‘Black Panther’: Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter on the Marvel Movie’s Signature Styles

     January 30, 2018

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If you’re loving the look of the costumes on full display in Black Panther, you have one person to thank: Ruth E. Carter. The two-time Oscar-nominated costume designer celebrates 30 years in that role this year with one of the most anticipated movies ever to hit the big screen. A tall task, for sure, but Carter pulled all of her many resources together in order to find the look of Black Panther, Wakanda, and the characters who live within the nation … and those who invade from without. Black Panther has some of the most stunning and unique visual motifs we’ve ever seen, and a richer meaning behind each bead and bit of tapestry, all thanks to Carter and her hard-working team.

When it comes to costuming questions, it’s best to just stand back and let Carter work, which we found out during our set visit last year. She has such a wealth of knowledge that’s literally available at her fingertips that it was a pleasure to just hear her talk about the inspirations, cultural significance, patterns, styles, and materials she used to pull off the look of Black Panther. It’s plain to see that Carter and her team absolutely nailed it. Here’s her insight on how it all came together.

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Image via Marvel Studios

Ruth E. Carter: The Marvel Universe is a brand new frontier for me. It’s been very exciting working with some of the most creative minds, I think, in the superhero world. We were great collaborators. We’ve done 5 months of, well, my part was 5 months, of developing some of the characters that everyone knows and loves.

Tell us a little bit about your collaboration with Ryan [Coogler].

Carter: So the director, Ryan Coogler, interviewed me and wanted my concept art in the very beginning of what I thought of the Black Panther and the Wakandan world. Of course, he couldn’t share a script with me, so I went out and read all the comic books and tried to gather up as much as I could. It’s really such a vast world it’s hard to capsulize it for a 30-minute interview. But I was able to collaborate with some of my ideas about it being a place that is well ahead. Futuristic in some ways, but not futuristic. A place in Africa that’s African, but also has a wide stretch of cultural awareness that reaches to the depths of many cultures, as well as, a beauty that unique amongst itself.

With that being said, looking at futuristic sci-fi just took you too far in one direction. Looking at Afro-centric or Afro-punk or African, there’s all kinds of places in Africa where you can draw your inspiration from. So I couldn’t stay in one region of Africa. I couldn’t stay in West Africa and make it Nigerian and Ghanaian, forget that there was East Africa which also has some great images and colors and textures. So, there was a Bible that was presented to me that Ryan developed that explained it all and explained what Wakanda was and explained the different tribes of Wakanda and where they came from. So there were pieces of all different points in Africa that were combined. And when you research those real places, like the Dogon or the Nigerian culture, you sometimes had a conflict of aesthetics. So it was up to me to meld the two cultures together and make it one unique for our Wakanda and for our look for the costumes. That was my first challenge. Learning curve beyond belief. Once that kind of got into my bones ai was able to really understand from the comic reader’s point of view what Wakanda was.

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Image via Marvel Studios

Looking at a lot of images that were painted in the comic strips you’d see people cheering in the streets, for example, as the Dora Milaje walked down carrying T’Challa on his chair. You kind of got the concepts and I think comics are mainly broad stroke concepts, especially in regards to costumes, because the costumes don’t generally really work in the way that real clothes do. The Dora Milaje, they’re walking in the middle of the road with a sarong and a tube top and tattoos – I mean, they look really great – mohawks and great little tiny sunglasses and we know that in the stunt world that kind of costume is just not going to work. Also, in regards to the Dora Milaje, we wanted to make them have more of a presence. More of a strength of authority. That they did have. They were badass chicks who were protecting the King, until T’Challa, being the Black Panther, is walking around in this skin suit. We didn’t want the guy in the skin suit walking around with the girls in the bathing suits. We developed more as a real warrior might be developed. Real warriors who need their arms protected and need to have shields, and armor, and weaponry and shoes – like they’re really going to go to battle. It took us some time to get there because, we all as women, want to be that girl who can fry up the bacon and do all the other stuff. But in the end, it’s got to feel empowering.

Also, in regards to T’Challa, the King, the Prince – we take it from his father’s death. He’s no longer King. And now he can be challenged. Others can challenge to take over his throne. So he starts out as our Prince. What we wanted to do, because there’s another element to the story I can’t tell you about – spoiler alert – that we wanted to juxtapose two things. Our Prince was very kingly. He was very clean, very tailored, what you would expect out of the son of a king. We also looked at a lot of embroidery and dashikis and things that people could relate to and we embellished his kingly clothes with those things. So that he’s a king that you know.

It became a process, too, because we’re in Wakanda. It’s a barefoot culture. So three out of five [people] can walk around bare foot. In this weather, I don’t know? Maybe as we keep shooting we’ll get to that. But we felt that in the typical sense of what happens in a throne room – you have the King and the crown and maybe, he’s head of the military. So we gave him two things: kind of an open sandal so that it felt like Africa, but he also wore a beautiful tailcoat. We gave him a lovely cloak adorned with Kente, and then we gave him military boot and pants. So he gives you two messages that he is princely, he is elegant but he is also the head of the military and we are in Africa.

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Image via Marvel Studios

With Nakia, which is Lupita [Nyong’o], she starts out as a War Dog, coming from Nigeria. She’s fighting for young Nigerian women who are captured by the mean guys who are militants that capture women and put them into slavery. So she starts out very tough. We see her immediately as a fighter. We know her as a fighter. She’s dusty and dirty and she wants to stay in that element. She’s comfortable there. I researched all kinds of fashionable War Dogs. All kinds of fashionable, dirty fighters and there’s a lot of good looks out there, so it was hard to pick one. But I think what we found for her was really great because it was very much not a part of Wakanda. It was a part of the world around and she travels into Wakanda and then she starts to gradually go back to her Wakandan roots, in that her color palate also changes. It starts out as a war dog in army greens and browns and earth tone dirty and army boots. Then as we greet her in other costumes, in other scenes, the greens become very clear. It’s more jade. It’s more teal. It’s a more put together but she still wears one earring and she still has her tough exterior but we start seeing a little more layer to her origin of being a Wakandan girl – the highest warrior of the River Tribe. Her tribe is the River Tribe. She’s the fiercest warrior of the River Tribe and her color is green. So I have examined every spectrum of green. Green is a wonderful color because, like nature, all greens work together well. That was fascinating because she’s such a beautiful tone. She can wear the chartreuse and the bottle green and all those greens so well.

The War Dogs have a specific costume in the comics. Was that ever considered?

Carter: I looked through a lot of that and it does have a little bit of a para-military feel to it and she had that but because she is a new character to this, I wanted to give her a look that she could follow. That we could follow her in and just add it to the fold. So it’s kind of like I said, you examine the comic books and you have a commitment to all of the comic book readers out there who love the series and love the Black Panther but also, I felt obligated to give them something more.

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Image via Marvel Studios

You’re creating these costume designs and creating a society through the costumes, while Hannah [Beachler] is working on the production design in creating the world that these costumes have to play in. How closely did you two work together so that these aesthetics were matching up?

Carter: I think Hannah and I are besties right now. Because we are constantly screaming and jumping up and down and hugging each other. We work very closely. We had a lot of visual development meetings where she showed us sets and I’m happy that we have this vast network at Marvel where I can plug in and open up all the beautiful set designs that Hannah has designed and be reminded of what they’re going to do. A lot of times things are blue screen. When you get to set, it’s a stairway and a blue screen, so you’re not necessarily getting fed all the time. But then there are some beautiful sets that we built here. I think they’re even more beautiful than they are on the page. The color palates. They were very strict about the color palates. There are the River Tribe, which is green. There’s the Border Tribe, which is blue. There’s the Panther and the Royal Palace, which is black and royal purple. The Jabaris, which are wood. We had a very clear direction and that came from Ryan. With Hannah, her taste levels are through the roof, so I was constantly becoming aware – and still visiting – as they’re developing the sets, seeing what lanterns are going in, the furniture – and still getting a surprise when I get to set. This business is always morphing and you’re always tweaking when you see things finally coming together.

You mentioned the cultural inspiration when creating these costumes. How do you accent the personality for each individual character?

Carter:  That’s a good question. A lot of times the actors during fittings – a fitting for me is like a therapy session. *laughs* I’m asking, “What are you doing here?” and “Why are you here?” “What makes you’re friendship so special to T’challa?” and “What makes you guys nemeses?” “What makes you not get along?” I’m always asking those questions and part of the sub-conscious things that happens after you do a lot of research and you look at so many images, you might look at an image of a voodoo priest and might have a particular hood or sweater or cape or cloak. When you have that conversation with an actor, so of those images pop into your head and you think, “Hey, wait. Let me show you this. We should do that, because that communicates what you just told me.” And that’s kind of how we work together. That’s the fun part of my job.

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