Black Panther Designer Ruth Carter On Her Kick-Ass, 3D-Printed Costumes
Imagine being at the centre of that unforgettable Black Panther fight scene where T’Challa and Erik Killmonger face off for the right to rule Wakanda. The choreography, the camera work, and the set design that went into just that single scene is daunting to think about. Now imagine having the job of designing the costumes that had to hold up to such an epic action sequence while making them look cool and authentic at the same time. That was Ruth E. Carter’s job.
The twice Oscar-nominated costume designer, known for her work on historical period pieces like Malcolm X, Amistad, Selma, and The Butler, ventured into the high-tech world of Wakanda to create costumes that looked to the future but were rooted in real history.
We spoke to Carter about the work that went into making the coolest superhero costumes of the year (and yeah, we know it’s only May—we don’t care).
You’ve worked on some iconic films tied closely to historical reality. How did that inform the way you designed the costumes for Wakanda, a fictional, futuristic society but one with strong ties to a culture shaped by its own unique history? How did you blend the ancient with the ultra modern in a way that felt authentic?
In my line of work as a costume designer I’ve always been challenged to recreate a world as it was in the past—that would be the 1940s for Thurgood Marshall, the ‘60s for Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and taking Tina Turner’s life and figuring out what did it look like? What were the colours, the texture? What was the tone? Some of those influences have to do with what was going on in society—the civil rights movement, flower power, you name it. Those things were similar with researching Wakanda.
We had a thought pattern that included ‘What if this was a place that was not colonised?’ If it was influenced by all of the indigenous tribes around Africa, what would remain, what would not be there, and how would they keep the influences strong in their modern society. So the process of examining a place and a time was similar to my other films. But because we’re thinking ahead, it’s a little more difficult. You don’t know what’s to come and you don’t want to date the film. You don’t want Wakanda to look, next year, like last year. You want it to be a classic that will always feel fresh.
The research process was to look at the ancient African tribes—like the Tuareg, like the Turkana, like the Dogon—and extract those elements that were used in similar ways that were were going to need to use them. For example, the Dogon wear a grass skirt and we wanted M’baku and the Jabari to have grass skirts. The Ndebele tribe of South Africa wear neck rings and arm rings. We thought they would be useful for the battle costumes for the Dora Milaje. There’s beadwork seen throughout the continent of Africa and so beadwork was probably something that would still remain something that was a way of communicating, as a way of sharing a story. So those elements are brought into Wakanda and some remained in their traditional sense and some were applied with modern shapes and styles so that it would feel fresh and new.
There are some pretty kick-ass fight scenes in Black Panther. How difficult is it to strike a balance between your own artistic vision and what those costumes could look like without limitations, and the practicality of having actors wear them and having them stand up to that wear?
It’s very difficult. There were several tribes involved in the battle scene and all of them had to function—it was almost like creating dance costumes. The Border tribe, which is Daniel Kaluuya’s [aka W’kabi’s] tribe, wore the Moshoeshoe blanket which is from the South African Basotho tribe. We printed one side of the blanket with a silver print on one side that [Black Panther director] Ryan Coogler wanted to not be revealed until they threw the blankets to their right. Once they did, you see the vibranium on the other side.
The blankets could not fall to the ground, they had to stay attached to the costume, they had to be used as shields… those blankets had to do so many things. It was a HUGE hurdle to figure the whole thing out with a costume that was supposed to have a lot of weapons that were hidden behind the blanket. How do you put a bunch of weapons behind a blanket and not see them poking out? That was a huge challenge.
Some of the accessories in the film were 3D printed, wearable art. Was this your first time working with that technology?
Yes, it was! I was so excited to put some wearable 3D-printed art in the film because for us, today, it’s kind of a view of what could be to come. We could have these wearable 3D types of pieces on our clothes. I didn’t want it to feel dated so we combined the traditional shape, like Ramonda wears the Zulu married woman’s headpiece and it was 3D printed. Using the traditional with the modern application gave it both a past and a future context that I think won’t go out of style.
Shuri was our personal favourite in the film (we’ve loved Letitia Wright since seeing her in Doctor Who and the ‘Black Museum’ episode of Black Mirror). Can you talk about Shuri specifically and what you wanted to say about that character through her wardrobe?
Well, she tells us in the beginning of the story that she is bored with tradition. She says at the Warrior Falls, ‘Come on people, this is uncomfortable.’ So that tells us everything—that we did not have to stick to tradition, that we wanted to create a closet for her that was inclusive of forward thinking. She creates the new Panther suit and so she’s going to have things in her lab like protective clothing that’s not conventional like a lab coat.
Her costumes all have overlays. I chose fabrics that could look like they were recycled material. Everything that you see her wearing has some type of overlay because I feel like overlays in general (like with a dress, a bottom layer and a top layer) with a see-through element create this beauty and also feel like it’s protecting what’s underneath. So that was the idea behind it—giving her protection in her lab that was not conventional, that was easy, that looked recycled, that was conscious and forward-thinking.
During the period you were working on the film, did you have any inkling about the massive success that it would turn out to be?
We knew it was massive but you never really want to think about success when you’re creating because it might influence your design or your choices. It’s like with anything: it’s not a big success until you do the work. The work comes first.
Black Panther is available May 8 in digital form and May 15 on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and DVD.