Ruth E. Carter stitches way to Hollywood fame
Oscar-winning costume designer
Kaeche Liburd OW Contributor | 4/11/2019, 11:55 a.m.
The things we remember from childhood, will be with us for our lifetime. This was evident when watching the fans line up for the opening weekend of the “Black Panther” film, as a young Latino boy was dressed in a full Black Panther suit with the mask pulled up over his forehead showing his joy filled face. He was as prepared for the movie as one could be. He was one of the many who participated in the film experience by dressing as someone from “Wakanda” while enjoying the blockbuster film.
The impact would become a bit of magic and a lot of life. The costumes of Wakanda were designed by Ruth E. Carter, one of Hollywoods most prominent costume designers. I didn’t understand the details of the costume design process until I wore one of the “Dora Milaje” suits myself. Every tiny stitch, every little stroke of metallic paint, every piece of jewelry was meticulously fashioned. The beads affixed on a silk base, leather boots that fit like a dream—every minute detail was painstakingly executed.
As she shared with fans during talks held in February in Hollywood, the Academy Award winner for “Best Costume Design” is a star both behind and in front of the camera. Describing her early start in the art of costume design, she said, “I just like to create stuff. I would come to school with something I created. It was always something different...we didn’t have much of anything, we were kind of poor. I was the youngest of eight. We didn’t have much.”
Carter taught herself how to sew and then worked at a costume shop after college to learn the craft of costume design. As a dresser to onstage theatre characters, Carter found herself immersed in costume changes for actors backstage, between scenes, and, she explained, sometimes literally “in the dark” with only dim backstage lighting to guide her hands. Now, as a costume designer for motion pictures, Carter works in the “light.” She describes herself as a storyteller with the viewpoint that: “I want to tell a story that you can connect to. When you create something, they will feel it and they will personalize it for themselves,” she said.
Carter is dedicated to the details of costume design in summarizing her artistic approach by saying “I was obsessed.” She explained that a person must have an “obsession” in order to get each suit correct for Denzel Washington to portray Malcolm X, for example. When she convinced the Boston Department of Corrections, where Malcolm X served his prison sentence, to allow her to access his file with all of his letters including petitions to transfer to prisons with better libraries, and medical records, she went beyond the responsibility of fashion design.
“And we’re glad that she always goes ‘there,’” director Ryan Coogler mused about watching the film “Malcolm X” on his father’s lap and he gushed about her past work to her during her interview for the costume designer role on “Black Panther.” Apparently, her prior work “aced” the interview for her.