Reel Fashion | Ruth E. Carter

by Tim Gordon

Later this week, everyone will get an opportunity to enter the rich and vibrant world of Wakanda through the eyes of two-time Oscar nominee Ruth Carter’s spectacular fashions. In a career spanning three decades, this proud graduate of Hampton University’s work on Black Panther may prove to be her enduring legacy.

While many are finally discovering this talented costume designer, the idea of working on this superhero project didn’t seem foreign to Carter.

“I feel like I have been doing superhero movies all along. It’s the same thought process,” she said. “You know, Thurgood Marshall was a superhero. So there really is no difference in terms of the thought pattern. But I get what you’re asking me. You know this is a guy who could have, you know, exceptional powers who wears a skin suit, a catsuit, and he is the king of a fictitious country. So how do you how do you prepare for that? And you know I feel like it’s the same, it’s the same. You do a lot of research. The team at Marvel were already well into what they call visual development so they had images that they showed me my first day of, you know, the new Panther suit and of the, you know, (warrior) Dora Milaje.

Carter spoke about the many influences that helped inspire her to create the distinctive look for the film.

“I didn’t have like visuals of a photograph to look at (for reference),” she told TooFab. “What I looked at for Wakanda was the ancient African tribes. We sectioned each part of Wakanda by what tribe inspired that particular area’s look. So that kind of informed me. Then, in pop culture right now, there is a movement called Afropunk. And Afropunk really celebrates dark skin, creative expression.”

Conversations | Ruth E. Carter & Nate Moore

Producing the first design of a costume like T’Challa’s suit costs approximately $500,000, and subsequent iterations were not much cheaper. Costs that high don’t leave a lot of room for trial-and-error, so Carter looked at years of superhero costume design in order to find a unifying feature in designs that worked.

She described Marvel Studios to TooFab as being “very hands-on” through the creative process, adding, she operated with a lot of freedom, “until I had to do a show and tell.”

“I presented illustrations, they presented illustrations from their in-house visual development team led by Ryan Meinerding and there was so much to do,” she said. “They had a core that they cared the most about that they wanted to see, like Nakia’s (Lupita Nyong’o) costume or the Dora, obviously the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Those are the things that they wanted to see, so I did lots of presentations. I just had to keep moving and when they asked for show and tell, I was like, OK, open the door. Let them in. Let them see what you’re doing. And then when they’re done looking and they give you a nod of approval, close the door, get back, keep it moving.”

Special thanks to TooFab for their assistance with this article.

Check out the costume concept art for the various characters in Black Panther, below: