Heroes: Ruth E. Carter
Legendary costume designer Ruth E. Carter talks about how she discovered the power in black storytelling.
Ruth E. Carter’s ascendance has been nothing short of a tour de force. Back in the ‘90s, she was the industry’s best-kept secret, working from behind the curtain to bring classics of Black cinema like Spike Lee’s Crooklyn and Do the Right Thing to life. The costume designer took center stage in 2019, winning an Oscar for her richly symbolic costumes for Marvel’s Black Panther, which fused traditional African techniques with sci-fi futurism. “Throughout my career, I always thought about how there has never been a Black woman to win that award,” she says. “I would say to myself, ‘I’m going to be the one to do it.’”
Born and raised in the small town of Springfield, Massachusetts, Carter’s childhood was enriched with Black culture and influences. “As a young girl, I was able to go on church outings,” she says. “We took bus trips to New York and saw Broadway plays like Mama I Want to Sing!, For Colored Girls, and The Wiz. I would say that’s where it all began.” The youngest of nine artistic siblings, she was exposed to various art forms, from sketching and spoken word to theater. During a post-college internship at New Mexico’s prestigious Santa Fe Opera, her creative sensibilities found a new focus. “I’d walk over to the large drafting table and would marvel at the beautiful sketch left by the costume designer,” she says. “That really was a huge inspiration for me; it let me know I wanted to be on that side of creating.” The intricate and opulent design process left a mark on Carter; her creations today feel similarly unbound.
After a chance meeting with then-emerging director Spike Lee at a South Central L.A. creative hub held in a speakeasy, Lee helped Carter navigate the industry before giving her first credit as a costume designer on 1988’s School Daze. Avoiding stereotypical depictions of people of color, the costumes captured young, well-adjusted, socially-conscious Black scholars in moderately preppy yet Afrocentric attire. Working alongside Lee, the two were bonded by their innate flair for Black storytelling. “We wanted to uplift the race, and show a side of us that has not been shown before. That’s why you don’t see any gold chains” Carter says. “We were cognizant of what we think of ourselves and our communities, that is what we projected on-screen as a representation of us. Not the buffoonery and the gangs, but a true representation of Black people.”
Carter went on to tell the stories of Black visionaries through her designs, from the cascading-fringe micro-dresses of music icon Tina Turner (What’s Love Got to Do with It, 1993) to the subtly suave suits of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (Selma, 2014)—all undoubtedly preparing her for the game-changing Black Panther. Bringing Wakanda to life, she created a modern-day Black utopia inspired by traditional Maasai and Ndebele designs tailored to each character. Carter’s objective was to amplify the beauty and strength of a marginalized race—but she did so much more. Transcending beyond boundaries with her Oscar win, Ruth E. Carter opened a door for Black costume designers that had been shut since the dawn of the Academy’s 89-year-existence. “There was a system in place that was preventing us from being seen,” she says, reflecting on her career. “And this was my opportunity to say no more. I am opening this door, and I am opening it wide. I’m going to let as many Black creatives in as I can.”
Showing no signs of slowing down, this month, her work will be seen in Eddie Murphy’s Coming 2 America, and she’s already gearing up for Black Panther’s sequel, which starts shooting in July.