Photos: Courtesy of Chronicle Books
From ‘Black Panther’ to ‘Do The Right Thing’, Ruth E. Carter Chronicles a Career Making the Seemingly Invisible, Visible
The Academy Award-winning costume designer's new book gives readers a glimpse into her creative process and her ongoing legacy of honouring the Black experience on screen / BY Nathalie Atkinson / May 19th, 2023
In March, Ruth. E. Carter made history — again — becoming the first Black woman to win two Academy Awards in any category. Having won the Best Costume Design Oscar in 2019 for Marvel’s Black Panther, she triumphed again this year with its sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Carter has been using costumes as a means of storytelling for more than 30 years, creating layers of narrative, character arcs and even plotlines through her creations. While her credits run the gamut from the pilot episode of Seinfeld to the first season of neo-Western drama Yellowstone, it’s projects that explore and enrich the Black experience on screen that have become Carter’s signature.
The decades leading up to those watershed moments have included many collaborations on Spike Lee joints and Eddie Murphy movies, as well as work for filmmakers such as Robert Townsend, John Singleton and Steven Spielberg. Her multifaceted, heavily researched work illustrating her deep commitment to sharing the past, present and future of Black culture has been the subject of countless features, essays and talks as well as museum exhibitions (“Afrofuturism in Costume Design,” an exhibition of 60 original costumes, is currently at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh). And now, Carter is sharing her creative process in a lavish and engaging coffee table book.
The Art of Ruth E. Carter (Chronicle Books, out May 23) takes us through her 35-year career, with highlights of her work on more than 60 film and television projects. The subtitle aptly reflects her ongoing legacy: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture, from Do the Right Thing to Black Panther. As promised, Carter shares costume decisions behind iconic screen moments (like the goldfish shoes from Blaxploitation comedy I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, and why she created a stylized mix of sporty athletic wear with Ankara fabrics on Do the Right Thing balancing pop culture and African influence).
Throughout the book, the meaning and symbolism of clothing gets unpacked but there are also behind-the-scenes anecdotes, fashion sketches and process details on films that went on to become cultural touchstones: School Daze, and Do the Right Thing, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Roots and Coming 2 America. She also offers a glimpse into her Springfield, Mass., upbringing as the youngest of eight siblings (crediting her single mother Mabel, who passed away just before this year’s Oscars at the age of 101, for encouragement) as well as her early sewing experience as an aspiring actor-turned-designer.
Whatever the genre or period, the one constant is that Carter loves research. For authenticity on Malcolm X, the 1992 biopic that garnered her first Oscar nomination, she not only recreated the powder-blue zoot suit mentioned in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but also requested a copy of his Department of Corrections file “for a sense of the man before he was [well-known].” In depicting the King family in Selma, whom she describes as “Black America’s First Family, royalty really”— she noticed that Dr. King’s neck spilled out over his shirt collars, and fit the costume on actor David Oyelowo the exact same way. For historic accuracy on Marshall, she consulted the Carnegie’s archive of photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris, who visually chronicled everyday 20th century Black life. She also routinely draws on what she calls her go-tos: reference books on Black photographers and artists like Romare Bearden and Anthony Barboza, as well as her trove of antique family photo albums bought at flea markets. “I’m fascinated by all of that, all of the ingredients that create American tapestry.”
When we catch up by phone, Carter has just arrived at her hotel in Virginia, where that weekend she’s giving the commencement address at her alma mater Hampton University and also receiving an honorary Ph.D.
“My message is becoming the first, and the road to the Oscar. It has been a long road,” Carter, 63, says of what she most wants to impart to graduates. “But it’s also about what it takes to become the first. Creating your own path.”
The designer sees her book as a way to demystify the craft and art of costume designer for the next generation. Outside of awards season, we seldom see or hear from costume designers, which is likely due to the intense — albeit behind the scenes — nature of the work. But for years, Carter has kept a busy schedule of speaking engagements. Earlier this month she was at a United Way breakfast in Atlanta to talk about self worth and women’s collective power. She’s a frequent presence at talks, on panels and generally accessible through her dynamic social media. It’s clear that her strong sense of responsibility for the work she does as a costume designer extends to giving back to the community in the form of cultivating and encouraging other artists.
“I don’t know why we’re just not more active like that,” she posits, adding that early in her career she would write to costume designers, reaching out by “getting really creative with my stationery, to ask them how they did what they do.”
She closely studied the costume work of legendary Ann Roth, now 91 (Midnight Cowboy, Klute, Working Girl), for example, and how she balanced colour on Silkwood and Places in the Heart. “Her films have such a richness — I idolized her.” Around that time, Carter worked in the aging and dying department of Los Angeles costume house Western Costume, getting excited every time she heard famous designers paged over the intercom system. “Milena Canonero, line two … ” she intones with a laugh. “I was fascinated, though I never actually met any of them!”
Given how challenging it was to get recognition let alone make connections in those days, Carter now appreciates how social media and online coverage have changed the game for both those in the costume industry and those who want to get into it. “Now we have a voice and we’re visible,” she says of her community work. “I wanted to take that mantle and say, ‘Aspiring costume designers, here I am, I’m a human being, I’m a regular person and here’s what I do when I need to decompress. Here’s what I do when I’m afraid.’” The industry is opening up all the time. “And to people of colour!” Carter enthuses. She tells of once being the only woman of colour walking into studio services (who provide wardrobe assistance to stylists and costume designers) at Neiman Marcus. “Now when I get in there and see a young person of colour be they Asian, Black, Latino — I feel like I had maybe something to do with it.”
Like editing, art direction and production design, the paradox of fashioning costumes is that although they’re highly visible, they should ideally go almost unnoticed. Despite audiences appreciating the role costumes play in telling a story, they didn’t always know their creator.
“We were conditioned to wait for the director to say our name,” Carter admits, “and sometimes you’d hear them talking, legs crossed at their desk with their arms behind their head, talking about the costume like they did it,” she says. “Spike was good at saying our names — he’d be on The Tonight Show and would say Ruth Carter, Robi Reed, Ernest Dickerson, and we’d all call each other excited.”
In recent years costume designers have come out of the shadows; it helps that studios and streamers recognize the media marketing value of the visually dynamic department and audiences love learning more about it.
Despite the gains that have been made, it’s still an uphill battle for recognition and fair compensation (and budget allocation) within the film and television industry. Unlike the higher-paid, male-dominated arena of production design, costume is a profession largely dominated by women.
“Costume has been thought of as women’s work and we live in a society that does not pay women equal wage,” Carter says matter-of-factly. “I remember when I first signed with (talent agent) Phil Gersh in the late ’80s, after he’d seen Do the Right Thing, he said I was worth more and should be getting more and was instrumental in me getting those raises. And that was the first time I heard something like that.”
The Costume Designers Guild’s current Naked Without Us campaign and movements towards pay equity more in line with the profession’s economic and creative value to a particular production are making progress. But it’s slow.
In the meantime, the laurels for Carter keep coming. There’s the new Oscar, of course. And she’s only the second costume designer (after Edith Head) honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And then, there’s Jeopardy! Carter has watched the TV quiz show all her life and so was thrilled to be a featured clue in February. (She tells me she did not know about it ahead of time, not until the “flood of text messages” from friends sending screenshots of their TV sets.)
Hollywood’s current Writers Guild of America strike has paused filming on her current project, Mahershala Ali’s Blade. She went straight from Wakanda Forever into that prep and now that it’s on hold, she finally gets a moment to exhale. “I’m free to pursue my paints — I want to paint a canvas — I’m free to ride my bike, to go on vacation and just be on the water and just breathe,” she says wistfully. She’s also interested in writing and sharing more of her personal story beyond just costume design. “I have a mission, with my story, to shed light on a lot of things that people go through and are able to overcome — adversity.” She’s committed to telling that part, she says, to get it out there, as well as in supporting a young filmmaker who reminds her of “the next Spike Lee.”
But in the end, downtime for Carter always seems to come back to books and the reading that informs her creative process. While she returns to pillars like Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez and Maya Angelou, Carter is currently obsessed with people’s experiences in the Great Migration from the Jim Crow south to point north; Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is on her list, as is the way language unifies in Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime. “I just love reading about people’s experiences within their own culture.”
“I feel like that’s going to rejuvenate me. I’m always hungry for stimulation of any kind that will help me understand myself better.”