Political, radical, current: how I dressed the cast of 'Black Panther'
Acclaimed costume designer Ruth E. Carter on bringing the world of Wakanda to life through fashion and why her costumes resonate strongly with African audiences
There’s no shortage of excitement from comic book fans and ordinary movie fans alike when it comes to Black Panther. The film has already broken records, selling more tickets on day one of presales than any Marvel movie before it.
This is the 18th outing in the Marvel cinematic universe, starting with 2008’s Iron Man, so it’s no small feat that this film, directed by Ryan Coogler, responsible for Fruitvale Station and Rocky sequel Creed, is breaking such records.
Black Panther is also probably the most stylish of all Marvel movies, which only adds to the excitement.
Fans – from Atlanta to Soweto – have been tweeting about attending the movie’s theatrical openings in costume. This is no doubt because of the masterful, zeitgeisty interpretation of the mythical Wakandan nation’s style of dress by none other than two-time Academy Award nominated costume designer Ruth E. Carter.
She was attending the Johannesburg leg of the Afropunk festival when we met for coffee to chat about her work on Black Panther.
“I think for black Africans, you are probably relating strongly to it because you recognise the prints, the beads, and know what they mean. But for African-Americans, it’s different,” she says. “They relate to it because it’s a Marvel comic book film and they haven’t seen that done with black people. They are excited to have a superhero that looks like them – we’ve been needing a superhero! We need somebody to fly in and take charge like the Black Panther.”
The Black Panther first appeared in the comic book Fantastic Four #52 back in 1966. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s character predates the formation of the Black Panther Party by a few months, but the cultural significance of the comic book is not lost when one considers it came out at a time when the fight for civil rights had intensified, and ‘black power’ became a rallying cry.
Born in 1960, Carter had a “bird’s eye view” of how the civil rights movement was playing out in her immediate environment. “My brothers were older than me and they were involved in black student unions. They were all about the movement!” she says. “I, as a young child, witnessed the whole thing – my brothers with their fists up, my one brother with his afro and leather jackets and my other brother going to Vietnam. Throughout many of my films, it’s that period and the civil right movement that I’ve had to tap into.”
Films Carter has worked on read like a listicle of cinematic works that are affirming to black people, specifically in the context of a Hollywood that’s not always genuine in its portrayal of blackness and black people in general. They include Malcolm X, Bamboozled, Love & Basketball, Selma and Do the Right Thing.
Delving into Selma, the movie about the 1965 civil rights march that turned violent, Carter says: “I wanted it to look exactly like it was in real life, but I also wanted to know why they dressed the way they did. Peaceful protest is what they wanted to do. They put their hands in the pockets of their trench coats as a sign of peaceful protest. I call it garments of protest.
“Dress was a very important part of the civil rights movement. A lot of the time people gathered at their local churches before marches. It wasn’t like they necessarily dressed up for it, but I feel like it was as a result of the religious movement for civil rights, led by Dr. King, and so they dressed a certain way.”
It was by sheer coincidence that Carter ended up finding herself in the costume design business. An acting major, she had just lost a college play audition when the professor who was directing asked if she would be keen to make costume instead. “I guess he suggested I do it because there was a void,” Carter says.
“Because I had sewn as a kid, I accepted. It was a Moliere piece – Would-Be Gentlemen – but we modernised it. I started right away, going to the fabric store, reading the script, creating patterns, getting in touch with my fellow students who were the actors, and before I knew it, I’d become known on campus as the costume designer.”
Regarding Wakanda, the fictional African nation Black Panther is set in, Carter’s approach was to, in her own words, “highlight the diaspora”. The designer draws similarities between the current climate as far as race relations in America are concerned, to what the civil rights movement of the 60s represented, and she believes highlighting the diaspora was central to what the civil rights activists of the 60s did.
About her approach to the film, she says: “It was about showing pride in one’s culture: the afro and the use African patterns, combining them with modern design. [It was] to be political and to be radical, but also to be current.”
“I’ve been working with Spike (Lee) for 25 years, and that has always been his direction. We try to communicate that in all our films. Now it’s something that’s a little bit more universal with the afrofuturist movement, and the Afropunk community. We’re doing more natural looks now, back then it was the afro. We’re now saying no sexism, no racism, no homophobia, and I think it’s time. It’s time to re-examine the conversations and I’m glad that young people are taking the lead in that.”
It’s perhaps fitting that the release of Black Panther coincides with Black History Month, and if it does indeed make box office history, this is something that would bode well for not just the Black Panther franchise, but also for diversity in the Marvel cinematic universe.
Are there any planned sequels? Carter doesn’t know, but if there are any, she says, she’s happy to continue bringing style with contextual and contemporary relevance to the tribes of Wakanda.