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20 Fascinating (And Fashionable) Behind-The-Scenes Facts And Details About The Costumes Designed By Ruth E. Carter

At one point, the Black Panther costume team had to shave 150 blankets by hand.

Ruth E. Carter is a legendary costume designer with such an impressive body of work that it's difficult to sum it up without feeling as though you're leaving something out. She's the first Black costume designer to win the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, for her instantly iconic Wakandan designs in Black Panther...

Ruth E. Carter holding her Oscar

...and she's the first Black costume designer to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Ruth E Carter's star on the walk of fame

From superheroes like Black Panther to historical icons like Martin Luther King Jr. to the many, many characters she's costumed over the course of her long-lasting collaboration with director Spike Lee, Carter has shaped the way you watch movies, whether you know it or not. In honor of her work, here are 20 behind-the-scenes facts and details about her costumes that she's shared during her career.

Ruth E Carter at an Academy Awards event

1. The costumes of Black Panther were heavily influenced by many different African cultures as well as the aesthetics of Afrofuturism. According to the New York Times, before the film began shooting, Carter's team spent six months traveling to find African textiles and accessories from which to draw inspiration for the diverse fashions of Wakanda.

The people of Wakanda gathered on the waterfall for the king choosing ceremony

2. Speaking of Afrofuturism, from December 2020 until September 2021, a retrospective of Carter's work was shown at the SCAD Fash Museum of Fashion + Film. It was entitled Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism In Costume Design. Carter told the Guardian, "I define Afrofuturism in a very humanistic way. How are we able to use technology so we can be a part of what shapes tomorrow? When you can sit for your own purpose, you’re crafting your tomorrow."

T'Challa, Nakia, and Okoye arrive back at Wakanda

She went on, "When you see a protest march like Black Lives Matter, it’s people being empowered to change their future. It ties into systemic racism and abolishes that mindset. Afrofuturism is about trying to make a difference for tomorrow, trying to make a change."

A Black Lives Matter protest in Washington DC

3. While Carter did not design the Black Panther suit, she added her own distinctive touch: a pattern of raised triangles. In an interview with the New York Times, Carter described the triangle as "the sacred geometry of Africa," and noted that its inclusion on King T'Challa's costume "makes him not only a superhero but a king, an African king." Carter told Vanity Fair that the triangle represents "the father, the mother, and the child."

The triangles around Black Panther's neck

4. Carter told Vanity Fair that the stitching on the uniform of the Dora Milaje, the elite warrior class who are charged with protecting Wakanda's king, is representative of scarification.

Okoye in her uniform

Said Carter, "Different tribal customs use scarification as identifying their origins. Sometimes the scars are on the face, sometimes the scars are on the body, and you'll see that represented in many areas and many aspects of different tribal customs. So this Dora Milaje costume would not be complete without some representation of that tradition."

Members of the Dora Milaje

5. Speaking of the Dora Milaje, Carter told the New York Times that the beading on the front of their costumes evokes "the same tradition that you see throughout Africa — the Turkana, the Maasai." The leather harnesses they wear on the top half of their bodies were made in South Africa.

Okoye stands in the background while T'Challa speaks to his cousin

In addition, Okoye wears a gold neckpiece and jewelry, rather than silver, to indicate that she is the leader of the group.

Okoye with the other silver clad warriors

6. The blanket shields worn by W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and other members of Wakanda's border tribe were purchased for the film from the Basotho people in the southern African nation of Lesotho.

W'Kabi speaks to T'Challa

Carter told the Hollywood Reporter that Marvel thought the blankets were too cumbersome as is, so Carter had an assistant shave all 150 of them down.

Members of the border tribe wrapped in blankets

7. The onscreen fashion of Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) was significantly altered from the way the character dresses in the original comics. Carter told Vanity Fair, "The design for Queen Ramonda was very stressful for me at first, because in the comics, Queen Ramonda is walking around in yoga pants and barefoot, and she has her white, beautiful dreadlocks. And, you know, she's very easygoing, and because we're making a movie, and I really wanted you to recognize her as the queen at first glance, when we see her there on the landing pad when T'Challa returns to Wakanda with Nakia, we know right away that that's the queen. And I think it's identifiable in her costume."

Queen Ramonda waiting with Shuri and a member of the Dora Milaje

She continued, "She has her shoulder mantle, which is 3D printed. She has her isicholo, which is the married woman's hat from south Africa. And one of the main reasons why it was important to 3D print that piece was I needed it to be perfect. If Wakanda is this forward-thinking place that's leading in technology, the queen would definitely have pieces that represented tradition but also represented new innovations."

The Queen greeting T'Challa

8. Carter told the New York Times that she and her team spent six months perfecting Queen Ramonda's headpiece. Said Carter, "We found a traditional Zulu married woman’s hat, complete with the ocher that makes it red and, like, a hairy, furry texture on it. ... I didn’t believe that the origins of its shape were real until I saw a real one."

Two Zulu women wearing the married woman's hat

9. Carter told BuzzFeed that when she was designing costumes for Coming 2 America, she aimed to "take Zamunda into contemporary ideas and contemporary Africa" and to make the film "a little bit more world-inclusive." (Zamunda is the fictional African nation where the films are partially set.)

The two royals of Zamunda at an event

Carter went on, "Because we're talking about world inclusion, I incorporated a lot of African designers who work with small companies that would never get this kind of exposure in general." In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Carter said, "We had beautiful things made all over the world. I worked with about three dozen African designers, some of my favorites, and wrote to India and had stuff made."

A Zamundan royal in an elaborate ballgown

10. Coming 2 America was a cruelty-free production, in contrast with its predecessor, which was released in 1988. Carter told Vanity Fair, "If you remember, the king wears a lion on his shoulder when he comes to America. And Prince Akeem, he also wears like an ocelot over his shoulder. And in the new Coming to America, we decided that we would 3D print the lion on the shoulder."

The king in the original with a lion's head on his shoulder and chest, and the prince with a smaller ocelet image over his shoulder

Carter said, "And I like the idea of it being a piece of jewelry as well. So we printed it in gold, and we gemmed the eyes and the nose. And as you might know, even the Maasai tribe in Africa, traditionally, they killed a lot of lions, but now they have technology that helps them chart where the lion herds are so that they won't follow their herd of cattle and they can steer away from them. So that all connects to technology for me as well."

Prince Akeem wearing the golden lion shoulder accessory

11. Carter told the Guardian that the jewels and crowns worn by the Zamunda royals were 3D printed, with a single exception.

The royals of Zamunda

Carter said, "They were made on the computer, except one. One crown from the original movie shows up here — James Earl Jones wore his original crown. For this film, we were all about the opulence of royalty."

James Earl Jones wearing his crown in the first and second movie

12. Carter told Vanity Fair that when she was working on Black Panther, she told her team, "Hey, this is not Coming to America." She explained, "Even though it was a great film, Wakanda really needed to have its own identity."

King T'Challa

Then, when Carter started work on Coming 2 America, she told her team, "This is not Wakanda."

Eddie Murphy as the Zamundan King

13. The iconic credits sequence of Do the Right Thing features Rosie Perez dancing to Public Enemy's song "Fight the Power." Carter told Complex that the song and the film's overall themes inspired her to dress Perez in "garments of protest."

Perez dancing in a tight red dress with a thick black elastic belt

Carter said, "Boxing gloves and a red tight dress with a big elastic belt, and all of the moves of Rosie Perez. The intensity of the color and the hottest day of the year, it just made sense. Spike is so cerebral and very artistic, and he wants your ideas as well as his own. So his idea was to bring in the boxing gloves."

Perez dancing with boxing gloves on

14. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Carter recalled that the first "Bed-Stuy Do or Die" T-shirt worn by Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) in Do the Right Thing misspelled the name of the Brooklyn neighborhood.

Radio Raheem wearing the T-shirt

Carter said, "We wanted to show the sense of a neighborhood and pop culture and all the colors of Afrofuture culture within this African diaspora in Brooklyn. I imported a local artist, NaSha, to paint Radio Raheem’s ‘Bed Stuy Do or Die’ shirt. But when we painted it the first time, we spelled ‘Bed-Stuy’ wrong as ‘Bed-Sty' and they had already shot it, so we had to look at the footage and redo the T-shirt!"

A close-up of Radio's T-shirt

15. Carter told Complex that while she was researching the life of Malcolm X prior to costume-designing Spike Lee's biopic, she was able to access his department of corrections file from when he was imprisoned in the 1940s and read the letters he wrote during that time period.

Men in Malcolm X standing in long coats

Said Carter, "And I was reading his original letters that he wrote while he was in prison to be transferred to another prison that had a bigger library. He was educating himself, and it really connected me to the man. Because I had to make decisions about him that weren't in pictures — what kind of pajamas that he wears to bed. So I really needed to get to know him."

Malcolm X in a prison library

16. Carter told Vanity Fair that the "powder-blue zoot suit" that Malcolm wears in the film is described in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and it was one of several costumes from the original book that Carter "really felt that I wanted to make sure we did."

Malcolm X getting fitted for the blue zoot suit

17. Carter told the Root that "95%" of the costumes for Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) in Selma were "tailored from scratch."

Coretta marches with her husband in a vintage suit

18. In Selma, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee are dressed in casual clothing, in contrast with the formal suits of Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow ministers. Carter told the Root, "[James] Forman was always in overalls, a white shirt and black tie, and a denim jacket. This was the dress of the younger organizers in solidarity to the Southern farmer, and it was widespread."

In a scene from Selma, the ministers lead the march, arm in arm

Director Ava DuVernay requested that out of the named characters, only James Bevel (Common) wear denim, for the sake of more straightforward storytelling and world building. So Carter dressed Bevel in denim and did the same for extras who were on the younger side. Said Carter, "I redressed dozens, hoping that they would eventually make it to camera in some unified way."

Common marching in overalls

19. Carter told Entertainment Weekly that when designing the courtroom costumes worn in Amistad, she chose between "the route of rags and bare-chested, or the road of dignified and royal." Said Carter, "I decided to make them more human and more honored, as opposed to what people might think of captives from Africa."

A captive in formal shirt and vest speaks to his lawyer in the courtroom

20. And finally, a glimpse of the future: Carter told BuzzFeed that one of her personal costuming dreams is to work on a big film about the Harlem Renaissance.

A Black woman smiling and wearing a '20s-style sleeveless dress

Said Carter, "I would love to do the Harlem Renaissance. I know they did it a little bit with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, but I want to do a big Harlem Renaissance film. I want to really get into the poets and the creative artists who were around during that time."

A smiling Black man in a suit and tie

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