Ruth Carter is no stranger to history. In fact, the twice Oscar-nominated designer has built a career around diving into history’s deepest sartorial waters. She created the costumes for most of Spike Lee’s films, including Malcolm X. She worked with Steven Spielberg on Amistad, and with Ava DuVernay on Selma. But to create the various outfits for Black Panther, the luminous 57-year-old had to rely on a history forged from the pages of comic books. She was even presented with a “Wakandan bible,” created by production designer Hannah Beachler and Ryan Meinerding, Head of Visual Development at Marvel Studios.
“It had a timeline,” says Carter. “It had a map of Wakanda. It let you know what the inspirations were for each region of Wakanda, what tribes they were from. It was broad, and I still had creative freedom to add my signature to it.”
Her signature? Detail. “Africa is a vast resource creatively. Whenever you’re looking at the indigenous tribes of Africa, you see lots of detail, you see lots of bead work. Through the years, I have prided myself on being accurate. I’m always trying to be presenting the truth of the matter.”
Carter’s lavish tribal gowns and robes are a vibrant explosion of colors, eye-popping and richly subtle, ranging from deep, regal purples to fire-blazing reds. Black Panther may well be the first superhero movie to snag an Oscar for its costumes. It’s so much more than men in cowls and capes.
As for the titular character’s new, sleeker look, Carter credits Meinerding. “He designs the suit, he’s the genius guy.” She’s being modest, chimes Nate Moore, one of the film’s executive producers and guiding forces. “Ruth is handed something that she then is able to amplify,” he says. “She also has to create it practically — and a lot of times what Ryan [Meinerding] draws on the page is difficult to execute.”
“There’s a big difference between 2D and 3D,” Carter agrees. “We take illustration and have to make it come to life in a way that’s wearable and is able to perform.”
The Black Panther’s suit is made from a fabric called Eurojersey. “It’s a four-way stretch,” Carter explains. “It comes in white, we dye it black, and then we do what’s called a supplemental print on top to give it a texture. So there’s a whole process to the actual fabrication of the material before the suit is even made.”
“Ruth had a great idea to paint the muscle suit silver underneath,” adds Moore, “so that you had the sense of vibranium through the whole thing.”
As for the Dora Milaje, the Panther’s elite, all-female security force, Carter originally “had some illustrations that were a bit more scantily clad.” But director Ryan Coogler urged her to downplay the skin.
“It’s important for these women to look like real fighters, and as real warriors they have to have their bodies covered for protection,” he told Carter. “We don’t want the highest ranking military fighting force in Wakanda to be wearing a bustier and a cheerleader’s skirt.”
“I was really proud to hear that coming from his mouth,” marvels Carter. “But then, Ryan is that guy.”
“If you’re doing a full suit that goes up to their wrists and full booted feet, how do you still make them feminine?” says Moore. “You don’t want to lose that feminine quality that makes them beautiful women.” Carter had the solution.
“We bumped up the color,” she says. “The African tradition is so very vibrant. And that red — if you see three of them, it feels like you’re looking at six of them. And the way the leather pieces wrap around their body, it’s wrapping around their feminine form. I feel they look like beautiful women who actually could fight.”
Black Panther is now playing in area theatres, where it will likely remain until sometime in 2019.
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