The Academy Award-winning costume designer for 'Black Panther' fashioned a headpiece out of a Pier 1 place mat, trimmed 150 blankets with a men's shaver, misspelled a word on Bill Nunn's famous 'Do the Right Thing' tee, was more convincing than Oprah and originally studied special education.
Three-time best costume Oscar nominee Ruth E. Carter (whose career has spanned over 35 years and 40 films) brought in a well-deserved first win at the 91st Academy Awards on Feb. 24 for her Afrofuturistic designs in Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster film Black Panther. Carter is the first black woman to win this award and was previously nominated for her work in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992) and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997).
"I have gone through so much to get here!” Carter told The Hollywood Reporter by email. “At times the movie industry can be pretty unkind. But it is about sticking with it, keeping a faith and growing as an artist. This award is for resilience and I have to say that feels wonderful!"
To create over 700 costumes for Black Panther, Carter oversaw teams in Atlanta and Los Angeles, as well as shoppers in Africa. Here's an inside glimpse of her Atlanta headquarters.
In a recent talk at LACMA, Carter revealed some surprising facts about her life and costuming work. See below for THR's top 10 takeaways.
Born in Springfield, Mass., Carter is the youngest of eight (five brothers and two sisters) and was raised by a single mother. Her artistic brother Robert inspired her to start sketching and she would copy all of his pencil drawings. (“I don’t know what behooved me to do that; he’d say, ‘Pretty good, OK, mine’s better!” said Carter.)
Attending Hampton University in Virginia, Carter was originally a special education major “because I wanted to learn sign language and work for the theater for the deaf,” she said, noting that she later switched her major to theater and became known as "the costume designer" on campus. Before landing at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, she drove cross country in her Volkswagen Rabbit to intern for the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico, where she decided that, rather than sew, she “wanted to present my illustrations and have a team of people build them.”
Carter dedicated her Academy Award on Feb. 24 to her 97-year-old mother, saying, “You are the original superhero.”
Starting out in Hollywood as a backstage dresser at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Carter met Madge Sinclair and Moses Gunn and eventually “talked her way up” to become foreman of the costume shop. She then landed a freelance gig as costume designer for Lula Washington’s Dance Theatre on Adams Street in downtown L.A.
“They were performing to the music of Stevie Wonder and Spike was brought to see that performance with Robi Reed and she introduced us,” said Carter. “Spike was not known then; he had just done She’s Gotta Have It but it hadn’t gotten anywhere yet. He kept asking me about my experience with film, and I had none, so he said, ‘Go to USC or UCLA and sign up in the film studies department to work on someone’s senior thesis project.’ So I did a film for a USC student.”
Then Carter got a phone call at work and a male voice said, “Ruth, this is the man of your dreams!” Carter said: “It was the ‘80s and I responded, ‘Denzel?!’ He said, ‘No, this is Spike. I want you to do my next movie, School Daze.’ So I quit my job and I started sketching and drawing.”
Carter emphasizes how amazing it is that the context of her second film with Lee in 1989, Do the Right Thing, still holds up. ”The young kids see it now and they love it, because it deals with garments of protest and with the neighborhood and the strife and struggle of what young black men face in their community.”
Back then, Lee was known in the fashion community for loving Nikes and selling tube socks on the street corner to help fund his films. In terms of costuming, Carter says: “We wanted to show the sense of a neighborhood and pop culture and all the colors of Afro-future culture within this African diaspora in Brooklyn. I imported a local artist, NaSha, to paint Radio Raheem’s ‘Bed Stuy Do or Die’ shirt. But when we painted it the first time, we spelled ‘Bed-Stuy’ wrong as ‘Bed-Sty' and they had already shot it, so we had to look at the footage and redo the T-shirt!"
Lee wore the famed "Love" and "Hate" knuckle rings at the 91st Academy Awards.
Spike Lee called upon Carter again in 1992 for Malcolm X, earning her her first Academy Awards costume design nomination and making history as the first black woman nominated in the category. Lee's first words to Carter were: “We’re going to do Malcom X next, but I don’t want you to think about an Oscar; just do a good job.”
Zoot suits were a focal point to tell “the origin of this man who eventually became a national speaker and leader for the nation of Islam,” Carter said. “It was also known as hoodlum fashion; they had zoot suit wars.... I like to liken it to guys with drop-crotch pants. It’s the same psychology.”
While working on Robert Townsend’s 1997 film BAPS (starring Halle Berry and Natalie Desselle), Carter landed on the orange rubber catsuit as “it was a scene when she discovers a bidet and water was everywhere, so I said, ‘She’s got to be in rubber in that scene’” said Carter, noting that Townsend was known at that point for financing his films with his credit card.
Loosely based on the looks sported by The Supremes during their 1960s-era Detroit heyday, the costumes in Salim Akil’s 2012 film Sparkle were inspired by avant-garde L.A. fashion designer Rudi Gernreich (known for his use of cutouts and vinyl) and Paco Rabanne’s iconic '60s Rhodoid dresses composed of metal-linked plastic discs that he referred to as “the unwearables.”
Carter said: “I made three poker-chip dresses out of big gems that I bought in downtown [L.A.] and those dresses weighed like 10 pounds each, so the [actresses] had to walk very carefully!”
For Lee Daniels’ 2013 film The Butler (the story of Eugene Allen, who worked at the White House for 34 years) there was “a revolving door of celebrities coming through the costume department and I had to ready each one with research to show them,” said Carter, citing Oprah Winfrey and Jane Fonda, who was outfitted in Chanel looks from renowned vintage shop The Paper Bag Princess in L.A., as specific stars.
“We started out one way and this was the first time I’d worked with Oprah (every woman has the things she likes and she never was very pushy), but by the time we finished, her costume was a little different than how it started out,” Carter said, laughing. “It’s all good. We really had fun creating this character. Lee Daniels wanted her to wear curlers to the bus station when they see their son off to school. And Oprah said, ‘This is the butler’s wife; she would never be at the station in curlers!’ Lee just would not back down, but I finally convinced him to let Oprah wear her hair down in the scarf, because they were pillars in their community. And she could not believe that I was able to convince him over her. So I like my job at times!”
”I was determined to have the Maasai warrior’s headpiece in [Black Panther],” said Carter. “In the comic, it’s worn by an elder, and Ryan didn’t want the elders to have this headpiece, so I thought it was a great opportunity to use it in the Warrior Falls scene. We didn’t have time to have a beader make it, so we went to Pier 1 and got a placemat and cut a hole in it. That thing was hard to cut! And then my craftsperson did all the featherwork and I painted it. So we got it in there!”
“Ryan really wanted them to have these blankets close off their costumes because he wanted them to have this moment of reveal, where they push the blankets back and you see their weaponry and they go into battle,” said Carter of her work on Black Panther. “Ryan felt he couldn’t really do the Black Panther story without having gone to Africa, so he went and spent some time with the Basotho people [in Lesotho] and he fell in love with these blankets and I see why — they’re beautiful.”
Having purchased 150 Basotho blankets from South Africa and “stamped [the fictional metal] vibranium on one side to make them like shields for the warriors,” Carter said, the blankets were inevitably screen-tested by Marvel as too thick and unusable. So one of Carter’s assistants spent hours shaving each one of the 150 blankets with a men’s shaver to get it right.
For T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) “we made muscle suits with silver Vibranium [the fictional strongest substance known to man] and the top skin is very thin so you can see the silver illuminating through this top layer; then we added surface texture that was a little triangle, which is part of the African landscape in terms of art and part of their sacred geometry of mother-father-child,” said Carter.
Michael B. Jordan’s supervillain Erik Killmonger “has gold that bleeds through the top layer, but his helmet wasn’t gold enough, so we hand-painted the top and front that day on set,” Carter said.
The innovative superhero suits were ultimately too thin. “It was embarrassing; they were blowing their pants every time they did a kick!” said Carter, who ended up making the stuntmen’s versions thicker with gussets, thanks to a staff member from the Boston Ballet who was familiar with the needs of dancers and came up with a design solution.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the name of Bill Nunn's character in Do the Right Thing.