Ruth E. Carter, the two-time Oscar-nominated costume designer behind Selma, Amistad, and Roots, has been dressing African-American heroes for decades. But Marvel’s Black Panther, a costumed superhero who rules the fictional African nation of Wakanda, presented a unique and exciting challenge.
Ruth talked me through the design process, detailing the wide-ranging influences and inspiration behind the intricate, stunning costumes of Black Panther.
Did you know anything about Black Panther before Marvel approached you?
I grew up in a household with five brothers, so it wasn’t like I hadn’t heard of the Black Panther. But I had to do a bit of studying to reacquaint myself. I was very intimidated by this legend, which I knew very little about.
I happened to be working with Reggie Hudlin at the time, and he wrote one of the quintessential Black Panthercomics. So I’m chatting with him on set, he’s got his monitor, shooting Marshal, Chadwick Boseman is in frame, and I’m like, guess what? I got Black Panther and I’m standing next to you, who wrote the comic, and this lead, who is the Black Panther. So what you got to tell me? (Laughs).
What was the biggest source of inspiration for you, on a personal level?
That I could bring ancient Africa to the foreground in a way that’s never been seen before in cinema. We weren’t doing Coming to America. It really hadn’t been dealt with in this way. You had to imagine a place that didn’t get colonized by the Dutch or the British. So what would that be like? How would their culture stay intact, and what would it look like? It was inspiring for me to know that I could do it.
What did your research consist of?
I started with the comics. The team helped me understand the history behind Wakanda, the Vibranium. I got the impression that there was a broad brush, really an open field for me to infuse African culture, modern ideas, fashion, and character. Afropunk and Afrofuturistic fashion is a good analogy for some parts of Wakanda.
In the sixties, when people had afros, women were wearing wraps on their heads – they were infusing African fashion with urban fashion. That’s been around, but we reimagined it in a punk vein. It’s not so much a fashion as it a political statement, about freedom of expression, being unapologetic about who you are and how you adorn yourself.
Afrofuturism was the closest we came to following a model that was out there already. Other than that, most of the characters of Wakanda have their own unique style. I was inspired by a few fashion designers – the pleating of Issey Miyake, the forward-thinking of Stella McCartney, and the shapes of Gareth Pugh.
And, of course, so many African tribes were an inspiration to me – the Masai, the Suri tribe, the Northern African Tuareg. The oxidized red clay, the vibrant colors of Africa. You can look at these beautiful history books, at what they did, and you can translate it, seamlessly, to a futuristic model.
This was costume design on a different scale from the rest of Marvel’s films because you’re not just designing the characters, you’re designing an entire culture. Did this change your approach to the work?
I kind of approach everything in a similar way, of research, and creating a story around a central character. Knowing where they’re from, where they walk. So it’s knowing Black Panther, King T’Challa, in his everyday life. What’s it like living in Wakanda, in the Royal Palace? What’s the community like?
I‘ve been doing superheroes for a long time – Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It. It’s important that I like the costumes I’m creating, not just following somebody else’s model, that I’m actually liking what I’m creating.
It was very important to me that this felt real. This is not a comedy. It is a superhero film, a fantasy, but it’s relatable – I wanted everything to feel real.
Were you involved in the design of Black Panther’s superhero suit?
Ryan Meinerding designed the suit – his genius has been well established at Marvel, he’s designed many super suits. He makes the sketch, while I provide the material and oversee the manufacture of the suit.
My contribution was what I call the Okavango pattern. I looked at the Civil War suit, and it had a texture that was kind of similar to the Sacred Geometry of ancient African. So I decided to infuse my own Sacred Geometry by using the pyramid – the triangle is used in so much art throughout the continent, especially in the region of Mali and Botswana.
What was the difference in designing the heroic King T’Challa to his villainous antagonist Killmonger?
Killmonger is an unapologetic street kid. He’s knowledgeable, educated, but you wouldn’t be able to tell at first glance. So he’s a little gaudier, there’s a swagger to his walk. His suit is gold, he’s got spots, his necklace is gold.
While T’Challa is of a royal pedigree, raised and trained to be a leader, so there’s an elegance to his look. Both are highly educated and aware of the resource in Wakanda – they come from two different walks of life but they have similar components.
How did you convey the impression of a more technologically advanced society?
It’s a tricky line to walk. You don’t want to overstep, with shapes, and end up doing something like Star Trek. You don’t want to start dressing people in pointy collars, or silver boots. You don’t wanna go down that road because it’s been done before.
I really relied on the Visual Development team at Marvel to infuse the technology. I mostly focused on Vibranium. For example, the border tribe warriors protect themselves with Vibranium-infused blankets, blankets with a silver sheen. Vibranium is their richest metal – it’s the platinum of Wakanda, let’s say, and I could easily infuse it into the design.
Are there any subtle details you included that the audience might not notice?
The Dora Milaje wear tabards adorned with little talismans of protection. That’s something I added to give each girl a signature on their piece. Most of them have an African symbol, or a piece of jade, or amethyst. Lupita [Nyong’o] wanted an alligator on hers. I felt like it could be a personal thing, or a family sigil. When a Dora can no longer fight, maybe she trains her daughter, or granddaughter, and passes it down to her.
When I looked at pieces of armor, Japanese armor especially, it looked like it was handmade with technique and style, passed down through the generations. I wanted to bring some of that to the Dora costumes.
Wakanda is a fictional African nation – did that make your job easier, or more difficult?
More difficult, because fiction can feel like fiction. And I didn’t want it to feel like fiction – I didn’t want it to feel like something that would age badly.
So I rooted myself in fashion and a lot of times, fashion, in its simplicity, can have a forward feel to it. I wanted the shapes to be classic. To show a community that was eco-friendly, environmentally sound, with an avant-garde style. A real place that you could go and be comfortable, as opposed to going to the moon.