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‘Black Panther’: How Costume Designer Ruth Carter Created a Colorful Pageantry of Afrofuturism

Marvel's zeitgeist-grabbing mega-blockbuster could result in a third Oscar nomination for costume designer Ruth Carter. She could win.

“Black Panther”

Marvel Studios


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It’s not too early to talk about a potential Oscar nomination next year for Ruth Carter. Her colorful costume designs for “Black Panther” represent a diverse celebration of African cultures — past and present — and take the Marvel superhero genre to a whole new aesthetic realm. Indeed, the way Carter mixes a panoply of tribal influences and Afropunk for the fictional Wakanda makes a beautiful and positive fashion statement.

“Ryan Coogler and I discussed representing Africa in a beautiful way,” said Carter (Oscar-nominated for “Amistad” and “Malcom X”). “We had meetings about King T’Challa [Chadwick Boseman] needing to look magnificent. This was a place where people come together and represent their various tribal cultures, and they can wear a lot of traditional clothes. But we were very specific about not making it look like a documentary or anthropological.”

Tribal Eye Candy

The costume design was especially a feast for the eyes during T’Challa’s coronation ceremony, drawing on traditional tribal garments. It was a rich coming together of the five tribes (River, Merchant, Mining, Border, and Mountain). “During that scene, I seized the opportunity to represent the Tuareg as our Merchant tribe and wrap glorious turbans and accentuate them with lots of medals,” Carter said. “And then bring in all the beautiful tones of green for the River tribe and natural earth tones and leaves. It’s as majestic as the Panther suit.”

“Black Panther”

Speaking of which, Carter’s aha moment for the Panther suit occurred when she learned that it has come to represent a habit because of its religious connotations. It was then that she came up with the idea of a triangle. “I infused a triangle pattern because, in a lot of African art you see throughout the continent, there is this sacred geometry. It’s a mystery what it actually means, but there is an equality inherent there, and mixing that with the Wakanda language that runs along the suit, provided a tribal look. In closeup or when T’Challa walks throughout the kingdom, it feels very noble.”

Female Empowerment

Without a doubt, the force of Wakanda is undeniably female, as King T’Challa surrounds himself with powerful women, and Carter enjoyed dreaming up their wardrobes. They consist of Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), adviser on the legacy of his father; Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his former lover, a War Dog, an undercover spy who’s part of the River tribe; Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the Dora Milaje, the all-female special forces; and Shuri (Letitia Wright), his teenage sister and head of tech.

Marvel Studios' BLACK PANTHER..L to R: Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba)..Photo: Matt Kennedy..©Marvel Studios 2018

“Black Panther”

“All those layers of their relationships are represented in the costumes,” Carter said. “Mother/Queen, General/Girlfriend, Spy/Ex-Girlfriend, Sister/Genius. I think, in general, there’s a sense of royalty and esteem with the female uniforms. They have no past and we made them with a specific story in mind. It loops you into Wakanda. They are hand-crafted by the Merchant tribe or some other faction that only makes Dora red uniforms.”

Nakia has a range of disguises throughout “Black Panther” that make her particularly fascinating. “We see her in Nigeria in the beginning with ripped jeans; we see her at the Warrior Falls and she wears her River tribe costume; we see her in the CIA with leather pants and jean jacket; we see her in a casino and she portrays an African princess in a long gown. We covered the layers of women with their toughness and softness at the same time,” said Carter.

Dressing for Action

Dressing for the action sequence in the Korean Casino was multi-layered as well. In fact, it was Koogler’s idea to introduce T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye in black, green, and red, signifying Black Nationalism. “For T’Challa’s dinner jacket that had the magical fabric that had a little gloss and sheen to it,” said Carter. “When I look at that fabric and how it photographed, it really feels like Panther fabric, but really is in context to the rest of the environment, which I worked out with [production designer] Hannah Beachler.

Lupita Nyong'o Chadwick Boseman Danai Gurira Black Panther

Lupita Nyong’o, Chadwick Boseman, and Danai Gurira in “Black Panther”

Courtesy of Marvel

Also, Nakia’s green dress and Okoye’s crimson dress represented their River tribe Dora connections. “It took a lot of R&D to develop that [crimson] dress because she had to perform in so many ways,” added Carter. “And Hannah thought we could do traditional Hambac on the servers. That was kind of like the in thing for kids to wear traditional clothes instead of making them your classic waitresses with little miniskirts and cute tops.”

Black Panther Face-Off

The most complex relationship, though, occurs between T’Challa and rival N’Jadaka/Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), who challenges him as ruler of Wakanda. His wardrobe allowed Carter to incorporate an integral African-American dimension that ties it all together. “There are so many relationships, even among men, that are difficult, and metaphors about Africa and the African-American experience,” Carter said.

"Black Panther"

“Black Panther”

Marvel

“He represents urban America and wears balmain boots and drop crotch pants and jean jacket with shearling,” added Carter. “Part of his past is military with tactical vest, pants, and jacket. There’s so much Americana in his costume and it really does play him opposite of T’Challa. And they both end up wearing a Panther suit in the end. You can really latch onto any relationship: Biblical, mythological, primal.”

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