Ruth E. Carter: Costumes that make film history

Ruth E. Carter is the first African American costume designer to win an Oscar. She talks about her first sewing machine, Black Panther, Afrofuturism and superheroines.

Kerstin Zilm
Ruth Carter in front of many clothes
From the attic to the Oscars: "My mum didn’t have money to buy me miscellaneous fabrics and things. So, I would just repurpose from old clothes in the attic", costume designer Ruth E. Carter remembers. © Damon Casarez/Redux/laif

When she received her second Academy Award, Ruth E. Carter’s gown shimmered in the spotlight, just like the golden statuette she was proudly holding. Her dress was strapless – which in Carter’s costumes is a sign of feminine strength, beauty and vulnerability. Her white earrings were reminiscent of the crown of Queen Ramonda, the ruler of Wakanda. And as always, she was wearing her trademark glasses with wide, dark rims.

Like for all important moments in her life, the costume designer had come prepared. She read her acceptance speech from a card that was the exact same shade as her gown. “Thank you to the Academy for recognising the superhero that is a black woman. She endures. She loves. She overcomes. She is every woman in this film.” Carter dedicated the Oscar to her mother, who had recently passed away. Her mother had also been a Black superheroine, she said. “This past week Mabel Carter became an ancestor. She was 101.” The audience gave the costume designer a standing ovation.

Ruth E. Carter during her acceptance speech at the Oscars
"So I feel that this win opens the door for other young costume designers may not think that this industry is for them and hopefully they’ll see me and they’ll see my story and they’ll think that they can win an Oscar too." © KEYSTONE/AFP/Patrick T. Fallon

But Ruth E. Carter hadn’t always been so warmly received. For a long time she felt like an underdog in Hollywood, she explains four months later on the occasion of another career milestone: the publication of her book The Art of Ruth E. Carter, Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture. She has come to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures to present it. 

Spike Lee in a shite suit
One of the most important directors of his generation, Spike Lee was among the first to bring African-American biographies to the big screen. © Xinhua Xinhua/eyevine/laif

In her book, which features numerous photos and drawings, Carter describes her life from childhood through to her experience with Black Panther. She describes how her mother, siblings, and male and female Black artists inspired her with their work ethic and stories. She talks about icons like Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o, who taught her to give her best. 

Ruth E. Carter's career in film began in 1987, in Brooklyn, New York, with Director Spike Lee. They’ve since made 14 films together, and are now like brother and sister, says the costume designer in an interview. In the beginning, she says, they purposely positioned themselves as outsiders. "Spike did not like Hollywood." He had a clear vision for his production company 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks. The name says it all: it refers to the US government’s promise to give former slaves 40 acres of land and a mule each as reparations after the end of the Civil War. That promise was broken. To this day, the US government has still not compensated the descendants of the men, women and children who were enslaved.

Untold stories

"Spike told me, we were going to work hard at producing content that we were not seeing on screen at the time. We were not seeing ourselves and true representation of what we knew, what we saw in our neighbourhoods." says Carter. Lee wanted to bring the voices, culture and expressions of African Americans to the screen. Carter, who until then had worked mostly in theatres and more recently in Los Angeles, knew that this was where she was meant to be.

Ruth Carter's costume designs for the movie "Malcolm X" by Spike Lee
They brought her her first Oscar: Carter's designs for "Malcolm X." © KEYSTONE/ Invision/AP/Chris Pizzello

Her first costume was a t-shirt with Nelson Mandela on it. Laurence Fishburne wore it in School Daze. The team on the set, both in front of and behind the camera, was diverse. Carter felt encouraged and challenged at the same time. "We considered ourselves very different from the Hollywood machine. Up to my nomination for Malcolm X, if people of colour were being nominated, it was mainly for acting, and not for the crafts. We actually created a space and that was intentional." 

She had come a long way since her childhood in Springfield in Massachusetts, where she grew up with seven siblings and a single mother. Despite her excellent school leaving certificate, Mabel Carter was only able to find work as a domestic worker, and encouraged her daughter to follow her dreams. For a long time, those dreams did not involve costumes. But when she was nine, Ruth found a Singer sewing machine in a piece of furniture she had mistaken for a table. “She didn’t have money to buy me miscellaneous fabrics and things. So, I would just repurpose from old clothes in the attic. And I found that really actually fun and inspiring”, she recalls. She also remembers not wanting to wear her first homemade item of clothing, a denim jacket. She gave the jacket to a boy in her neighbourhood. "He fit it perfectly. He was so proud of it. And I was like wow, he really likes this thing."

The costume for the character of T'Challa in Black Panther
Darker than superman, but also more stylish: For her extraordinarily detailed costumes, Carter studied the garments of the Maasai, the Lesotho and other African tribes. © Justin T. Gellerson /NYT/Redux/laif

Ruth E. Carter found herself increasingly drawn to art that dealt with the history and current reality of African Americans. She enrolled at Hampton University, a historically Black college in Virginia. She wanted to work in theatres with people who were hearing impaired, and so she took theatre courses and acted in stage productions put on by the college. When her professor gave a role she had auditioned for to another student, she was disappointed and asked him why. Today, she laughs when she thinks about how he dodged her question. “He said, you know, hey there, we have costumes, you want to maybe do costumes.” Reluctantly, she agreed - and that decision changed her life. "And I turned the key to the costume shop and found my workshop, my heaven. And I did every play at Hampton after that."

Ruth E. Carter is holding a photo of one of her designs
Ruth E. Carter has collaborated on more than 40 films. Her work on Black Panther has brought her international fame. © KEYSTONE/Invision/AP/Chris Pizzello

From Betty and Malcolm X to Martin Luther King: Clothes make the (wo)man

Denzel Washington faces the camera as Malcolm X
Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" is a three-hour tribute to the human rights activist. The movie was released only nine months after his assassination in 1965. © Sunset Box/Allpix/laif

Not long afterwards, Carter accepted a summer job at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation’s Living History programme, where she started to develop personal trademarks that would play an important role in her career. These included doing extensive research, paying strong attention to detail and creating historically accurate costumes. Her job at the largest museum dedicated to US colonial history was to portray two historical women for visitors – Jenny, a slave, and Betty Wallace, a seamstress who had bought her freedom. Carter researched their backgrounds in library and court archives. And based on what she learned, she then adjusted the museum’s costumes. As a slave, she was barefoot and gathered beans in a knotted apron. As Betty, she wore shoes and a carefully sewn dress, smoked a pipe and told people about her situation whenever she had the chance: “That my husband is still a slave, and children were separated from me, enslaved on a neighbouring plantation and that I save for buying their freedom. How we were separated was very important for me to talk about, even if it was not exactly what maybe the foundation wanted.”

To this day, she will not design a costume until she has done enough research and talked to directors and actors to ensure she has a full understanding of the character. In preparation for Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X, which starred Denzel Washington, she read letters the activist wrote while imprisoned at Norfolk Prison Colony. “They were mostly letters to the warden asking to be moved to another prison and to have access to better libraries”, she says. The letters and other documents like medical records and prison photos helped her better understand the voice of the civil rights activist. “I felt comfortable about making decisions about what Malcolm X was wearing from when we did not have pictures.” At dinner with his six daughters, for example, or in the bedroom with his wife.

Carter and director Coogler look critically at an actor on the filming set of Black Panther
The finishing touch: Carter and director Ryan Coogler on the set of "Black Panther". © KEYSTONE/Everett Collection

In 1992, her work on the film earned Ruth E. Carter her first Oscar nomination. She became a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Hollywood had taken notice of the African American costume designer. Steven Spielberg invited her to the studio for a conversation while shooting Jurassic Park. He wanted to talk about his next project: Amistad, a movie based on true events about a revolt on a slave ship in 1839. As always, Carter had prepared for the conversation, and shared some costume suggestions for the West African rebels. “I really wanted to show them in their true essence because they were not slaves. They were Africans. So, I looked up the culture, and I saw that many of them would have been Muslim and wrap their hair.” she says. Carter got the job and in 1997, received a second Oscar nomination for the film.

Black and white picture of Martin Luther King Jr.
Another idol: Spike Lee's "Selma" recounts the life of Martin Luther King. © Lynn Pelham / Curtis/CAMERA PRESS/laif

Fifteen years later, Carter once again spoke with icons of the US civil rights movement, this time for Director Ava DuVernay’s Selma: Martin Luther King. She also took inspiration for the costumes from photos in Ebony magazine, which has targeted a Black readership since 1945. “The Selma march had to be 100 percent perfectly accurate.” she recalls. She also remembers the oppressive heat during filming in Alabama: “I was on set in front of the march, sweating with an Ebony magazine of the march. And I was like, you come up front, you stay right there. I need you to put this hat on because I see it on the picture.” The responsibility that comes with making a historical film, she says, is enormous, and has increased in recent years. “Films have a profound effect on people and now that they’re taking Black history out of the classroom, it’s even more important when you get the opportunity to do it authentically.”

Afrofuturism: How roots inform the future

Ruth E. Carter has collaborated on more than 40 films. Her work on Black Panther and Black Panther – Wakanda Forever has brought her international fame. But anyone who thinks she only designs costumes for black dramas and superhero films is mistaken.  She has collaborated, for example, on a number of comedies starring Eddie Murphy, such as Dr. Doolittle, Daddy Day Care, Dolemite is My Name and Coming 2 America, as well as on the action comedy Keeping up with the Joneses. She was also the costume designer for the first season of the western television series Yellowstone.

Detailed belt and beads of one of the costumes
From fiction to artefact: Today, the costume for the Dora Milaje warriors from the "Black Panther" movie are shown in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. © Justin T. Gellerson /NYT/Redux/laif

But working on Marvel’s Black Panther and the costumes for the Kingdom of Wakanda brought her full circle, Carter says. “My early days from Colonial Williamsburg up to now, they prepared me for understanding our past, our journey, our future. Black Panther feels like it was the sum of all of my experiences.” Carter’s modern interpretations of traditional garments made a fundamental contribution to the film’s success. They have also made the costume designer a key contributor to Afrofuturism.

The term Afrofuturism was coined in 1994 by cultural critic Mark Dery in his essay Black to the Future. In it, Dery examines African American culture, colonialism, technology and science fiction, and asks: “Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?” Afrofuturism does just that. It creates visions that combine the powers, rituals and knowledge of African ancestors with cutting-edge technology. It fuses the experiences of the African diaspora with fictional African nations that have been spared colonialism and its subsequent traumas. It challenges traditional historiography and science fiction literature, which has historically been dominated by white authors.

Black Panther Darstellerin Danai Gurira und Regisseur Ryan Coogler
Afrofuturism fuses the experiences of the African diaspora with fictional African nations that have been spared colonialism and its subsequent traumas. © KEYSTONE/Everett Collection/

And although Ruth E. Carter had been dealing with issues like these all her life, Black Panther was a huge challenge for her. Why? Well for one thing, it involved entering into the Marvel world. “Marvel is like the CIA, super big, super intimidating, and everything’s top-secret!” is how she describes her first impressions.

She was nervous before her first meeting with the director Ryan Coogler and the movie’s producers. She needed them to give her a Black Panther crash course. Unlike her brothers, she had never been very interested in superheroes. And when the day came and she was finally sitting across from Coogler, she found herself struggling to get the folder that contained her costume designs to open. The director cut the tension by telling her how he had watched Malcolm X with his father when he was a boy. “I remember people brought their kids to see the movie, they had been waiting for so long to see this story told. And I remember I sat on my dad’s lap. And I remembered the costumes.” Ruth E. Carter immediately felt a sense of kinship with Ryan Coogler. Looking at him, she saw a young Spike Lee. In hindsight, she says it was destiny that brought them together to create the architecture, society, culture and values of Wakanda. “I felt like I had interviewed for Black Panther when he was a little boy. Sometimes things are just meant for you, right?”

Telling stories to help others understand

Carter created more than just clothing for the people of Wakanda. She gave African Americans a new vision of themselves, their community and their future. And many of the fans who have come to the book launch at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles express their gratitude. In the foyer of the theatre, they queue for over an hour to have Carter sign a copy of her book. Many of them wear clothes inspired by costumes in Black Panther: flowing robes in the style of Queen Ramonda; beaded belts inspired by the bodyguards; bright colours and patterns like those worn by the members of the Wakanda tribes. Ruth Carter laughs, listens and takes time to talk with her fans.  

Two hours later, in the sold-out movie theatre, the audience welcomes the two-time Oscar winner with a standing ovation that lasts several minutes. In return, she shares countless anecdotes from her life behind the scenes. For example, that Eddy Murphy hates it when people take his measurements. And that Samuel L. Jackson is the opposite. He could spend hours in the fitting room experimenting with costumes. Carter also sheds light on how some of her elaborate costume designs were created. For example, the crown worn by Queen Ramonda, who was played by Angela Bassett. “We made the queen’s crown, we 3D printed it. And that way, we combined the technology, the tradition, to show that Wakanda was in Africa, was forward-thinking.”

Carter's designs for the movie Black Panther
"The opportunity to infuse the different cultures around Africa was a huge honour", Carter says about Black Panther. © KEYSTONE/ Invision/AP/Chris Pizzello

More than a hundred blankets from South Africa had to be thinned out by hand so that the actors could move better in action scenes. For the Black Panther sequel, she studied Mayan culture. The underwater shots posed new challenges in terms of materials. More than a thousand people contributed to the costumes for the Marvel films, Carter says, including sculptors, woodcarvers, goldsmiths and weavers.

She dedicates a lot of time to answering the audience’s questions. No, there will be no Ruth Carter collection in clothing shops. Fast fashion has given rise to too many mountains of waste. No, she is not working on a film at the moment because she is supporting the people on strike in Hollywood. Yes, the film industry should be much more diverse and female filmmakers should be better paid.

As the event nears its end, Carter tells the audience that being able to turn a Black superhero played by Chadwick Boseman into an African king was the biggest honour of her life. And then she repeats a line from her first Oscar speech: "My career is built with passion to tell stories that allow us to know ourselves better."

Ruth Carter is holding an Oscar
In March 2023, Ruth E. Carter made history - as the first black woman to win two Oscars. © John Angelillo/UPI/laif