ON THE VERY cruelest day of August, with the mercury hovering around 108 degrees in California’s San Fernando Valley, Ruth E. Carter, unfazed, is sifting through polyester suits, wide ties, platform shoes and other unbreathable hallmarks of the 1970s—or at least of a particular cinematic fantasy of the 1970s. The costume designer who earlier this year brought the tribes of Wakanda to varicolored life in Black Panther has returned to a decade she knows well. But this isn’t the 1970s of her own adolescence, nor is it the glamorous domestic horror show of Tina and Ike Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It or the outer-borough disco era, threatened by the creep of punk, depicted in Summer of Sam. The movie this time is Dolemite Is My Name!, a biopic about the comedian Rudy Ray Moore, who rose to fleeting fame with his lewdly hilarious early-’70s comedy recordings.
“They were the albums that your parents hid, that they only played at their little mixers among their friends,” Carter recalls. Moore’s personal style was exuberantly louche: hats that matched his shoes, swaths of fur and snakeskin, star-shaped shades. “Really pimp-style,” she adds. “But I tell my team, we’re not going to be dependent on what we have in our minds about the ’70s. I pride myself on accuracy. We need to know the difference between how people dressed in a juke joint or on the chitlin circuit or in small clubs, the difference between Indiana and the South and California. So when they go to the George Foreman fight and everybody’s all dressed up, I’m not trying to make it silly. Another designer might want you to laugh. Maybe stop at the big Afro, platform shoes, crazy wild patterns, polyester. Instead, I’m taking it very seriously and saying, This is fabulous. We were coming out of the 1960s, civil rights, and showing a sense of pride in ourselves. When I dress these guys, I’m focusing on that.”
Carter remembers the Afro that one of her brothers had as a teenager, how he would slowly drag his comb from the back of his neck, raking the hair forward and creating a sort of thrust, like the prow of a ship. “Not everyone was perfectly round with their ’fro,” she says. “Let’s not generalize.”
We are sitting in the living room of Carter’s Spanish Revival house in L.A.’s Miracle Mile. Although she has always tried to insulate her domestic life from her on-screen worlds, Black Panther has broken the seal: Elongated wooden ritual masks from the Dogon people of Mali hang on the walls, and calfskin harnesses from the Hamar tribe of Ethiopia serve as a runner for the dining room table. “There was just too much beauty,” says Carter, who is best known for her painstaking historical facsimiles on films such as Steven Spielberg’s Amistad and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. She was nominated for Oscars for both projects, the first African-American recognized in the category. Though she has dabbled in spoofs and sci-fi and rom-coms (even the pilot for Seinfeld), Carter is, above all, a historicist. “My wheelhouse is the African-American journey in this country, from Selma”—Ava DuVernay’s 2014 film about the voting rights marches led by Martin Luther King Jr.—“to Do the Right Thing. Stories rooted in the politics of the time. Sometimes I’m looking to be inspired. Sometimes I’m looking to have fun.” She laughs sheepishly, her dense, golden curls washing over her eyes. “Sometimes I’m looking at the mortgage.”
The actress Carmen Ejogo, for whom Carter designed costumes in both Sparkle and Selma, believes that Carter, 58, is a classic example of a gifted African-American artist whose mainstream success came late. “Like so many blacks in Hollywood, you can be at the top of your game for decades before the industry notices or recognizes you,” she says. “That’s a problem across departments, from the hairstylist to the actor to the sound mixer, where it’s assumed that what you can do is ‘black art.’ What should be obvious is that Ruth is a master of her craft, period.”
In Carter’s 30-year career—which has been marked by quantum leaps, from theater to film, from niche indies to epic studio pictures—Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s superhero blockbuster, represents a level of exposure that even a sprawling Spielberg period drama couldn’t provide. It also posed an unaccustomed set of challenges. Wakanda is a fictional African nation free from the blight of colonialism, a furtive technological powerhouse fueled by a precious metal called vibranium. Depending on your point of view, it is either an imagined utopia or a mash-up of African clichés—lip plates and neck coils and muddy dreadlocks. “It’s a fine line,” Carter says. “Africa is modern. Everybody’s moved to the city. You’re not going to see the indigenous tribes the way people would like to think they could. You might go to some far-out place and see a Himba girl walking her calf on a dirt road, but she’s on her cellphone, and if you want to take her picture she’s going to charge you $10. I had to constantly be aware of things that might feel like stereotypes and not depend on what was in my brain. This movie is a fantasy, but if you don’t do the research, you can get into trouble.”
Although there may be no bigger prize at the moment than a job on a Marvel movie, not every costume designer is interested. Marvel exerts unyielding control over its image making. The studio’s visual development department enters the process with designs of its own, ready to be adapted into action figures and backpacks and lunchboxes. At Marvel, the movie’s script—always Carter’s jumping-off point—is withheld lest secrets get leaked. “When I was told that they were going to come into the offices where we were creating costumes and put cameras around, it just blew my mind,” Carter recalls. “Even the guys delivering our lunches had to sign NDAs.”
The Black Panther character was introduced in Marvel comic books in 1966, and the film’s visual style originates there. The Dora Milaje, for example—Wakanda’s elite, all-female special forces—were drawn with hormonal male readers in mind, as sexy bald women whose breasts were barely contained by red bustiers. Marvel’s sketches for the film were less puerile but wholly impressionistic, and so Carter began her customary deep dive. She pored over beadwork, leather, fabric and armor from across Africa and stationed shoppers throughout the continent. She took her team to the Metropolitan Museum in New York to view a Dinka corset. She scoured the Pasadena Rose Bowl flea market and emerged with Dogon scarves. “It’s wherever you can find it,” she explains. “And then you’re like, How do I translate this into a Wakandan story? We see how the people of Lesotho look in their indigenous way, some still donning the heart-shaped hats and those beautiful colorful blankets. So what does it look like when their blankets are lined in vibranium?”
Carter created beaded tabards hung with trinkets and hand-tooled leather skirts; she borrowed the traditional neck rings of South Africa’s Ndebele women; she designed giant panther-face buckles and plated the armor so it gleamed like jewelry and applied a raised-ink technique to tights to give them the illusion of scarification. “These costumes couldn’t just look like Hollywood toys,” she says. “They had to have culture. They had to speak directly to Africa, and they had to have a sense of history, like a samurai costume. Train your daughter to be a Dora, and hand your uniform down to her.”
Angela Bassett, who plays Wakanda’s Queen Mother, has worked with Carter on five projects over the years. “It’s the exhaustive research that sets her apart,” Bassett says. “She loves the character as much as you do, and she wants you to enter the character with her. It’s a true collaboration. You walk into the dressing room, she has these beautiful sketches, you begin to relax. You conspire together.”
The result of Carter’s labors is something quite apart from the pinpoint precision she brought to the slave ships of Amistad or to the White House of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. In Black Panther, the costumes meld a cumulative African past to a fantasy African future, in the process pressing against the confines of an established superhero idiom. The term Afrofuturism has been applied to the film. Coined in 1993 by the cultural critic Mark Dery, it typically describes an aesthetic in which sci-fi interacts with the cultural contributions of the African diaspora (think Janelle Monáe). Both high-tech and essentially African, Carter’s costumes seem to be an exemplar of Afrofuturism, although she wishes people were using the word more expansively.
“I think people don’t really understand what it is,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to bring culture to the table and show it in a fantastical, fantasy way. But it’s also about what we can do now that will benefit society later. How are we foreseeing ourselves in the future? When Spike Lee asked me to put Larry Fishburne in a Soweto T-shirt in School Daze, he was realizing his Afrofuture. When Ava DuVernay decided that she didn’t want to be a publicist and she wanted to direct, she was realizing her Afrofuture.”
Carter grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts, the youngest of eight children of a single mother. Her older brothers were her idols, and because they painted and drew, she did the same—the family’s dining table was always arrayed in pigments and sketch pads. In her bedroom, an old black Singer sewing machine console served as her desk. When she was 10 years old, Carter taught herself how to sew using the single Singer pattern that was housed inside. She took her mother’s old dresses and remade them. She fashioned a denim blazer out of old, cut-up jeans. In college, at the Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia, Carter’s skill at the sewing machine caught the attention of the theater department. She was asked to make costumes for a production of Molière’s The Would-Be Gentleman. Soon an empty costume shop with a few racks of clothes and a cutting table became her campus home; Carter designed costumes for every play that followed.
After graduating with no formal training in costume design, she found herself a succession of internships, first at a theater back in Springfield, and then at the Santa Fe Opera, where she worked as a stitcher at a table of six. “There was a head cutter and her assistant,” she recalls. “We’d see the designers come in, and I could see that they were talking over their illustrations: The English Cat, The Tempest. We were making doublets and bucket boots. I have thousands of little holes in my fingers from the hand-sewing. But I learned the craft.” At the end of the summer, she drove her Volkswagen Rabbit to L.A. and landed a job at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, where she worked as a dresser, assisting the actors with fast changes backstage. Eventually she talked her way into the costume shop, where she met designers who had worked in Hollywood; they taught her about aging, dyeing and other effects deployed on-screen.
Carter joined a traveling dance troupe as its costume designer, and in 1986 the company mounted a hugely popular show performed to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. One evening during intermission, a friend introduced her to Spike Lee, who had just made his first feature, She’s Gotta Have It. Lee invited her to a screening. “I thought, Wow. Here is this simple story of a girl walking through Brooklyn and her relationships,” Carter recalls. “And I’m like, I can do that. I’m sure I can do that. I’ve been doing Shakespeare. I can definitely do that.” A few months later, Lee’s film made a splash at Cannes, and he called Carter to ask if she’d do the costumes for his second feature, School Daze. He sent her the script, and she went right to work. The story was set at a historically black college, and she had been to one herself; she had a keen sense of the various cliques and their styles. Lee invited her to New York for a meeting, so Carter quit her job and flew across the country, lugging a giant portfolio of drawings. They discussed her work and went to a screening of Native Son, and Carter slept in Lee’s little extra bedroom. It was her big break. All told, Carter has designed costumes for 10 of Lee’s films.
To achieve what she calls “rigorous historical reality,” Carter brings a forensic intensity to her research. For Lee’s Malcolm X, she visited the department of corrections in Boston to read the incarcerated black activist’s letters and sift through stacks of police records. “I needed to understand the man,” she says, “and you can’t necessarily do that through photos. How much did he care about his appearance? What was his relationship to things?” While working on Selma, she noticed from photographs and old film reels that Martin Luther King’s neck bulged out over his starched, white collars. “I wanted collars just tight enough that the flesh on David Oyelowo’s neck would roll over. A lot of times we get clothes onto a person and we think our job is done. But I like to see the sweat on the clothes. I like to see how people wear them and embody them. It’s Hollywood, but if we make a Hollywood version of a person, it doesn’t feel real.”
For the 2016 remake of Roots, Carter worked her way, with gloved hands, through an archive of early-19th-century garments in Williamsburg, Virginia, and read extensively about the domestic lives of slaves. A plantation owner might buy a run of cloth, all the same stripe or gingham, which could be adapted into pants, skirts and kerchiefs; a single set of clothing needed to last a whole year. “Wash and repair—that’s what they did,” she says. “That gave me a sense of how the clothes looked: clean but mended. There was no kindness in the type of cloth used. So I’d get some homespun gingham and use it for a whole plantation, mixing it with a rough sackcloth. We have a process for roughing things up, and through that process the clothes gain a kind of history.”
Carter has worked with the director John Singleton on four films, including 2000’s Shaft. “By God, she made Sam Jackson sexy,” he remembers. “She shaved his head, gave him a goatee and an Armani coat, and he took that look and made 25 more movies with it. I say this rarely about people I collaborate with: If you’re lucky enough to have Ruth on your team, you just give her the ball and let her run with it.”
She is buried in research once again for Dolemite, though in this instance that means YouTube and Ebony’s online archive as well as her vast personal collection of Sears catalogs. The film stars Eddie Murphy as the comic Moore, and Carter has nearly 80 changes to prepare for him. (Costume designers think in terms of changes.) In late summer the first retrospective of Carter’s work, beginning with Do the Right Thing, opened at the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh; Marvel lent nine costumes from Black Panther. And this fall she is busy with a 25-university lecture tour called “Concepts to Creation,” in which she takes college students through the process of designing the Black Panther wardrobe. Meanwhile, she’s never had more offers, and a sequel to Black Panther may not be far behind.
“Honestly, I’d love to do something like Moulin Rouge!, where the worlds of theater and cinema can live in the same place,” Carter says. “And I’m not done with the South. When I look at portraits from the antebellum South, I find that I want to re-create some of those images. I’m ready to be inspired by another story about black culture. It’s not just clothes. It’s culture.” •