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Notably the first Black person to win the Oscar for best costume design, Ruth E. Carter took home her first Academy Award in 2019 for the Afrofuturistic costume designs in Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster Black Panther. Never one to sit on her laurels, Carter has taken the costumes next-level in Coogler’s epic sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which opened in theaters on Nov. 11.
Here, she talks to The Hollywood Reporter about the monumental task of updating the Wakanda world, while creating an entirely new underwater civilization inspired by Mayan culture. “Similar to Afro-future for Wakanda, it’s like Latino-future,” she tells THR. “It was exciting. I kept thinking, ‘Oh, they’re going to love this; they’re going to celebrate this.'” The job involved in-depth historical research, designing over 2,100 costumes with her global team of specialists, and partnering with Adidas, Hervé Léger., J.J. Valaya and Iris van Herpen.
The white costumes in the opening funeral scene were so impactful. Was each unique?
It was divided by tribes. A lot of people have on African garb with details like beadwork or fur to indicate their tribe. You’ll see Zulu, you’ll see Ndebele, you’ll see the Maasai. The Border Tribe is distinguished by the Basotho blankets, while the Merchant Tribe is inspired by the Tuareg and the turbans and we infused the big silver earrings they wear. Then you see the Ndebele graphic prints and linework on Ramonda’s white dress. The Mining Tribe is represented by the priestess, who wears a Himba head piece, and the River Tribe by the man with the white lip plate and ceremonial costume, the whole nine. The entire procession, with the tribes coming through to represent their particular areas, is pretty beautiful.
How many costumes did you design this time? It was 700 for Black Panther.
Maybe three times that, about 2,100. We had all of Wakanda and then we built another world, the Talokanil, and had to bring up a new military, the Navy. We had a crew in Los Angeles and Atlanta, but also things were being made in New Zealand, India, Paris, London, New York. My team in Atlanta at Tyler Perry Studios was a good 20 to 30 people doing intake, aging and dyeing, specialty work, build. We had a floor of just cutters and seamstresses and another floor with the tailors. Then we outsourced to other companies, so there’s hundreds of people involved with the manifestation of these costumes, but it all does ultimately run through me.
What were your biggest challenges?
Figuring out how to make costumes beautiful that were going underwater. There were so many aspects to being in water that worked against us. We made a headdress for Namor with organic materials and feathers. He went underwater and everyone loved the way it looked and floated. But when it came out, it was unusable, because chemicals in the water bleached out the color. So we were constantly learning how to fix our dyes so they didn’t fade. And learning how to make things out of silicone that look real. We had to weight and tether the fabrics; every costume was different. We put M’Baku’s wood-like costume on a background actor and plunged him in the 20-foot tank and he just floated. We could not weight him enough to get him to go down and do the work underwater. I decided to think Roman gladiator and give him a raffia skirt and all of the accoutrements, with sandals instead of the big heavy Ugg boots.
What was the most elaborate piece?
Namora’s feathered serpent headpiece is the show-stopper for me. We worked really hard to represent Mayan culture with that piece.
How did you research the new Mayan-inspired Talokanil world?
The Maya Vase database was a source of inspiration. The Mayans created their story on their pottery, so the database rolls out the images flat. You see that they had sheer fabrics, jade, ear spools, all the elements of the culture. Once an idea was put on paper and we liked the aesthetics of it, that drawing or idea went to the historians. They’d come back and say, “That doesn’t represent Mayan culture in the era that we are pulling most of our ideas from, so you need to change these aspects.” It was classic 17th-century Mayan. So we’d go back and tweak it. You’re creating a new world that’s based on a real historical anchor, and you want the people who have this in their lineage to be proud that this was accurate.
Any fun, surprising behind-the-scenes anecdotes?
Well, we worked with Adidas and their S.E.E.D. [School for Experiential Education in Design] program that brings education and design to young Black and brown women on some looks, including shoes. I kept getting one shoe, not a mate. And so I had one shoe for a very long time, and I kept complaining, not realizing that they were sending me prototypes that hadn’t been manufactured yet. And so Shuri’s early fittings in the Adidas-wear were with one shoe. I was just praying that the other one would finally show up. And it did!
What other utilitarian tech looks did you team with Adidas to create?
Okoye’s red unitard that she wears in Boston when she fights Attuma has a special banding that supports the muscles. The jacket with graphic mapping on it that Riri wears in the lab. And Shuri’s purple tracksuit has a two-tone swing back that I requested, because I felt like it could really billow in the back and look exciting when she goes on the motorcycle.
You told THR at the premiere that you used five 3D printers. What pieces did you print?
Things printed in 3D can be a lot lighter-weight. So if we found a vintage belt buckle or necklace and couldn’t get a multiple, we hand-scanned the pieces and 3D-printed them right there in the office. We could decide whether to print more or make a mold and pull it out of rubber. So there’s a new process in town in the costume world. And that is creating hard parts that we normally have to outsource to jewelry designers or people in the automotive field. Now we can do them ourselves in house, and it costs so much less. Ramonda’s headpieces were all 3D-printed by Julia Koerner, who created her isichola and shoulder mantle in the first movie.
The majesty of the jewelry, incorporated into details on the costumes, stood out.
From the start in Black Panther 1, Ryan Coogler said, “I want the Doras armor to feel like jewelry and have this beautiful sheen to it.” So that opportunity presented itself again; we upgraded the Dora armor so it had brilliance. Queen Ramonda wears a lot of chest armor and some of it had symbolism and meaning — the Dogan tribe of Mali was represented on one of her pieces. When we see her in the opening scene at the U.N., it sets the tone that there’s this new queen leading Wakanda, and she’s adorned and celebrated. So even though it is a story about grief, and we kept Shuri in a lot of gray, the brilliance of the jewelry lets you in on the richness of Wakanda. The bracelet that Namor’s mother once wore was made by jewelry smith Douriean Fletcher, who worked on Black Panther and came back to help with a lot of the pieces.
What other designers did you partner with?
Those ribbed, two-piece knit outfits that Shuri had on in the lab, with the cool lacing on the sleeves, were Hervé Léger. The texture had a techie feel. House of Valaya did a few of Ramonda’s dresses for me. We sent a sketch to J.J. Valaya; he’s like the Armani of India, and he loves being involved in movies in this way. I get exquisite work back from him. Same with Iris van Herpen. The jade beaded dress that Shuri wears when she’s going to Namor to talk about culture and history was made by Iris Van Herpen and her team. We bought that black Mugler jacket that Okoye has on in Boston and then had to go back to Mugler and ask for more because of the stunt scenes!
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