Costume designer Ruth E. Carter didn’t sign on to Black Panther with much knowledge about Wakanda. But once she learned about the fictional world that the Black Panther was from, Carter says she was just as excited as the comic books' fans. And not just because Marvel was making history by bringing the story of the first Black superhero to the big screen. For Carter, this was a full circle moment.
As a veteran of Spike Lee's production company 40 Acres and a Mule, where Carter outfitted School Daze, Malcolm X, Do The Right Thing, and Jungle Fever, Carter is no stranger to creating costumes with a deeper meaning.
“Our aesthetic was always to bring about positive visuals to the African diaspora in this country,” she says. “And to dispel stereotypes. To be about a forward-thinking community that empowered the Black community, women, and even natural hair.”
For Carter, the Ryan Coogler-directed Black Panther is a culmination of all the work she’s done up until this point. In addition to Lee’s films, she’s worked on Amistad, Rosewood, Love & Basketball, Baby Boy, and, yes, B*A*P*S.
“I’ve been dressing superheroes my entire career!” says the 57-year-old. “Malcolm X is a superhero. Martin Luther King, Tina Turner — they were each superheroes. My career has examined royalty and taken us from Africa to slavery in Amistad, to land ownership in Rosewood, to Malcolm X, and Selma, which had a narrative of leadership and empowerment. I feel like Black Panther makes the circle complete; it’s imagining what this area of Africa would look like if it wasn’t colonized. The fantasy version of my career.”
So where does one begin when they're outfitting such regality? If you’re Carter, you start with Etsy. She says she wanted to work with high-end designers, but because she needed several duplicates of each look, it was easier to shop online. Thanks to the help of well-placed assistants all over the world, costumes for Black Panther came from Africa, India, and South Korea. On set, she worked with Douriean Fletcher, who designed almost all of the African-inspired jewelry in the film.
As for T'Challa, aka the Black Panther (played by Chadwick Boseman), Carter relied on knits to remind the audience of the superhero’s elegant prowess. Most of his outfits — aside from the bulletproof suit made of the country's fictional precious metal, vibranium — were tailored to Boseman’s body in long, draping silhouettes, giving him what Carter refers to as “a royal stroll.” King T’Challa’s younger sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright) is a rebellious spirit who resists traditions, so Carter reflected that in her wardrobe, dressing her in technologically-advanced fibers with a mesh quality to act as a modern day lab coat. Because Shuri is way too cool to wear anything that's standard issue version.
The king’s protectors shine especially bright on the big screen — and that was intentional. Carter tapped into the real Maasai Tribe of Kenya for inspiration, as they were known for beautiful beadwork and vibrant red-tones. “Danai Gurira’s character (Okoye) wore mainly red in all of the versions of the comics, so we kept the red, but I bumped it up so it would be in your face,” Carter says, adding that the female warriors’ armor needed to feel like jewelry.
In one next-level fight scene in particular, Okoye floats in a beautiful red gown (below). “That red dress was everything!” Carter says. Her team made several versions in their workshop in Atlanta so the gown could go through an intense process to guarantee she would be able to move. “I can’t even count how many costumes we were working with, because there were so many multiples of so many things.”
At Coogler’s directive, Lupita Nyong'o’s character, Nakia, wears mostly green, inspired by the Suri people of Africa, a river tribe. “That was really hard in one particular CIA scene,” Carter says, explaining that she had to dye a jean jacket green and pair it with an army green tank top. To finish off the look, she sprayed Nakia's boots green. “We were always doing some kind of green exploration with her and it turned out really nicely. It was a very wearable color for her.”
It’s that sort of African influence sprinkled throughout the film that Carter hopes will leave an impression that lasts far beyond Wakanda and Black Panther. “I want people to have a new vision of the continent of Africa,” she says. “I want people to understand it's not just this dark place where everyone dresses the same with bones in their nose, living in a glass hunt. People need to see this is a modern continent. It has a voice and an aesthetic. We just put it on blast.”