Ever since Marvel dropped the release date for Black Panther, #BlackTwitter has been abuzz with one question: “How are you rolling up to the premiere?”
Thanks to trailers and promo photos showcasing the characters in rich and regal costumes it feels almost rude to show up to the theater without at least acknowledging with your dress the glory of what you’re about to experience.
That’s two-time Oscar-nominated costume designer Ruth E. Carter’s doing. Carter, who designed costumes for Black classics from School Daze and Malcolm X to Selma, is the designer helping to bring Black Panther’s home country of Wakanda to life on screen. And she made it count.
In Wakanda, there’s no monolithic Blackness. Each of the various ethnic groups in the country have their own customs and cultural dress that Carter brought to life. Inspired by the traditional dress of indigenous African ethnic groups, Carter matched the vibrant colors and powerful designs from the Xhousa, Maasai, Himba, Tuareg and more to create sacred images of multidimensional Black folk not previously seen in a film of this scale.
At the pre-show for the “Welcome to Wakanda” fashion presentation during New York Fashion Week, The Grio caught up with Carter to discuss why she had to be a part of this historic film that’s already breaking box office records before it’s even released.
You’ve been an icon in costume design for years. How do you choose which projects to work on?
RUTH CARTER: I guess the choice is after I read [the scripts]. I want to go on the journey of the story. It has to have some meaning for me. It has to be something that I’m curious about, intrigued by, passionate about. Like anybody, you want to finish the story and say to yourself, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do this.’ And I think that’s what the director wants you to feel too. He wants you to come into the meeting after you’ve read the script and say, ‘I’m in love with your story.’
So, what was it about Black Panther that you were in love with?
RC: Actually, Marvel is like the CIA. They don’t give you the script so you have to read like the history and the legend of the Black Panther to actually know what kind of world you’re about to build. And that’s what intrigued me, that I knew that there had never been a movie about the Black Panther before. Nobody had ever been to Wakanda and we were about to show you what Wakanda looked like on the inside. And it was led by a brilliant, creative thoughtful kind man named Ryan Coogler who I thought was going to be an amazing leader for me, because nothing is done in like a vacuum. Films are a collaborative medium and so you’ve got to feel that the person respects you, wants your contribution and you respect them and want their feedback. My best work has been when I’ve been guided, in some ways, by the director, because they are the ones who are thinking so far ahead about how they’re going to edit the film and how they’re going to present it. If I just want all the costumes to be great, we’re not working together. In this case, we needed [the costumes] to make a big statement. And we needed to make that statement about Africa. And it was important that everything have its origin in the Continent.
What was the statement you wanted to make about Africa?
That you can love Africa. That you can learn Africa. That just because you see something African doesn’t meant that it defines the whole continent. It’s a world continent. North Africa is different from south; east is different from west, and that’s what we tried to project. It’s a worldview. And that’s what I hope people feel when they come out, they feel like they have gained a worldview.
That’s what I really loved about Wakanda; all of these different ethnic groups existed within Wakanda. They all had their own looks to them and so what was your inspiration for why you wanted to show that diversity within just the one country of Wakanda? And how did you choose who was going to look like what?
RC: Well, as I said, filmmaking is a collaborative medium and so no one person decides except for the director, he makes the final decision. But [production designer] Hanna Beachler, who was on way before me, put together a 500-page Wakandan Bible and it was mostly text. It had images, set design, pictures from indigenous cultures around Africa, but it was mostly text. You had to read that sucker, and it was the jumping off point for all of the work that we did. And because of that manual I feel like the film looks as good as it does.
One of the things that I absolutely loved about Okoye is her warrior outfit. She’s not dressed in some typical bikini, she has armor and is wearing a fashionable outfit that she can fight in.
Right, she’s not in a catsuit, doing the Cardi B. We didn’t want that.
We wanted the women of Wakanda to be multi-dimensional. [The Dora Milaje,] they’re a fighting force. The highest ranking fighting force in Wakanda. They protect the king. So, we don’t want the king to walk around with women in bustiers and cheerleader skirts. We want the king protected. Therefore, they needed armor and we used the Ndebele rings and these neck rings that are throughout Africa too. And the armbands are the same type of rings that the African women wear and the body of the suit is made out of the same kind of Eurojersey that the superhero suits are made out of. But we raised the print and we printed it in these reds and golds and oranges so that it had a texture to it and when you see something that has a texture to it, it feels tough. But we also wanted it beautiful. I wanted the reds to pop. When you see eight Dora [Milaje] it could feel like 20 Dora. The harness, I call it the harness, made of leather that wraps their body, it’s wrapping around them in a beautiful way that’s honoring the female form. The harness has a “v” in the front, it travels around the chest. It honors the female form. It doesn’t move against it. We painstakingly made sure that the lines on the tights made them have a nice long leg. There’s no horizontal that chops them up, there’s no divide in the middle that made it weird. We designed the line so that it was sinuous. So all of that together creates an aesthetic that women enjoy. So that’s the whole psychology behind the aesthetic from Lupita Nyong’o [who plays Nakia] on down.
Did you get to go to the Continent to do some research
I had shoppers there. I had so much research.
Right, the 500-page bible.
I had the 500-page bible, but I also did my own research from that bible. So if you were to come into that office, you saw mood boards everywhere. I mean, you couldn’t eat your lunch without being inspired by some mood board that was right there in your face. We also had electronic boards that we shared, so if you’re out in the field working that you could look up the Tuareg and remind yourself of the details of that tribe.
It was an ongoing journey. I had shoppers in the Continent: one in South Africa, one in Ghana, one in Nigeria and someone in South Korea. And they sent me original Gauguin pieces. So, you couldn’t help but be inspired by the artifacts. Everything that was made in China you were like, “Oh! Don’t need it, don’t want it.” We need to start from the original, because Wakanda was not colonized. So, how does this translate into a forward-thinking country that is modernist and what would they keep, what would they hold onto, what would they find dear? There’s a story behind the Wakandans and what they hold dear.
It’s different from African Americans because we got colonized and then we got pushed out and we grew up in this country, so we’re kind of a little bit all over the place. We know we like kente, but is that where we’re from? We know we like these [Ankara] repeat patterns, but they’re from the Dutch. They sent the “African” fabric to Africa. It wasn’t printed in Africa. But we also love mudcloth, and mudcloth is totally made in Africa. So, you know, those are like some of the bits, because, I’m like a Monday night quarterback. I’m not a historian. I am, but I have to do it in such a condensed amount of time, I have to rely on the historians. I have to call the African museum in D.C. and talk to the curators there. I have to seek people out who can give me the facts or give me the book or tell me what it is I’m doing is correct. So that process takes some doing.
All of the young girls who are cosplaying, all of the Black people excited about the outfits that they’re going to wear the first time they see Black Panther in the theater, that’s so much because of you and your designs. How does that make you feel? What does that mean to you?
It’s incredible. It’s an experience I want to be a part of. I want to dress up too and go to a public theater and sit there and enjoy the work on the screen and how it transcends out into the audience. I feel like that’s a new experience and it’s a smart thing for people to do because it really empowers the rest of the community to say, “This is something that we needed [to see] and I’m so glad it’s happening.”
Brooke Obie is the award-winning author of the Black revolution novel ‘Book of Addis: Cradled Embers.’