How ‘Black Panther’s Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter Brought the World of Wakanda to Life
There’s a lot to love about Black Panther, from its outstanding cast to its powerful political message, from its luminous cinematography to Michael B. Jordan’s dynamic villain. But one of the best things about Ryan Coogler’s superhero movie is its jaw-dropping costume design. Ruth E. Carter’s dazzling clothes, made up of intricate beadwork and rainbows of colorful fabrics, are so fantastic they could, and should, get Marvel its first Oscar nomination in the category.
With Black Panther, Carter, who’s worked on Selma, Malcolm X, and Amistad, wasn’t just tasked with designing a superhero movie, but an entirely new fictional world that runs the gamut from traditional African wardrobes to sleek, futuristic garments. Some highlights include Angela Bassett’s regal looks as Queen Mother Ramonda, the fierce and colorful armor worn by the King’s all-female warrior team, the Dora Milaje, and the detailed tribal makeup and accessories of Forest Whitaker’s Zuri and Daniel Kaluuya’s W’Kabi. That’s all before you get to Black Panther’s two new and improved super suits.
I caught up with Carter over the phone to talk about designing the film’s fictional world. She told me about blending traditional styles with innovative technology (like 3D printing a Zulu hat), bringing the superhero’s suits to life, and the major changes she and Coogler made to Dora Milaje’s comic-book counterparts.
You’ve done a lot of period costume work before, but what was the biggest challenge in working on a Marvel movie?
It was the schedule. Each costume was really a process. I started in June of 2016, and we were shooting in January, and there’s a couple of holidays in there. So there wasn’t a lot of time to conceptualize, to present ideas. There was a lot of information that was given to me all at once, so I had to hit the ground running to kind of section off all of the elements that create each character.
How much freedom did Marvel give you to design the costumes? Did you have to make sure your concepts fit into the rest of the MCU or did they allow you to create from your own vision?
I think it was a little bit of both. There was so much to this Wakandan world, and this was the first time for Marvel to discover Wakanda. It was something I feel the fans haven’t really delved into in too much detail, because they hadn’t seen the Black Panther very much in the past. So Marvel was very hands-on, and I did go through a big approval process with all of the sketches and designs. They also came forward with designs as well.
The Black Panther [suit] is the design work of the genius of Ryan Meinerding at Marvel. He is the head of their visual development team, and they did a lot of work months before I came on. The Panther suit is already approved on my first day. I am handed the Panther suit, and I’m told, “Okay, now make this.” So I have to look at how the light hits it in the drawing, what it is about it that I can deem what these fabrics and textures look like. So I go and I make that.
Now the Dora Milaje was also another costume that Marvel’s design development department came up with the framework for, and that was by Anthony Francisco. He did a wonderful job of creating a design that Ryan Coogler loved. I was handed that design and [told], “Okay now make this Wakandan. What are the elements of this illustration that will come into the fray of this world and make it successful?” So there are about four costumes like that in the movie that Marvel was very sure about. And I feel as though they had the toys in development, and the movie in development, and everything in development at the same time. So it was important to have that hands-on, the parent company kind of overseeing their star costumes. But as you can see, there is a whole world after that. [Laughs] I had a team of five illustrators that were busy illustrating tribes and colors and beadwork.
There are multiple tribes within Wakanda and each one is so visually distinct. Where did you pull inspiration from to make each of them look so individual?
Well, I did a lot of research. I have books from when I did Amistad on ancient African tribes. I bought more reference books, I was all over the internet. I had a team of costumers doing research. We had Pinterest boards, we had big boards in our office. I leaned on Marvel and Ryan Coogler to kind of guide me through the comic book aspect of the whole Wakandan universe. So that even though I’m infusing some African traditional pieces, I’m doing it in a way that’s fan-worthy, comic book-worthy, story-worthy. We aren’t making a documentary.
We didn’t want the royal palace to have this opulence and this beautiful look and then the subjects or the people of Wakanda to look like they’re from these naked tribes of ancient Africa. The whole thing had to be forward-thinking. The whole thing had to be technologically advanced. The tribes were just an influence and the design itself was fashion-forward.
Technology is such a major element of Wakanda. How did you find the right balance between how much futuristic tech to show with the costumes and how much to represent traditional African cultures?
I didn’t want to do too much because I didn’t want to date the film, and I didn’t want it to be corny. You can really teeter on looking corny if you try to think too much tech. I really wanted Marvel’s visual effects department to take over where the tech came in, because they can do everything on computers and make it much more fantastical than something physical that I could add to the costume.
But one thing I did feel strongly was with Ramonda with her queenly outfits that, if she were the queen, she had a whole faction of people that were responsible for what she wore every day and how it was worn. Her crown and her shoulder piece that we see her in in the first scene on the airstrip, I used a technologically-advanced method to produce those two pieces. That was through 3D printing, but it was a different type of 3D machine. We used materials that were flexible. Usually 3D printing is toys and helmets, it’s not necessarily clothing pieces because it doesn’t usually use materials that are flexible. But I felt that her crown, because it had that cylindrical top shape, needed to be a perfect circle.
I feel like when someone is touring and you’re talking about well, the Queen’s crown is a perfect 360 circle. The top faces north, the back faces east. I feel like there could have been a whole story behind her Zulu hat, and therefore we created the algorithms, we 3D printed it in Belgium, along with the shoulder mantel. That way we can bring in this new technology into the movie world and show what we can do today right now that’s kind of forward-thinking.
I also really love how the women are dressed in the film. So often in blockbusters, and especially action-heavy films, women are dressed impractically or overly-sexualized. Here, the Dora Milaje’s costumes are some of my favorites because they’re both stylish and practical for fighting.
Isn’t that wonderful? Especially in lieu of what women are going through right now, MeToo, Time’s Up. That was really Ryan Coogler directing the design of that costume. We all thought that because the Dora is represented in a kind of female sexual way in the comics – I feel like comics are really for boys, and boys read them and boys want girls to look sexy and fly through the air and nothing falls off, you know? But because this was the highest ranking fighting force in Wakanda and they protect the King, there was a certain amount of brilliance to their costume and I felt like that spoke to their status.
There was a certain level of protection that needed to be there – armor fully lined, head-to-toe coverage so that they had protection. Also the color had to feel like it was Africa. The shape of the what I call the harness around the body had to move around a feminine form and accentuate the feminine form in such a way that we know this is a girl; this is a girl underneath here, there’s no big chest plate smashing the bust back or anything. There’s a harness and then theres a tabard. I used a tabard as the canvas [and] the canvas was to put some treatments of protection on the tabard. Each girl had an accented symbol, a piece of jade, a piece of amethyst to ask protection. I felt like it needed to look like it was handmade, like the samurai, the Japanese armor, and also handmade in the tradition of South African leatherwork. So there’s a lot of good reasons for creating a world around these female costumes so that they were not seen as sexual beings. They were seen as warriors first, and then women second.
I love that. I wish more movies would do that.
It was an exercise that was successful, so maybe there will be in the future.
Do you have a favorite piece from the film?
I really like Ramonda’s costume, when we first see her on the airstrip. It’s kind of nice to see the Queen. I also love M’Baku on the throne, the head of the Jabari tribe. His costume on the throne was just so ... just making him and coming up with it. He’s still my favorite.
Gallery – See More Costumes From Black Panther: