How Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter Brought the Afrofuture to ‘Black Panther’
The Oscar-nominated designer’s vision for dressing Black Panther's characters marks a dazzling, African-inspired departure from the spandex of most big-screen superheroics.
The Oscar-nominated designer’s vision for the clothing of Black Panther marks a dazzling departure from the uniform spandex and neutral everyday wear of most big-screen superheroics.
The fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, where the film takes place and where Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) reigns, is said to be home to an invaluable metal, the jealously-guarded Vibranium, key to its worldwide technological superiority.
Really though, Wakanda’s most valuable resource might be another thing entirely—Carter’s work. It is home to the most ludicrously best-dressed people on earth.
There is the eye-poppingly ornate armor of the Dora Milaje, the all-female warrior force, adorned with chevron patterns and neck rings reminiscent of those worn by Ndebele women.
There is the alluring grandiosity of Zulu-inspired headpieces worn by queen mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), for whom Carter looked to Winnie Mandela for inspiration.
There is Nakia’s (Lupita Nyong’o) sumptuously textured, kente cloth-inspired green gown, fit for a Bond girl. And the shaman’s garb Zuri (Forest Whitaker) wears, drawn from both Japanese high fashion and ancient Nigerian traditions. And of course, there is the Black Panther himself, armed with a new and improved bulletproof Vibranium-woven suit—and his enemy, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), a wolf in a shearling coat (and glasses).
Carter’s designs, pulled together with a 100-person team of illustrators, designers, jewelry makers and other talent, have already poised her as a shoo-in Oscar nomination next year; she is a favorite among some to win, in fact, which would be a Marvel first in any category. (She was previously nominated in 1992 for her work on Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and again in 1997 for Steven Spielberg’s Amistad.)
The Monday before Black Panther’s release, however, she was feted in more intimate quarters: among shoe, jewelry and clothing designers showing off their own Africa-infused pieces at a New York Fashion Week presentation titled “Welcome to Wakanda.”
Dressed in a simple black turtleneck and pink coat, Carter held court in front of an assemblage of mannequins, each decked in pieces riffing on the idea of Afrofuturism.
Shimmering gold jewelry by L.A.-based designer Douriean Fletcher (whose work also appears in the film) gleamed off to one side of her.
Behind her, an embroidered Cushnie Et Ochs gown with a thigh-high slit stood coquettishly beside a feathered kente cloth minidress by Sophie Theallet and a sequin-studded, snakeskin-reminiscent jumpsuit and overcoat by LaQuan Smith. A coat, scarf and suit, each garment distinctively patterned, offered a dashing menswear option, courtesy of Nigerian designer Walé Oyéjidé.
Each piece recalls a certain moment, character, or look in the film. (To see the queenly Angela Bassett in that LaQuan Smith coat!) As Carter explained, Black Panther draws on a diverse spectrum of indigenous African sources, from the Xhosa, Suri, Dinka and Tuareg tribes to the Dogon of Mali. Heightening the look of native garb into something “bigger and greater and different,” into science-fiction in a Marvel film, Carter says, is “an honor.”
“African influences haven’t been well-represented,” she told The Daily Beast. “The continent is such a rich resource creatively. I felt that no one really took the dive and decided to be inspired by the Maasi or the Turkana and infuse that in the futuristic model.”
Not that she thought much of Marvel films—or superheroes in general—before coming aboard Black Panther; this after years spent dressing fictional versions of real-life heroes, from Martin Luther King Jr. in Ava DuVernay’s Selma to Tina Turner, also played by Angela Bassett in 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It.
“I didn’t think that I wanted to do superheroes because I thought they were one-dimensional,” Carter said. “I thought that they were these stretchy suits, the guys had the special powers and they went around throwing people into walls, basically.” Discovering room within Black Panther for real costume storytelling was “totally freaky.”
The fantastical African sci-fi culture of Wakanda, as envisioned by director Ryan Coogler, allowed Carter to combine elements worn by disparate tribes without fear of appropriation, she added.
Shoppers in Ghana and South Africa brought her artifacts, textiles and jewelry to work with, according to The Hollywood Reporter, along with a few precious items from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
All of it fostered the creation of an aesthetic both intuitive and unprecedented—an approximation of the look of an insular African nation with no history of colonialism or interference from white supremacy; a kingdom allowed to flourish and surpass the rest of the world. “Being original and making things from scratch does help move that idea forward along,” Carter said.
Coogler chose the color purple as an emblem of T’Challa’s royal family, while green, for instance, signals the river tribe from which Nakia hails.
Nyong’o’s character is positioned as a love interest for T’Challa, though in practice she is more like a “chameleon,” gifted at blending in with any type of dress, role or surrounding—a costumer’s dream.
“She starts out as this war dog, she goes to the Warrior Falls and she’s in her traditional outfit doing these great traditional dance moves,” recalled Carter, “then she goes to the CIA and she’s in boots and a jean jacket, then the casino where she has her Bond moment. How multidimensional is that to present for a female in a movie?”
None of the women of Wakanda are so easily reduced, in fact.
Nyong’o, Bassett, Danai Gurira (as Okoye, the fiercest and most skilled of the Dora Milaje), and Letitia Wright (as T’Challa’s genius kid sister, Shuri) form a magnificent quartet, unburdened by contrived rivalries or reasons to dim their shine.
In a genre where women are often shoved into thankless roles as emotional caretakers, these black women center themselves onscreen again and again. Carter’s costumes do each of them seemingly effortless justice.
In her hands, a female warrior’s uniform must actually serve to protect its wearer.
“We really wanted Okoye to have this costume that was not necessarily a bustier and a cheerleading skirt,” she said. “We wanted her uniform to be a real thing, a real uniform that went to her wrists down to her ankles and had armor but we made the armor look like jewelry. We created the harness to wrap the body in a really beautiful way, to show off the feminine form, and we created a tabard that had the beadwork of the Maasi tribe.”
As the genius of the royal family and head of the Wakanda Design Group, teenage Shuri’s costumes (at least at the start of the film) reflect a self-conscious departure from tradition. “You meet her and she’s not interested in being in anything traditional,” Carter explained. “So we didn’t give her any beads, any kente cloth, nothing like that. All of her materials have a vibe of being eco-friendly and forward-thinking.”
To achieve the perfection of queen mother Ramonda’s white shoulder mantle and matching headdress, Carter wove together special fibers with the world’s largest 3D printer in Belgium.
To find jewelry fit for a queen though, she turned to a friend: Dourian Fletcher, whom she worked with briefly on 2016’s Roots reboot.
Fletcher’s pieces for the film include a stunningly ornate gold and amethyst necklace worn by Bassett (seen in this poster for the film) and some of the armor of the Dora Milaje.
Her capsule "Black Panther" jewelry collection evokes the regality of those pieces. “I really wanted it to speak to this aesthetic of these prideful, resilient, strong, warrior-like women,” she said. ”I wanted to create something that when someone wore it, they felt like those women.”
The men of Wakanda make fierce fashion statements of their own. Killmonger’s charisma practically leaps off the screen, powered by the personality of his clothes.
At the release of the film’s first trailer, one Twitter critic summed up Michael B. Jordan’s newly terrifying aesthetic in three words: “Your college boyfriend.”
“We know about him as being this high intellect, but also this kind of urban guy, unapologetic,” Carter said of our first impressions of Killmonger.
“He’s got drop-crotch pants and Balmain boots on and a cool denim jacket that’s lined with shearling and glasses, so he immediately becomes this character that has these layers and this connection and you immediately want to know what his story is.”
Aside from his new Panther suit, T’Challa also looks purposefully sharp. In a pivotal scene, he addresses the world in a power suit and scarf designed by Oyéjidé, who is creative director of the brand Ikiré Jones.
The suit, Oyéjidé said, is meant to inspire “confidence and power and strength,” traits that resonate with a character known as “noble and good-hearted, intelligent and kingly.”
The significance of a black Marvel superhero wearing a proudly African-inspired design on the world stage, in a film anchored by a nearly all-black cast and deeply infused with black creative talent is not lost on Oyéjidé.
“The film is touching on a cultural inflection point that we seem to be in at the moment,” he told The Daily Beast. “Not just people of color but women as well and people of non-conforming genders. We’re at a moment where we’re tired of waiting to be let into places. We’re at this point speaking out for ourselves, we’re creating our platforms. And so if institutions wanna hop on, that’s great, but we’re doing it for ourselves.”