Now that Black Panther is finally in theaters, women and men across the country have been showing up to screenings dressed in Afro-futuristic outfits inspired by the movie. They certainly have a lot of material to work with: The costumes, created by Oscar-nominated designer Ruth Carter, are extraordinary. Carter has created a striking vision that tells the story of a country in conflict. Wakanda is modern and technologically advanced, but the traditions of the past remain strong and clear. “I was under a lot of pressure,” Carter says of hitting the right tone. “I, like director Ryan Coogler, took a deep breath and took a good look for a long time to make sure we’re going in the right direction and doing the right thing.” Here Carter tells us how it all came together, the hidden details to look out for, and more.
Glamour: Going in, what aesthetic were you looking to capture in this film?
Ruth Carter: We have an African aesthetic here, and we also have a futuristic, modern aesthetic. This is a place that’s advanced in technology, more advanced than the rest of the world, so you take those elements and you have to discover a culture. You have to put them together and make up your own.
Glamour: You’ve spoken before about Afro-futurism in film. How do you define it?
RC: Afro-futurism is taking Africa and African American culture and looking at it with a twist of future and fantasy. You could look at images from AfroPunk and see a little bit of Afro-futurism. But also, it’s thinking about culture, anyone’s culture. You could be in Mexican traditional garb or a hanbok and be kind of Afro-futurist because you’re honoring tradition while modernizing it. You’re combining the two.
Glamour: So how did the cast react to the costumes? Were there any particularly memorable reactions?
RC: Mm-hm! I remember during our camera test, Angela Bassett and Chadwick Boseman and all of them were there. We were trying to decide what we liked, but the Dora Milaje costume was set in stone. We had someone standing in for a Dora—I don’t think it was Danai Gurira, who plays Okoye—but it was someone dressed in the Dora costume. When it was her time to come on camera, everyone just stopped. I’m so busy, and I’ve seen it a hundred times—I was probably at craft services, having a snack—but I was actually on set, and Angela turned and looked at it and she spanked me! [Laughs.] She said, “You are just doing it!” That was the first time I realized that fresh eyes would look at some of these creations that had been months and months and months in the making.
Glamour: That’s amazing. Were there any collaborations with the cast, or did you come in with your vision?
RC: Well, the vision is a Marvel vision, it’s a Ryan Coogler vision, it’s a Ruth Carter vision, it’s all of us together. We go through such a long journey crafting this vision that once the actors come into my workshop, they’re walking through Africa. There’s a huge inspiration—I call it my vision board, but it was really a vision wall—and I had boards all over the office. There are Dogon masks on the wall. You’d walk through fabrics, you saw beads organized by color, you had a workroom of tailors and sewers working on costumes. So when they walk into a world like that, they already know you’ve been preparing for them and their costume, so they’re actually excited to see what you have to offer.
Glamour: Did you feel like you creating the image of black superheroes—or rather, working with the other visionaries to create the image of the black superhero—from a blank slate? Or were there other cultural touchstones you drew from?
RC: Oh, absolutely. Because we wanted to use the continent of Africa as our backdrop, it was really important that we research the indigenous tribes. Some of them were super easy to translate, like the Ndebele neck rings and the armbands were part of the armor for the Dora Milaje. Others were a story in certain beadwork presented on some of the tribes. I felt we should have beadwork in our costumes because beads are used throughout the continent in all types of ways of adornment. We started with that, and then we decided we weren’t making a history documentary, so we didn’t want the royal family to look like they’re all glorious and the people of Wakanda to look like they’re still in the dark ages. So we modernized them but still honoring their traditions.
Glamour: Beautiful. You mentioned the beadwork stories. Were there any hidden details that viewers should look for in the costumes?
RC: Yes! The Dora, on their front tabard that goes down from the bottom of their chest line to their knees, we beaded in, I felt like, a ceremonial way. It has the sacred geometry of Africa, and at the bottom of the tabard each Dora has a special trinket that is of her choosing. It identifies her costume—sometimes it’s a piece of jade or a piece of amethyst; it could be two or three trinkets, an African symbol, a fertility doll. For Lupita Nyong’o, she put a little alligator on hers because she wanted it to represent her tribe, which was the river tribe.
Glamour: I can’t wait to look out for those. On a broader note, what do you hope viewers around the world gain from seeing the costumes you’ve created?
RC: I hope viewers around the world understand that this world we live in belongs to us all, that our borders should not be closed, that we should embrace each other as unique, cultural individuals, that there is no mighty race, that we can go into a future of cultural dignity and honoring everyone for who they are, for where they’ve come from, and for why they’re here.
Glamour: The film has already gotten a lot of attention for its celebration of blackness. Did you feel a lot of pressure to represent black excellence without falling into stereotypes?
RC: I sure did. I felt a lot of pressure, every day, to not do a stereotype. Is this going to look common, or is it going to look great? Is it going to look like something we’ve seen before? Is it being crafted in a way that looks like it’s a play or a cartoon? Or a fake thing? Or is it being crafted in a way that’s going to look like it’s real and has a real function? Does it have fashion and beauty? The overall ideal is beauty. We want it to be beautiful, because we’re honoring it if we show it in a beautiful light. We’re dishonoring it if we show it in the light it’s been shown in, which is ugly and dark.
So I was under a lot of pressure. Not that I felt like I couldn’t do it, but I had dozens of craftspeople working on it and not necessarily understanding my angst about something they were doing. They showed me things along the way, all the time, and I, like Ryan Coogler, took a deep breath and took a good look for a long time to make sure we’re going in the right direction and doing the right thing.
Glamour: Are there any films that you have worked on, or that are important to you, that you feel represent black fashion in a way that is meaningful, and not stereotypical?
RC: Well, there’s not a lot of black modern films. I have to go back to those films that are maybe, I dunno, a Tyler Perry one? He does a lot of black films and usually people are dressed really nicely. I feel like those are kind of like the Ebony magazines of film. You know, sometimes we fantasize about being in a world where we don’t have to deal with racism and with poverty next door to our middle-class lifestyle. But when I grew up, my mom was lower-middle-class and a few blocks away was the real lower class, the projects. So as much as we all wanted to look like those people in Ebony magazine, we were in a world that was inclusive of everyone. I had all kinds of friends, Puerto Rican friends, white friends, black friends, so sometimes some of those films aren’t really a good representation of the world we kind live in. It’s a little bit of a fantasy in itself, you know? But everything can’t speak to all of our ideals. I feel like the Black Panther does because it goes into the outskirts. You see people who are living more simply, like the border tribe. We show Wakanada in a really cool way that makes it feel really big and broad. I wish that we could do that more. Maybe TV shows do it well. I love Dear White People, that shows that whole campus life that’s all multidimensional and multicultural and different layers of lifestyle. I don’t really watch a lot of TV, because I never have time, but there are some shows out there, I’m sure, that do it.
Glamour: Finally, what was your favorite experience on set?
RC: My favorite experience was the king’s challenge. I waited a long time for that scene to happen, and we had to do it in the spring, when the weather was warmer, because we had all that water and people were standing in water, fighting in water. I had researched all along the way, throughout the journey of filmmaking, and I was very clear about the color palettes. And I was super excited about the people! I think I dressed every single person in that scene, because I just wanted to. We set up a fitting area for me, and they crafted my schedule so that when the fittings started I was done on set and so I could go back to the workshop.
And everybody who walked in, I felt like I could say, “OK, you’re going to be Tuareg” or “You’re going to be Himba.” I was able to actually combine the modern with the historical and cultural and make them really cool looking. Sometimes they were completely cultural, and I wanted to lift them off the pages of some of my research and make them come to life—and I did. I was there every morning when it was time for those people to get dressed, to make sure that all the costumers got them right. If their turbans weren’t wrapped perfectly, I would tell them to sit down. I had my own little area where I could check people. I went crazy.