Ruth E. Carter is a prolific and talented costume designer who has designed a number of period films and won the Academy Award for best costume design last year for Black Panther (she was previously nominated twice, for Malcolm X and Amistad). She’s also important because she is Black, and right now the United States is embroiled in protests against systemic racism; Carter’s work both highlights the many contributions African Americans have and continue to make to culture, and the films themselves often tell Black-focused stories, which are so important to our understandings of our own history.
Let’s take a look through Carter’s many frock flicks, with quotes from the designer about her work.
Malcolm X (1992)
“They gave me his (Malcolm X) files, and I read what he wrote. I noticed his penmanship and discovered he wanted to educate himself. He became a Muslim and embraced all people. He was more than a villain” (‘Black Panther,’ ‘Malcolm X’ costumes highlight Heinz History Center exhibit).
“The fabrics are all different. Bell-bottoms in the 70’s were in stiff, hard fabrics. The corduroys were so thick. They don’t make fabrics like that anymore” (Hal Rubenstein, “What’s Ban-Lon Got to do with it?: The 60’s and Early 70’s were Serious Times. Many People were so Busy being Serious that they Didn’t Stop to Check Out how Ridiculous they Looked. A New Film is a Graphic Reminder” New York Times, Jun 27, 1993).
“He [baseball player Ty Cobb] had a great tie collection. He always wore the fashionable ties of the day” (Betty Goodwin, “Cobb Sported it all” Los Angeles Times, Dec 01, 1994).
“Steven Spielberg gave me a great opportunity with ‘Amistad.’ He sent me to Rome and London to pull from period costume rental companies” (“Carter’s Costumes Play Key Role in Films” Courier – Journal, Jul 23, 2006).
“For the ‘Amistad’ costumes, Carter studied nineteenth century etchings from a London flea market, costume archives in Italian opera houses, and David Bindman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,’s multivolume work ‘The Image of the Black in Western Art'” (Threads of History).
“I felt like we found the magic in ‘Rosewood.’ … I felt as if we were making a documentary. The set reminded me of our family history. I could almost smell my grandmother and my mother and my aunt. … In the screening room on the last day, I was watching the dailies and when I got up and said goodbye, everyone applauded. I didn’t expect that. Your journey in filmmaking is very personal. You do the best job you can do. That was an indelible mark in my heart. We were a good team” (“Carter’s Costumes Play Key Role in Films” Courier – Journal, Jul 23, 2006).
“It gave me the opportunity to do all kinds of things. I studied Paco Rabanne, Balenciaga, Pierre Cardin — all these people who were emerging. They were making shapes that were unconventional, and I wanted to do that with ‘Sparkle’ (Oscar Nominee Ruth Carter ‘s Costumes Shine in ‘Sparkle’).
Lee Daniel’s The Butler (2013)
“We went mostly to documentary footage, because Selma is about a march that actually happened. I focused on the details of the marchers. It was about the wardrobe, the shoes, the feet. I wanted to bring it to life” (Sartorial ‘Selma’).
Black Panther (2018)
“African influences haven’t been well-represented. The continent is such a rich resource creatively. I felt that no one really took the dive and decided to be inspired by the Maasi or the Turkana and infuse that in the futuristic model” (How Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter Brought the Afrofuture to ‘Black Panther’).
Which is your favorite of Ruth E. Carter’s period designs?