should go to the Metropolitan Museum.
Brava! Black Panther isn’t even out yet and there are already I see cosplayers trying to do these costumes at gatherings like Comic Con. How does that feel to you?
It’s the best form of honoring what I have done because they haven’t seen the film yet and they’re already affected by the imagery and that feels to me like it has filled a big void in the cosplayer world where you didn’t have someone that maybe looked like you. And I think it was a void in the cosplayer world—there weren’t enough African-American superheroes in that genre. So I am super honored.
Listen to this episode of Studio 360 below, where host Kurt Andersen introduces the interview with Ruth Carter as the first segment in the show, and subscribe to the show on Apple podcasts.
Studio 360 is a Peabody Award–winning show from Public Radio International.
Correction, Feb. 9, 2018: This post originally misstated Black Panther’s release date.