Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter on Her Career and New Book
Ruth E. Carter is one of the best-known and most highly acclaimed costume designers working today. Since the very beginning of her 30-plus-year career, she’s had a creative partnership with Spike Lee, designing everything from the iconic streetwear of Do the Right Thing to the period looks of Malcolm X, Crooklyn and Summer of Sam. Carter’s resume also includes collaborations with directors like Steven Spielberg (Amistad) and Ava DuVernay (Selma). This year, she made history as the first Black woman to win two Oscars, when she took home the Best Costume Design statue for her beautifully bold work in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever; she had previously won the award for the first Black Panther movie, becoming the first Black person to do so.
Now, her many years of trendsetting, visually dynamic looks have been collected in a coffee table book, The Art of Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture, From Do the Right Thing to Black Panther. Written by Carter herself, the book offers a fascinating look at her inspirations and process. I spoke with Carter about the book, her use of color and commitment to extensive research.
Filmmaker: What was the process of putting this book together like?
Carter: I felt like people were always interested in hearing about the stories of my career. Working with Spike Lee, we were kind of mavericks. We were trying to be more present behind the camera and be more inclusive. When it came to this point of writing a book, it was a difficult decision to make. I was also doing costumes for Wakanda Forever, which was four times as much [work] as Black Panther, and we’d just lost Chadwick Boseman. I’d agreed to do it and thought I’d just sit down and type up all the stories I’d been telling about working with Spike and different opinions I had. It was really hard because I had to do it in my off hours, in between creating all that went into Wakanda Forever.
The sketches in the book start when I was really young. You see stuff from my early days with Spike and using an airbrush, but you can see the progression with getting illustrators onboard. I remember The Costumer’s Handbook from years ago—I really revered that book, because it gave me a little bit of everything as far as the designer’s experience. I wanted to create a book that would be as inspiring as I’d found this costume handbook.
Filmmaker: How do you bring pop cultural influences into your designs, and how do you feel your designs have, in turn, influenced pop culture?
Carter: When we were making Clockers in New York City, we had these boys who were kind of the hangout boys in the projects of Brooklyn. Spike really wanted to create some new, fresh ideas for them, different styles we could come up with. Sometimes they caught fire and other times they mimicked a lot of things that were already available—types of tennis shoes, all of that. So, we’d combine things and add a twist of something new to appeal to the youth, so it looks relatable but also has an element that’s funky or new or different. That’s always been part of what I’ve been asked to do as a designer. I remember going on interviews and verbatim being told that they wanted something brand new and trendsetting. You attempt to do it all the time, but not everything is hot. Some things are. With Do the Right Thing, there were saturated colors and things in pop culture like compression shorts and jerseys, and we also incorporated the saturated colors of Africa, so it did look trendy but also had the African diaspora feel to it, because we lived that and saw it in Brooklyn at the time.
Filmmaker: Can you speak a bit more about your approach to bringing bold colors to your work?
Carter: When I came into the costume design world in the late ’80s and early ’90s, filmmakers weren’t using a lot of color. It felt almost taboo to be vibrant, and here I was doing something like School Daze that had all kinds of colors going on. I almost felt like it was a scar in the beginning, that they weren’t films like the “real” costume designers were doing, which were more muted and subtle, with more grays and color staying in the background. When I look back at films from that time, that’s how they looked, except for this new generation of filmmakers that was side by side with hip-hop coming into the culture. It was a little louder and more vibrant and free. I have always tried to understand how to get color balance in my films.
Filmmaker: What’s your perspective on costuming for period films versus contemporary ones?
Carter: I understand the [difficulties] of contemporary and period and futuristic. However, when you’re doing a period piece, you have a set of rules, because it’s already lived and part of history. When you can create the past and really show people your point of view as well as how it actually was, it’s a feat. It’s not an easy thing to do. And a lot of times you don’t have the budget, since period films are supposedly not the ones that make the big dollars. With a contemporary project, you do have to dress everyone, but you make the rules, and you’re creating the world. That’s what makes period films more difficult. You can’t create the rules.
Filmmaker: What are some changes you’ve seen in the film industry over time?
Carter: There have been some changes for the good. I go into Studio Services, the major department floor that caters to the film industry, and where I go to check in and check out, now I see brown people in there. When I started, I was the only person of color going in. I wouldn’t see anybody who looked like me, and now I feel like maybe I’ve influenced people who come in. It’s a wonderful feeling that we have found a profession outside of what the norms have been for African-Americans.
Filmmaker: Where does one’s design process even begin working on a huge film like Black Panther?
Carter: It starts with lots of meetings and conversations, with big teams and lots of design review. For one character, we might do 50 to 100 illustrations and one sticks. It’s a collaborative effort. The decision is finalized by the director, but a whole group of people are analyzing it. Altogether, the design process takes months, the production process of creating the costumes before we start shooting takes months, and shooting takes months. It’s a good year or two of development and implementing.
Filmmaker: What does your research for your work entail?
Carter: There are several phases to research. Once you understand what you’re looking for, there are different avenues to go down. I’ve sometimes called historians at universities who give me a better sense of direction of how I should go with research about Black history or tribal customs. We had a West African historian for Wakanda Forever that told us about the use of white in funerals. Historians also guide you to websites. On Wakanda Forever the Dresden Codex and the Mayan Database were things historians told us about. My whole team will come together to examine books and research and we put everything in folders which are shared among the whole crew. You don’t know what you’re looking at when you look at a historic photo. Some of those photos were recreated by the colonizers to make them look like they were bringing Christianity to Pagan activities, but it isn’t the truth. You need to find somebody who can give you the truth.
Filmmaker: Do you have a costume that you feel most proud of?
Carter: I’m really proud of the Dora Milaje costumes [from Black Panther] for so many reasons. You could travel around the continent of Africa in that costume. It has beadwork, and it has the neck rings as armor and the jewelry inspired by the Ndebele of South Africa, and scarification done in a very sensitive way on the bodysuit, and the leather skirt of the Himba tribe. It has so many wonderful elements. It also has its own aesthetic, even though there are all these influences. They’re not in your face and overt. It’s very covert. It honors the female form without exploiting it, and that was an intention we had that I think we were able to accomplish. It really belongs to Wakanda.