Ruth Carter, the costume designer for Black Panther, spoke on Loyola’s campus on Friday, October 5th as a part of her college lecture tour. Taking the film and television industry by storm, the experienced costume designer has worked on over 40 films in her career, including Malcolm X and Selma, and has been the first African American woman nominated for an Academy Award. She has used her extensive experience in the field, combined with diligent research to create the memorable and admirable Afrofuturistic costumes of the Black Panther.
When Carter began working on the set of Black Panther, she would be asked, “How does it feel to do designs for superheroes.” Carter’s response, yet simple, set the tone for the rest of her presentation and demonstrated the thought process that goes in to each of her designs by detailing the impact that her past designs have had, “All my life I have been designing superheroes.”
Although she looks at the final products of her work in an equal light, Carter explained that she was intimidated when she began working with Marvel, but she also said, “Sometimes the best experiences are the ones that you are intimidated by.” Past designers as well as current employees at Marvel would explain to her that, “certain things are done a certain way at Marvel.” However, Carter thought that was a horrible mind-set and way of doing business, so she changed it. Although Carter still designed by her own terms, there were certain aspects of the set schedule that she learned from and came to find beneficial, such as meetings 2-3 times a week.
Before beginning the designs for the eight tribes of Wakanda, Carter exercised research and diligence to the craft. She studied the characteristics of the eight tribes and learned about each of the original South African tribes that the Wakanda tribes gained inspiration from.
1. The Border Tribe which was faced with the task of protecting the Wakanda border, was inspired by the Lesotho people in South Africa
2. The Golden Tribe which was the tribe of the royal family was inspired by the Zulu people in South Africa.
As the creation began to come together and Carter discovered the cultural references that would accurately be included in the depiction of the tribes, she knew, “This was going to mean something really special,” and began to hope that the film and designs would open everyone’s mind about Africa.
To future costume designers and emerging artists, Carter offers encouragement, “Don’t worry, keep going, and don’t stop. You are emerging but growing and every project trains you for the next one.”
Carter went on to detail the creation of each costume and the important cultural references that provided inspiration for her designs.
The Black Panther
To ensure that the Black Panther had the presentation of a superhero, Carter enhanced the body’s natural forms with a muscle suit. On the costume itself, Carter designed a unique pattern made up of the Wakanda language. She also added the triangular pieces around the neck of the Black Panther to draw a special meaning and significance of the African culture.
The most prominent costume pieces that were designed for the Queen Mother were the isicholo (a married woman’s hat in South Africa, specifically relating to the Zulu people) and collar. For both pieces, Carter could not imagine the queen wearing anything that was not perfect. Since Wakanda is a place with much forward technology, Carter thought that the best and only way to achieve perfection on the Queen’s costume was 3D printing. A special printer was used for the project, which allowed for large formatting and printing on flexible material. This was the first time that Carter had experience designing a costume in this manner and she reminisced that it was a successful experience and embraced the new method of costume designing.
The producers of Marvel fell in love with the blankets worn by the people of South Africa and wanted Carter to print Vibranium on the blankets, so they could be used as shields. Carter imported about 200 beautiful blankets from South Africa. Although beautiful, the producers and actors ran into an issue. The blankets were too thick for their intended use. As a result, Carter and her design team spent weeks using an electric shaver to thin out each and every one of the blankets.
The Dora Milaje are the King’s body guards and their purpose is to create harmony between the Wakanda rival tribe factions. The original drawing in the comics was not the look that the movie was going for. To create a new and empowering look, Carter covered the armor with jewelry and added more vibrant colors. The jewelry that was used on the Dora Milaje’s costumes included African beads, trinkets, and a panther buckle to symbolize that they protect the king. Proud of how the design came together, Carter described this costume as the specific design where, “Culture meets fantasy, in a way never before seen in marvel.”
Mbaku and Jabrari
Carter described the Jabari’s costumes as very different than any other characters. In the comics, Mbaku’s character was depicted very negatively with some narrations and illustrations describing him to be an ape. The silver fur cape worn by the Jabari drew inspiration from the ape-like appearance and the masculine grass skirts drew inspiration from the Dogan Tribe of Maui.
After the lecture by Ruth Carter, the audience was invited to stay for the screening of Black Panther.