Ruth E. Carter is used to designing for the past. The costume designer has earned Academy Award nominations for her work on Malcolm X and Amistad and has worked on films like Selma, The Butler, B*A*P*S, What’s Love Got to Do with It, Do the Right Thing, and many, many more. Her roster is expansive, but largely involves period films where she was meant to evoke a time that was, rather than one that could be. That changed when Ryan Coogler brought her to work on the fictional world of Wakanda in Black Panther—though her approach stayed remarkably the same.
“In a way, this film is also pulling from the past,” she tells me, explaining that the costumes largely borrow from African tribes. “I used the traditional clothes and colors and modernized it.” The inspiration for the looks spans from Afrofuturism to Afropunk, but always circles back to the indigenous tribes. The red outfits, worn by the all-female Dora Milaje warriors, pull from the Maasai tribes, while the predominately green wardrobe Lupita Nyong’o wears pays tribute to the Suri tribe. Angela Bassett’s character, Queen Ramonda, wears a grand 3-D printed hat traditionally worn by married Zulu women.
Carter was intentional about reflecting different regions of Africa because, like she says, “It’s not just Nigeria, it’s a whole continent.” And she approached it in a respectful way, not in a manner that could be seen as having appropriated cultures. Carter and her team traveled to Africa, spoke to the people, and observed the way they dress. They did the work. “I think 'appropriation' is like a curse word to me—it’s such a dirty word,” Carter says. “I think what we’re doing is educating. I want people to leave the theaters inspired and proud to be of African descent.”
Outside of the interpretations, the detailing that you don’t see or don’t notice—because you’re captivated by everything else happening—is also special. Like the intricate textures on Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther costume; or the beaded work found on the tapers of the Dora Milaje fighters that Carter designed to look like it was passed down from ancestors; the shoulder mantle Queen Ramonda wears that’s made to look like African lace; or all the changes and adjustments that had to be made simply because it’s a movie that requires the actors to do more than walk, sit, and stand. They also have to kick ass from time to time.
Carter explains that most of the actors had a beauty suit and an action suit. Metal accessories, which were made by Douriean Fletcher, were switched out for rubber or plastic and plated so that the actors could perform their fighting sequences without hurting anyone. Though the movie is mostly set in the constructed world of Wakanda, the characters are forced to socialize with the Western world from time to time. This also requires them to dress differently. But even these “Americanized” clothes, though less intricate, required strategic thought. When talking about the red chiffon dress Danai Gurira’s character wears in one scene, Carter explains: “She had to be on top of a car—and I wanted her dress to be this dynamic shape on top of the car—so I did several layers of red chiffon for the dress, and it also had to hide a harness and an apparatus that the stunt girl, who actually rode on top of the car, could hold on to and you wouldn't see it. So, the dress had to have lots of functions.”
These are just some of the hoops Carter and her team had to jump through in order to bring the more than 700 costumes to life on the big screen. There’s a scene toward the beginning of the movie when T'Challa—aka the Black Panther—looks up at the people of Wakanda. They're seen singing and dancing and cheering while draped in every color of the rainbow. Critics have already placed Carter in the running for best costume design for her work on the film. And, well, that moment alone deserves an Oscar.