If you don’t know about iconic costume designer Ruth E. Carter, you’ve undoubtedly been living under a rock. You may not know her by name but you’ve definitely seen her designs. With a career spanning over 35 years, the wardrobe stylist got her feet wet in Spike Lee’s School Daze and her career took off from there. She went on to work on classic movies such as The Five Heartbeats, What’s Love Got to Do With It and Baps, to name just a few. But it was her work in the MCU—namely for the Black Panther franchise—that secured her name in our hearts.
In 2019, Carter won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design for her work in Black Panther. So it’s no surprise that she would be nominated for the same award for her work on the follow-up to the original, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which is now on Blu-Ray and DVD.
Carter is a powerhouse storyteller. Her nuance for color and texture is next level. Her faithfulness to sharing the past, present and future of Black culture shines through her work. Here, she chats with EBONY about working behind the scenes on Wakanda Forever, where she derives her information and what it’s like being an Oscar-winning costume designer.
EBONY: What was the inspiration behind your costumes in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever?
Ruth Carter: The costumes are a tribute to tribal Africa and post-classic Maya. The Wakandan costumes are inspired by various regions of Africa and the Talokanil by the post-classic Maya culture of Mesoamerica. We created form and fashion using some of the same techniques that indigenous tribes used and also incorporated new technologies to create both worlds.
The funeral scene was beautiful. How did you come up with it?
We were advised by historians that many African funerals have two ceremonies: one small and intimate and another larger one depending on how influential the deceased was. We were also educated that the color worn in these ceremonies was white. It ended up being the color that unified Wakanda in their grief for King T'Challa. To create that emotion and individualized looks for each character, we had teams of artisans creating a tapestry of identifiers through texture, embroidery, aging, dying, painting, beading, patterns and accessories. Our hearts poured into this scene because our real-life hero had become our ancestor.
What was the preparation work like? What did it all entail? What kinds of books and films did you use as research?
For a Marvel film, the starting reference points are the comic books. Director Ryan Coogler wanted these cultures represented as never colonized. As I looked through the lens of how we can maintain authenticity while transforming into something futuristic, I studied Africa throughout time. I immersed myself in all elements of African aesthetics and the regions it originated from. In the second film, we elevated our Wakandan looks. To create the Talokanil, we teamed up with historians who are experts in Mayan archaeology and culture who could help us interpret the language and understand the details so we could translate them to the story authentically. We referenced the Mayavase Database, a unique and extensive archive of Mayan knowledge, resources, history, art and understanding of their civilization and roots. We examined Maya codices, the Dresden Codex, paintings, artifacts, hieroglyphics, Janias figurines and pottery of Mayan artisans who detailed incredible meaning and stories in their designs.
You collaborated with Adidas on some of the bespoke costumes for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. How did the Adidas collaboration come about?
Adidas has a program called School for Experiential Education in Design (S.E.E.D.). Its goal is to create more opportunities for BIPOC footwear designers. They resemble many Shuris and Riris in the program. Adidas approached Marvel and me about collaborations. Wakandan attire feels futuristic and wearable. The pieces the S.E.E.D designers were able to come up with feel like wearable Adidas art pieces that are innovative and allow for movement.
Congratulations on being nominated again in the Oscar's Costume Design category for Black Panther—but this time for the sequel Wakanda Forever. How does it feel?
To be recognized by my peers like this is an honor. I'm very happy and grateful that this recognition comes for telling African and Indigenous-inspired stories through costume design. In this film, we took it to a whole new level! This makes me proud of our department and everyone who had a hand in making the costumes.
Watch Carter gives us insight into the technicalities of designing the costumes in this behind-the-scenes clip.