Ruth Carter: Designing Costumes Worthy of Kings & Queens

After becoming the first black woman to win an Oscar Award for costume design last month, the internet buzzed with her name, but Ruth Carter’s legacy began decades ago. In fact, her career in film started more than 30 years ago when she designed costumes for Spike Lee’s “School Daze” in 1987. Since then, she’s worked with some of Hollywood’s most prominent directors including Robert Townsend, Ava Duvernay, Steven Spielberg, John Singleton, Lee Daniels and of course, Spike Lee.

Her designs, which have been featured in more than 40 films, have helped recreate historic icons and unforgettable moments. But Carter’s passion has always been motivated by two things: people and teaching.

“My designs come from my passion for people,” she tells Huffington Post contributor Tenille Livingston admitting she loves collaborating with other creative minds. As for teaching, well, it was one of her first loves.

“I started out in education,” Carter tells The Undefeated, an online culture and lifestyle magazine. “I come from a legacy of teachers and wanted to be a special ed teacher and then halfway through college [Hampton University] I changed my major to theatre arts.”

Almost immediately, theatre stole her heart. Infatuated with reciting poetry and performing, she auditioned for almost every play, but was never cast. She was asked to create costumes instead, which reignited her childhood love for drawing. By senior year, she’d become Hampton University’s renowned costume designer. But Carter’s love for teaching remained, despite her love for design. So she brought her two passions together, as she worked diligently to teach young people about culture and identity through her designs, a subject she spoke about during her speech at the Oscars. “My career is built with passion to tell stories that allow us to know ourselves better,” she said. Throughout her career, Carter’s costume designs have depicted moments and people that have without a doubt  helped to shaped black identity.

Dressing Leaders  

Some of her most prominent designs have been in films that featured cultural pioneers.  From Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s suits depicted in the movie “Selma,” to both Betty and Malcolm Shabazz’s modern and intelligent chic apparel portrayed in “Malcolm X,” to the unforgettable, rebellious outfits in “Chi-Raq,” Carter’s costume designs showcased forerunners – controversial and uncontroversial – in the black community. As the designs are brought to life, so are the characters and with those characters, comes representation. Powerful  images are birthed representing what present and future generations can accomplish. Perhaps one of the visionary’s most powerful designs and one of my personal favorites, was the slightly worn, oversized European shirt worn by Joseph Cinque in “Amistad” as he declares the powerful statement “give us, us free.” The design was very true to the time and Cinque’s circumstances but also portrayed the juxtaposition of his current state – leader yet enslaved, abolitionist yet in chains.

Ruth Carter

“I look for the details and the nuances,” she told “What makes the fashion a character? Is it the way that, instead of buttoning the coat, it’s wrapped around the waist and then the belt keeps it tied tight? Is that what’s making this person look more character than just in fashion from the period?” The small detail of Cinque wearing the sky blue and gold vest spoke volumes about the way he had earned respect in the community – reinforcing his identity as a current and future leader. Carter’s intentional focus on details has also resulted in costumes portraying prominent black thinkers.

Designing Thinkers

In both “The Butler,” “BlaKKKlansman” and “Marshall,” Carter’s designs brought to life the quick, clever wisdom of Cecil Gaines and Thurgood Marshall. This was particularly special in “Marshall” played by Chadwick Boseman. Knowing that Boseman’s frame was smaller than Marshall’s, she designed the suits slightly bigger to exhibit Marshall’s larger build. She also brought in pictures to help Boseman play the part.

“I make poster-size photographs of some of the most intense or meaningful pictures from the era and put them all over walls. So people who come to get dressed [like Boseman] are beginning an experience. I sometimes point to people on these poster size photographs and I say, ‘That’s who you are. That’s who you’re playing.” Carter goes the extra mile so that when on screen, the actor is not only believable, but so that viewers can see parts of Marshall in themselves – his humanity, his mannerism, his flaws, even his love for smoking, and hopefully, they can relate. After all, “that’s what we’ve been doing this whole time – exploring our past in our present,” she told The New York Times.

Developing Kings, Queens & Superheroes

Today of course, Carter has continued to design costumes that speak to various notions of black identity. While films like “Sparkle,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” “Love & Basketball,” and even “Shaft” focused on black women and men as talented, powerful kings and queens in search of their power, “Black Panther,” for which she won an Oscar, focused on the identity of blacks as superheroes and warriors in addition to being kings and queens.

Creating 1500 costumes for the film, Carter focused on designing traditional African attire for the citizens of Wakanda but she also made sure to emphasize their royalty. “I thought this has got to be an important film, and it had to be something that was Afrofuturist. … I would have to represent images of beauty, forms of beauty, from the African tribal traditions, so that African-Americans could understand it; so that (non-black) Americans could understand African-Americans better; so we could start erasing a homogenized version of Africa,” she told The Huffington Post.

She later continued to speak to this fact stating, “Marvel may have created the first black superhero, but through costume design, we turned him into an African king.”

Ruther Carter has finally gotten the recognition and accolades her hard work deserves, but her legacy is not and can not be summed up by her Oscar win. Her legacy is that of a mother, a queen, a matriarch showing current and future generations the power of identity. May we continue to watch movies with her marvelous designed and be reminded that we are leaders, thinkers, innovators, kings, queens and superheroes, championing our culture during each and every day. Thank you Ruth E. Carter for teaching and reminding us who we are and ensuring we look good while doing so.
-Sharita Hanley