Notably the first black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, Ruth E. Carter received her first Academy Award in 2019 for the Afrofuturistic costume designs in Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster Black Panther. Never one to sit on her laurels, Carter has taken the costuming to the next level in Coogler’s epic sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Foreverwhich hit theaters on November 11.
She’s talking to this The Hollywood Reporter about the monumental task of updating the Wakanda world while creating an entirely new underwater civilization inspired by Mayan culture. “Comparable to Afro future for Wakanda, it’s like Latino future,” she says THR. “It was exciting. I kept thinking, ‘Oh, they’re going to love this; they’re going to celebrate.’” The job involved in-depth historical research, designing more than 2,100 costumes with her global team of specialists and collaborations with Adidas, Hervé Léger., JJ Valaya and Iris van Herpen.
The white costumes in the opening scene of the funeral were so impressive. Was each unique?
It was divided by tribes. Many people wear African clothing with details such as beadwork or fur to indicate their tribe. You will see Zulu, you will see Ndebele, you will see the Maasai. The Border Tribe is distinguished by the Basotho blankets, while the Merchant Tribe is inspired by the Tuareg and the turbans and we infused the large silver earrings they wear. Then you can see the Ndebele graphic prints and line work on Ramonda’s white dress. The Mining tribe is represented by the priestess, who wears a Himba headgear, and the River tribe by the man with the white lip plate and ceremonial suit, the whole nine. The whole procession, with the tribes passing by to represent their specific areas, is quite beautiful.
How many costumes did you design this time? It was 700 before Black Panther.
Maybe three times as many, about 2,100. We had all of Wakanda and then we built another world, the Talokanil, and we had to raise a new army, the navy. We had a crew in Los Angeles and Atlanta, but things were also being made in New Zealand, India, Paris, London, New York. My team in Atlanta at Tyler Perry Studios was about 20 to 30 people doing intake, aging and painting, specialty work, building. We had a floor with only cutters and seamstresses and another floor with the tailors. Then we outsourced it to other companies, so there are hundreds of people involved in the manifestation of these costumes, but in the end it all runs through me.
What were your biggest challenges?
Figuring out how to make costumes that go underwater beautiful. There were so many aspects of being in the water that worked against us. We made a headdress for Namor with organic materials and feathers. It went underwater and everyone loved the way it looked and floated. But when it came out, it was unusable, because chemicals in the water bleached the color. So we were constantly learning how to fix our dyes so they didn’t fade. And learn how to make silicone things that look real. We had to weight and tie the fabrics; every costume was different. We put M’Baku’s woody costume on a background actor and dunked him in the 20 foot tank and he just floated. We couldn’t weigh it enough to get it down and do the job underwater. I decided to think Roman gladiator and get him a raffia skirt and all the accoutrements, with sandals instead of the big, heavy Ugg boots.
What was the most elaborate piece?
Namora’s feathered snake head piece is the show stopper for me. We worked really hard to represent the Mayan culture with that piece.
How did you explore the new Mayan-inspired Talokanil world?
Maya Vase’s database was a source of inspiration. The Maya created their story on their pottery, so the database rolls out the images flat. You see they had pure fabrics, jade, ear washes, all the elements of the culture. Once an idea was put down on paper and we liked the aesthetics of it, that drawing or idea went to the historians. They came back and said, “That doesn’t represent the Mayan culture in the era where we get most of our ideas from, so you have to change these aspects.” It was a classic Maya from the 17th century. So we would go back and change it. You are creating a new world based on a real historical anchor, and you want the people who have this in their lineage to be proud that this was right.
Fun, surprising anecdotes behind the scenes?
Well, we teamed up with Adidas and their SEED [School for Experiential Education in Design] program that provides education and design to young black and brown women about certain looks, including shoes. I always got only one shoe, no partner. And so I had one shoe for a very long time, and I kept complaining, not realizing that they were sending me prototypes that hadn’t been made yet. And so was Shuri’s first adaptation in the one-shoe Adidas apparel. I was just praying for the other one to finally show up. And it did!
What other utilitarian tech looks have you co-created with Adidas?
Okoye’s red unitard she wears in Boston when she fights Attuma has a special band that supports the muscles. The jacket with graphic mapping on it that Riri wears in the lab. And Shuri’s purple tracksuit has a two-tone back wrap that I requested because I felt like it could really wave at the back and look exciting when she got on the bike.
You told THR at the premiere that you used five 3D printers. What pieces did you print?
Things printed in 3D can be a lot lighter. So if we found a vintage belt buckle or chain and couldn’t get a multiple, we hand scanned the pieces and 3D printed them right there in the office. We could decide whether to print more or make a mold and pull it out of rubber. So there is a new process in town in the costume world. And that is making hard parts that we normally have to outsource to jewelry designers or people in the automotive industry. Now we can do them ourselves in house, and it costs so much less. Ramonda’s headpieces are all 3D printed by Julia Koerner, who created her isichola and tippet in the first movie.
The majesty of the jewelry, incorporated into details of the costumes, was striking.
In from the start Black Panther 1, Ryan Coogler said, “I want the Doras armor to feel like jewelry and have this beautiful shine.” So that opportunity presented itself again; we upgraded the Dora armor to have sparkle. Queen Ramonda wears a lot of breastplate armor and some of it had symbolism and meaning – the Dogan tribe of Mali was represented on one of her pieces. When we see her in the opening scene at the UN, it sets the tone that there’s a new queen leading Wakanda, and she’s decorated and celebrated. So even though it’s a story of grief, and we’ve kept Shuri a lot of gray, the brilliance of the jewelry shows you the wealth of Wakanda. The bracelet that Namor’s mother once wore was made by jeweler Douriean Fletcher, who worked on it Black Panther and came back to help with many of the pieces.
Which other designers have you worked with?
Those ribbed, two-piece knit outfits Shuri wore in the lab, with the cool lace-up sleeves, were Hervé Léger. The texture had a technical feel. House of Valaya made me some of Ramonda’s dresses. We sent a sketch to JJ Valaya; he’s like the Armani of India, and he loves being involved in movies like this. I get great work back from him. Same with Iris van Herpen. The jade beaded dress that Shuri wears when she goes to Namor to talk about culture and history was made by Iris Van Herpen and her team. We bought that black Mugler jacket that Okoye is wearing in Boston and then had to go back to Mugler to ask for more because of the stunt scenes!