Ruth E. Carter is a prolific and talented costume designer who has designed a number of period films and won the Academy Award for best costume design last year for Black Panther (she was previously nominated twice, for Malcolm X and Amistad). She’s also important because she is Black, and right now the United States is embroiled in protests against systemic racism; Carter’s work both highlights the many contributions African Americans have and continue to make to culture, and the films themselves often tell Black-focused stories, which are so important to our understandings of our own history.
Let’s take a look through Carter’s many frock flicks, with quotes from the designer about her work.
Malcolm X (1992)
“They gave me his (Malcolm X) files, and I read what he wrote. I noticed his penmanship and discovered he wanted to educate himself. He became a Muslim and embraced all people. He was more than a villain” (‘Black Panther,’ ‘Malcolm X’ costumes highlight Heinz History Center exhibit).
Malcolm X starts out in the 1940s, with the titular character wearing zoot suits.
Denzel Washington rocks those zoot suits!
“The glasses are the signature. Denzel was adamant about having the exact style of glasses Malcolm X wore. I can put on a pair of Malcolm X glasses and look like Malcolm X” (Betty Goodwin, “Dark Suits and Square Glasses” Los Angeles Times, Dec 04, 1992).
“The fabrics are all different. Bell-bottoms in the 70’s were in stiff, hard fabrics. The corduroys were so thick. They don’t make fabrics like that anymore” (Hal Rubenstein, “What’s Ban-Lon Got to do with it?: The 60’s and Early 70’s were Serious Times. Many People were so Busy being Serious that they Didn’t Stop to Check Out how Ridiculous they Looked. A New Film is a Graphic Reminder” New York Times, Jun 27, 1993).
This movie so SO GOOD and yet the domestic violence makes it SO HARD to watch.
Yeah, I’d be that excited too if I got that dress!
“Ike [Turner] liked to stick out. I hate to say it, but he was a lot of fun to do. We worked with photographs of him in hot pants, ruffled Edwardian shirts, thigh-high boots…” (Rubenstein).
“Tina’s [Turner] look was actually very consistent after the 60’s, when she and the Ikettes went with the minis and stayed with them for a long time. And she knew her body, its shape, how it moved. Like she never wore a two-piece, because she had a short torso. We had to make adjustments and take some liberties because Angela [Bassett] has a different body…” (Rubenstein).
“He [baseball player Ty Cobb] had a great tie collection. He always wore the fashionable ties of the day” (Betty Goodwin, “Cobb Sported it all” Los Angeles Times, Dec 01, 1994).
The film is set in the 1960s, as Cobb (Tommy Lee Jones) works with a ghostwriter on his autobiography.
“Steven Spielberg gave me a great opportunity with ‘Amistad.’ He sent me to Rome and London to pull from period costume rental companies” (“Carter’s Costumes Play Key Role in Films” Courier – Journal, Jul 23, 2006).
“For the ‘Amistad’ costumes, Carter studied nineteenth century etchings from a London flea market, costume archives in Italian opera houses, and David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,’s multivolume work ‘The Image of the Black in Western Art'” (Threads of History).
Djimon Hounsou as Sengbe Pieh / Joseph Cinqué was heartbreaking. LOVE the detail of the flag worn as a turban on the left!
It was so hard to watch the 9 year old Queen Isabella II of Spain (Anna Paquin) making decisions about slavery.
Carter recently had a big exhibition of her work.
“I felt like we found the magic in ‘Rosewood.’ … I felt as if we were making a documentary. The set reminded me of our family history. I could almost smell my grandmother and my mother and my aunt. … In the screening room on the last day, I was watching the dailies and when I got up and said goodbye, everyone applauded. I didn’t expect that. Your journey in filmmaking is very personal. You do the best job you can do. That was an indelible mark in my heart. We were a good team” (“Carter’s Costumes Play Key Role in Films” Courier – Journal, Jul 23, 2006).
The film is about the real 1923 Rosewood massacre in Florida, when a white mob killed Black people and destroyed their town.
The history is fictionalized through the character played by Ving Rhames, who leads the Black residents in their self-defense.
This is high on my shortlist, so I’ll report back!
“It gave me the opportunity to do all kinds of things. I studied Paco Rabanne, Balenciaga, Pierre Cardin — all these people who were emerging. They were making shapes that were unconventional, and I wanted to do that with ‘Sparkle’ (Oscar Nominee Ruth Carter ‘s Costumes Shine in ‘Sparkle’).
A remake of the 1976 film, this stars Jordin Sparks as a singer who joins a girl group in 1968.
So there’s a lot of Supremes-esque stage costumes.
Bringing the glam!
Whitney Houston plays the mother, a former entertainer.
Lee Daniel’s The Butler (2013)
“For the sharecroppers, I wanted it to be a little void of color, very natural and organic and lots of white. Then we travel into the 1930s, and the color is still creamy but color is coming in” (Janet Kinosian, “The Costumes; Her Job, to Dress Up the White House” Los Angeles Times, Nov 14, 2013).
“As Forest starts up his climb to working at the White House, things have more color through the ’50s and early ’60s, with JFK and Jackie bringing in more color” (Kinosian).
“Each era had its own set of rules, so it really was like doing three completely different movies… I wanted to pay homage to the first ladies’ favorite designers, but I had to design and craft a lot from scratch because we didn’t have a big costume budget” (Elizabeth Snead, “What Would Oprah Wear to a Bust Stop?” Hollywood Reporter 419, Aug 23, 2013: 28).
“Until we get to the ’60s and early ’70s palette, with all that mustard gold, orange and green, and it’s that primary Courreges orange, Oprah‘s bright orange dress” (Kinosian).
“We went mostly to documentary footage, because Selma is about a march that actually happened. I focused on the details of the marchers. It was about the wardrobe, the shoes, the feet. I wanted to bring it to life” (Sartorial ‘Selma’).
“A suit King wore is on display at the Atlanta airport. I duplicated that one. King had monogrammed cuff links and shirts, so we did that” (Sartorial ‘Selma’).
“My proudest accomplishment is Coretta, because she was the first lady of the civil rights movement. Her wardrobe was 90% built from scratch” (Sartorial ‘Selma’).
“‘I wanted there to be a strong look of community, of socioeconomics. I looked at this Selma-to-Montgomery march and studied the colors and asked myself, ‘What makes this look like the South?'” Carter concluded that lightweight fabrics in colors such as orange, yellow, light blue and khaki best captured the mood of Selma” (Selma Costumes Reveal Class and Consciousness of the ‘Movement’).
The recent remake of the semi-autobiographical 1977 series about an enslaved man and his descendants. It starts in the late 18th century…
“Slaves were given a summer and winter outfit, and that’s it. No coats, no shoes” (Cori Murray, “Revisiting Roots” Essence, 05, 2016, 74-75).
That same outfit on display at FIDM.
The series moves into the 1820s…
And ends in the 1860s.
“African influences haven’t been well-represented. The continent is such a rich resource creatively. I felt that no one really took the dive and decided to be inspired by the Maasi or the Turkana and infuse that in the futuristic model” (How Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter Brought the Afrofuture to ‘Black Panther’).
“I felt that if you are the queen of Wakanda, you have a whole staff of people who are responsible for your clothing. This is a forward nation. So they are going to 3-D print her crown and mantle. The hat is a married Zulu woman’s hat that I felt had the shape of a crown. It had to be perfectly cylindrical; it couldn’t be handmade. For her shoulder mantle, I researched a lot of African lace. Since it is such a big piece, I wanted it to look light and fragile. We had them 3-D printed in Belgium. The process took months” (Herman Valli, “For ‘Black Panther,’ Ruth E. Carter blended centuries of style and tradition to make those futuristic costumes” Los Angeles Times Feb 15, 2018).
“The Lesotho do these wonderful blankets with these amazing prints on them that represent their king, they represent harvest. And we screen-printed on the other side with vibranium [the fictional metal on which Wakanda runs] silver Adinkra symbols, so that their blankets could be used as shields during fighting. We worked on those blankets from start to finish” (The Afrofuturistic Designs of ‘Black Panther’).
“‘I looked at footage of Winnie Mandela arriving to her birthday party in South Africa wearing a traditional Zulu woman’s ceremonial costume that was just beautiful,’ says Carter. As a futuristic touch, Bassett wears a shoulder piece patterned from African lace that was 3D-printed at a studio in Belgium. Says Carter, ‘I thought the queen should represent her technologically advanced nation'” (Booth Moore, “Black Panther’s Chic African Influences” Hollywood Reporter 424, (Jan 17, 2018): 58).
“‘In their red and gold outfits, these spear-fighting women are the elite warriors of Wakanda. The front of the costume is beaded ‘in the same tradition that you see throughout Africa — the Turkana, the Maasai,’ Ms. Carter said. ‘The overall garment has a texture as well, the same kind of striations and sacred geometry’ as the Black Panther suit. The leather harnesses that cross the bodice were made by craftsmen in South Africa so that they appear to be hand-stitched, and the imposing color was chosen to make eight actresses look as bold as 80, she said” (The Afrofuturistic Designs of ‘Black Panther’).
Which is your favorite of Ruth E. Carter’s period designs?
I really love the work she did in BLACK PANTHER and AMISTAD. You felt like you were actually there. Two others are SELMA and MARSHALL. I thought the tailoring on both MKL and TM suits were debonair and showed character. BTW isn’t is time for a Coretta Scott King biopic?
Her work in Black Panther was glorious.So much detail,such a riot of colours,so much creativity and yet the costumes feeling more like clothes you could go forth and wear.Part of the reason why BL is the only superhero movie I like on a cinematic basis(everything in the movie was very balanced,with the story and the super heroey feel getting equal importance.I know FF doesn’t do superhero stuff,but wasn’t BL taking place a bit in the past?)
Ruth E Carter won an Oscar for Black Panther, so it is definitely worth a place in a discussion of her carerr.
No, it is not a historical drsma. So we saw none of the costumes.
career not carerr
drama not drsma
Black Panther is my favorite, for sure. The zoot suits from Malcolm X run second. They look sharp.
I refuse to choose, they’re all just so stunning! Go, Ruth!
I know, I was bending the rules, but it’s such an important film and the costumes are so influenced by traditional dress, which has historical roots.
What a humongous, jaw dropping talent!!! I have seen (and loved) quite a number of these films and remember thinking, with each, how beautifully they were designed/dressed: without (to my shame) looking into who had actually designed the costumes for each. Ruth E. Carter is outstanding and has an innate instinct for both period and character. I am in awe!
I feel the same way, such a pleasure and a wonder to learn!
I’m so happy to see Ruth E. Carter’s work featured here. Yes, she is a badass. My favorite film of the bunch is Black Panther because it is just excellent on every level. I’ve seen several of the movies here, and every one of them she got the whole “world” right, especially Rosewood. When I watched that movie I thought, “These people look like people out of all the old photo albums I’ve seen.” And, to the set designer’s credit, “These old homes are exactly right.”
Re: The “new” Roots: I watched all the Behind the Scenes features, and someone said that in discovering more about Kunte Kinte’s African village in the intervening years since the 1977 Roots, they discovered a connection between his village and indigo. So they wanted to make sure to have indigo colored costumes in the African scenes and to make the color blue a touchstone throughout the series.
Re: African prints: Not surprisingly, the best examples I’ve seen of African prints are at the National Museum of African Art in DC (not to be confused with the new African-American History and Culture Museum, also in DC). The Textile Museum at George Washington University sold some awesome gifts with beautiful African prints made by African companies.
Further reading: I HIGHLY recommend reading the exhibition catalog for Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair. It is the most interesting exhibition catalog I’ve ever read (and I’ve read plenty). If the exhibit comes to your local museum you MUST see it, if not, look it up online. I learned so much about so much–fashion, race relations, African-American culture, etc. I just opened up my catalog on a whim and came upon this still-timely observation, “At the extreme, wearing the wrong clothing can place a black man’s life at risk.” Thus, clothing continues to matter in black life in ways that it has never had to matter to whites. On a more upbeat note, it was so beautiful to see a fashion exhibit in which all the mannequins were black!
I’ve seen a few of these films and am in awe of Ruth’s work. As usual FF, I now have a list of new films to explore including Marshall. You are my go to source for my Netflix queue!