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March 27th, 2023

Ruth E. Carter, the Black Panther of Costume Design


At this year's Oscars, Ruth E. Carter became the first African American woman to win two Oscars. She is best known for her award-winning work on the two Black Panther films. However, she also did costume design for the feature films Malcom X, Shaft, The Butler, Selma, Abduction, American Playboy, Keeping up with the Joneses, Kidnap, Coming 2 America, among others. She was also in charge of the design for tv shows such as Yellowstone, Roots, Touch, etc.


Almost 63 years old and originally from Massachusetts, Ruth Carter talks about her creative process in the series Abstract series on Netflix. Carter says that she crumbles a script until she finds the essence of each character, so she focuses more on creating people and not just creating "outfits". She claims to understand the spirit of a character by also researching the social context it is being created in. This process also involves a lot of talks with the director to fully comprehend the idea of the movie. Nevertheless, she calls costume design a form of storytelling that represents an entire culture, gender, age gap, social tribe, etc. It’s building a completely new world with specific parameters.


Although the discipline of costume design is mostly visual, Carter’s creative process also involves making moodboards where the sense of touch is very important. She believes in using the resources around you and imagining the concepts starting from deep look at the past. This is why her characters have many different layers of textures, giving them a profound cultural background. In both Black Panther movies, it can be seen in the different kind of shells, fabrics, beads, and metals used.


The responsibility of being a costume designer is bigger than people tend to think. It is a part of a movie production that could be seen as superficial, just like the stereotype fashion carries. However, it is the department that gives dimensionality and substance to a movie. A script could be left in a two-dimensional plane if it isn’t visually constructed by a sociocultural context. The spectator will believe and understand what they see, so for the message of a movie to effectively come across, it needs to be visually justifiable. On the other hand, part of the responsibility comes from creating personas that feel real to the audience and aren’t neither a stereotype nor a flat perception of a specific era or culture. Giving names a complex and identifiable gist.


Ruth Carter won her first Oscar in 2018 with the Marvel movie, Black Panther. She subsequently won her second Oscar in 2022 for the sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Describing this project as a meeting of culture, fashion, and personality. She researched and learned a lot about different African cultures to create the clans we see in the social structure of Wakanda. She incorporated several elements of these into the costumes, however, she sought to give each one an individual twist.


The Dora Milaje (Figure 3)was a fan favorite for the movie. They were the highest-ranking all female defense force of the country. Their bodysuits were absolutely inspired by the African continent. The raised print mimics scarification, the neck rings were taken out of the Ndebele tribe in South Africa and the overall color red was taken from the Maasai. On their tabards there are small trinkets that indicate from what wakandian clan they were from. So, even if their costumes were those of an army, each soldier still had a small sign of individuality.


Another example, with Shuri, we can observe the neck rings used in many African tribes as a symbol of prestige and power, however we also see her wearing them in a much modern and subtle styling. The translation to modern day clothing can be recognized by turtlenecks and chokers. She also mixes traditional materials with contemporary pieces, like shell necklaces and t-shirts. Many of her costumes are clearly inspired by the technological era, for instance the colors, she uses unpolluted white, black, pops of bright colors, red, electric blue, purple, etc. All this is justified by her role as a young, strong, independent woman with a high IQ and a great ability for scientific and technological development. Another big inspiration for the character is the African American culture within the USA, as seen in the kind of track suits, shoes and hairstyles that Shuri uses.


A further interesting point of her way of working is that Ruth Carter takes into account the actor playing the character. Which means, she designs the costume around what would look good and be comfortable for the actor’s physiology. With Letitia Wright, Carter gave her haircut and outfits that melted her into Shuri. So, she fused both personalities to create the costume design. Even Samuel L. Jackson, who has collaborated with her in eight different occasions, says: “She makes you feel good about yourself in those clothes”.


There is no question on how Ruth Carter has won two Oscars, her impeccable work has transcended borders and has a very heavy weighted value on the representation of African American culture, and black culture in general, in media and entertainment; as well as female presence in the cinematographic industry.