Fashion TV & Movies

For Oscar-award winner Ruth E. Carter, costume design is storytelling

Ruth E. Carter has received Oscar nominations for “best costume design” on multiple occasions starting in 1992 for Malcolm X being the first person of color to be nominated in that category, and now, the first to win

Ruth E. Carter has hundreds of magazines to help her make progress on her fashion-through-time designs. Sitting in her office, she reads the script she had been given multiple times, attempting to get an understanding of who the characters are. Getting a good sense of when and where the story takes place in time and the styles from that era, Ruth E Carter begins her mastermind process of designing.

Carter has worked on over forty films, helping design and create the wardrobes, working with all types of “looks” from tribal, to fashion from the thirties. She has been nominated for “best costume design” on several different occasions, and finally winning for Black Panther.

Carter graduated from the Hampton Institute (now known as Hampton University) with a bachelor degree in art design. Working at the Los Angeles Theater Center in 1986, she then met Spike Lee who hired her to work on his second film, School Daze. She went to work with Spike Lee for several more years, designing for eleven of his films between 1989 and 2015.

Her first nomination was in 1992, for her work in Malcolm X, which she also made history for, being the first person of color to be nominated for the category. Malcolm X took place in the sixties with more of a formal fashion vibe. It included zoot suits for the men and for the ladies it was more of a formal dainty and poised look featuring pearls and dresses reaching just above or just under the knees, in colors ranging from blue to a tan (light brown).

Main characters from Malcolm X walking down the street (warner bros.)

Her second nomination was for Amistad in 1997. The films story takes place in 1839, so Carter used a Victorian fashion style. The women wear long sleeve dresses with a low front, a corset, puffy bottoms, pearls, the big hats, and umbrellas when it’s sunny out and of course the little fans.  

A screenshot from Amistad (HBO pictures)

She finally won the Oscar for her work on Black Panther in 2019. It was her most expansive film yet; it had a tribal clothing scheme which Carter had yet to attempt through her years of costume design. She put much time and effort into these costumes. For example, she had shoppers go to Africa looking for some original pieces of jewelry that represented various cultures and peoples. For example, the golden rings around the necks originated in South Africa from a tribe called the Ndebele. In the film she drifted away from the original comic book queen who dressed very casually in yoga pants and a turban and was barefoot.  Instead, Carter created a beautiful white gown with a white peacock like backing sitting on her shoulders with a white head piece to top it all off. For the warriors, Carter was careful with the patterns and fabric she used on the actresses making it suit their body type and didn’t clash with their skin as she said, “women costumes convey so much strength and beauty.”

An elder with traditional lip jewelry (Marvel Studios)
The queen and her daughter standing in traditional uniform (Marvel studios)

Carter had said in an interview that “Creativity is the ability to be daring, it’s a challenge to be fresh and original.” she carries on by saying, “A costume designer is a storyteller.” She has learnt to tell a story with all pieces of clothing she produces.  In Black Panther, the warriors belt buckles featured a panther on the center representing the loyalty and protectiveness of the king, she also put “goodluck” charms on the fabric running down the front of the clothing.

(Marvel studios)

Carter, now fifty-eight years old has received ten awards and fourteen nominations in the category of wardrobe design. Out of all her designs, the wardrobe she designed for Black Panther was the most important, with tribal-inspired looks representing African cultures more thoughtfully than they are often portrayed in Hollywood. Throughout the years, learning to work with all genres of fashion was what makes her such a great designer.

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