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.
There is something that came to my mind as the crowd waited for the rain to subside at the second Ruth E. Carter talk I attended. It was her “by any means necessary” approach to the work that has contributed to her success. She related her introduction into the “Black Panther” family as a prediction that this film would change the world as we know it. She knew this was a major opportunity in recalling that the “the recognition of the opportunity, and the opportunity would pass.” Carter has always been reluctant to miss any opportunity to showcase her talent.
“You can’t miss the opportunity that this project was presenting to you as a crafts person,” she said “That’s the responsibility that I felt. This opportunity got me up at 4 a.m. and kept me there until 10 at night. And had me working until I felt like I’d done my best. This was one of those opportunities that couldn’t be messed up.”
This statement was evident as Carter greeted fans during the discussion session. Some of the attendees wore hand-made costumes representing the fictional Dora Milaje character from Marvel Films, while many others had adorned themselves after characters appearing in “Black Panther” film.
Asked, “What do you think has contributed to your longevity in fashion/costume design?, Carter said: “I love what I do. And I really want to tell [your] story. ‘Your story’ is my story. I really want to be authentic and carry that culture and make it come to life. I think every time I’m given a movie by a new director, be it John Singleton or Spike Lee, I’m interested, I’m ignited, I want to tell the story and one lead to the next. And before I knew it, 30 years had passed.”
Carter hopes to expand her talents to theater for the deaf. The Hampton University graduate was a special education teacher before moving to Los Angeles in 1986. She began by working at Los Angeles Trade Tech College, and then worked as a costume designer for the Lula Washington Dance Academy. That’s where she met director/producer Spike Lee who advised her to consider getting experience in film. Lee would hire Carter to work on the 1988 film “School Daze” which was shot on the campuses of Spelman and Morehouse colleges. This opportunity, Carter said, allowed her to revisit her Southern roots while working on another historically Black college and university campus.
Her past perpetually informs her presence as “Ruth E.” She reminisced that, “When I think about my grandmother and I have those images of the South and our journey in this country… It’s so beautiful to explore our past. And we really do get to understand yourself a lot better through the past and through photography and through art.”
Carter said she is frequently asked how a person can build a career such as hers without the traditional study path of a fashion designer. “You have to figure it out as you go,” she explained. “You, too, can figure it out as you go!”