Exclusive: Costume Designer Ruth Carter Talks ‘Black Panther’

HOLLYWOOD, CA - JANUARY 29: Costume designer Ruth E. Carter at the Los Angeles World Premiere of Marvel Studios' BLACK PANTHER at Dolby Theatre on January 29, 2018 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for Disney) *** Local Caption *** Ruth E. Carter

Marvel’s Black Panther took the world by storm after it released in February.

It became the third biggest movie of all time domestically with over $665 million – the first film in eight years to spend five weeks at No. 1 – and rose to the global top 10 of all time with over $1.3 billion. Part of the magic of Black Panther lies in its ornate and colorful costumes and the woman behind those wonderful costumes, Emmy and two-time Academy Award nominee Ruth Carter.

The Knockturnal: How did you get involved with Black Panther?

Ruth Carter: I interviewed for the job, like anybody else. My agent was called that they were checking my availability and I went in and interviewed for it.

The Knockturnal: What was your experience working with your director Ryan Coogler?

Ruth Carter: Ryan is probably the most sensitive director that I’ve ever met. I think a lot of it has to do with, you know, he grew up in a household of women, and he had a good father. I feel like I was dealing with someone with good family values. So it was not hard for him to see another point of view. He has definitely had a good stronghold on pop culture, what was in, what was now. I also think that he had a sensitivity toward women in general. He was a new husband, and I think even before that, he was just an all-around sensitive person. I think that’s why it shows in the work and in the writing. He is so complex, and I think he’s a very complex person.

The Knockturnal: How much research goes into designing a costume?

Ruth Carter: A costume? Um, well, I think you really have to bring a story to every costume. The story element in designing will take you down many avenues. You have to define it by its time, its place, sometimes, like in Black Panther, we were thinking forward and also thinking back, as far as ancient Africa. We applied it to a more modern, more Afro-future model. That’s kind of what our approach was.

The Knockturnal: What inspired or influenced the costumes for Black Panther?

Ruth Carter: Africa inspired the costumes for Black Panther. We took a serious stab at all of the ancient tribes. We’re not historians, but we love the complexity of the research and the diversity of the looks around the continent, so there was plenty to choose from.

The Knockturnal: What is the process of designing for a film like Black Panther with such a large cast?

Ruth Carter: We start with fitting, we get measurements, we do research, we compile fabrics, we look at ancient artifacts. We really start from a point of authenticity and begin to shape the look based on illustrations that get approved by the studio. Then they get put on the tables of craft people, cutters, and dressmakers. It’s a complicated process. Sometimes fabric is designed as well. It just depends on each individual costume having its own story.

The Knockturnal: For you, what is the most challenging aspect of being a costume designer? 

Ruth Carter: I guess, the most challenging aspect of being a costume designer is realizing that you can’t do it all by yourself. You need a team. Your team has to understand the direction that you want to take the look into. If I say “I’m doing the 70’s”, the 70s has a lot of different looks. I have to be very clear with my team, which look from the 70’s that I’m doing. And in the case of the Black Panther, we wanted a royalty to our costumes. We wanted to make it different and do something that no had really done before.

The Knockturnal: There are a lot of movement and fight scenes in Black Panther. How does all that movement and action affect the way that you design costumes for the film?

Ruth Carter: We have what we call a “beauty” suit. Which sometimes they have hard pieces, metal pieces, real beads, but they can’t do stunts and fight scenes in costumes that have metal pieces or real beads because someone could get hurt. So what we do is we make our molded suits. We make a mold out of a costume the actor is wearing, and we make one out of rubber that looks exactly like the original. When they’re fighting, and their clothes are swinging around they’re really soft, soft, _ pieces that won’t hurt anybody.

The Knockturnal: Do you have a favorite memory of working on this film?

Ruth Carter: Um I love the memory of…oh, there’s so many. I would say my best memory is…Okay, that’s a good one. You got me. [laughter] I think my best memory is going to the Great Mound where the big fight scenes were being set up, and we had all of the border tribes with their blankets in their beautiful colors we had all of the Dora Milaje in their beautiful red, we had Okoye and Kilmonger in his sweater with the open chest and, then we had Lupita [Nakia] and Shuri in their two costumes. Seeing them all dressed together was pretty wonderful.

The Knocturnal: Black Panther, is you know this historic film that has had this amazing cultural impact. How does is it feel for you to be a part of something that’s going to have a legacy in the film?

Ruth Carter: I am so proud of working on Black Panther. Ryan Coogler, like I said, he had a sensitivity about it. He felt strongly about his creation of Black Panther. He was right on target. I’m proud that he chose me to do the costumes because they are. I get letters all the time from people just talking about them. So, I’m really proud because it was my first superhero film and it turned out it’s really going to stay with me forever. Just being a part of Ryan’s time, I’m so proud of being a part of that team. And what we could accomplish in the end. It was so special. We all were so clear with where we wanted to go and now that we presented that idea to the world, and people love it; it just makes me feel that everything I’ve done my whole life, my whole career, was worth this very moment.

 Black Panther is now available Digitally in HD and 4K Ultra HD™ and Movies Anywhere and in 4K Ultra HD™, Blu-ray™, DVD and On-Demand on May 15.  

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