“Every time we did a prototype, it needed to evoke some kind of emotion for me,” says Ruth Carter.
If you’ve seen Marvel’s Black Panther, you know that one of the best things about the film is its use of costumes and sets not just to create the fictional world of Wakanda, but also to tell stories about Wakanda’s history and culture in every single frame. Just looking at this movie, which opened to the second-biggest four-day box office in film history, is half the fun.
That’s why I wanted to talk to Ruth Carter, who designed all of the movie’s costumes — from Black Panther’s sleek superhero suit to the Dora Milaje’s battle gowns to the plethora of other looks that tell you, at a glance, which part of Wakanda certain characters are from. And that’s to say nothing of the moments of high fashion, when T’Challa and his allies embark on exciting spy missions.
Carter joined me for the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, to discuss her work on the new film, as well as her lengthy and impressive resume: Though Black Panther is Carter’s biggest movie yet, she’s been designing costumes since the 1980s. Over the past three decades, she’s worked on almost every one of Spike Lee’s films and received two Oscar nominations for her work on Lee’s Malcolm X and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. Still, she’s never done a movie this big, much less a superhero movie.
I’ve always been curious about just what goes into designing a superhero suit so that it won’t be too claustrophobia-inducing for those who have to wear it. And while Carter revealed to me that the Black Panther suit featured little cut-outs that Chadwick Boseman could remove so they wouldn’t constantly cover his eyes and nose (which were digitally replaced in post), there’s also only so much the team can do to make such a tight-fitting outfit comfortable.
Here’s what she told me about the process of designing Black Panther’s suit, so it looks impressive but is also at least somewhat bearable to wear:
I was a student of the superhero suit on this one, especially since I had never done one before. I had really experienced assistants helping me, and they showed me the Eurojersey that’s used for superhero suits.
You start with this white, four-way stretch fabric that comes from Europe somewhere. They take the holiday in August, and you’ve gotta get your order in way in advance, because they run out. There’s so many superheroes being built. We have to build 12. Some other movie has to build 20. So if we don’t get our order in, we won’t have the proper material for our superhero suit. It’s super crazy. [Laughs.]
They actually guided me through the process in letting me know, here is where you put your design in. We are going to get the jersey. We’re going to dye it black — it starts white. And then what is the surface pattern? What does the pattern on the surface of the suit look like? We have our illustration from [Marvel Studios Head of Visual Development] Ryan Meinerding. It gives you the language to a point, and then there’s a point where I take over.
All of those things are examined, and we do tests. It’s a four-way stretch that they can move in, that they can fight in. We brought in the head cutter [a.k.a. the lead costume maker] from the Boston Ballet in to Atlanta, to give us a new suit for the stunt guys that’s cut with these special gusset shapes so that they could perform, like in the ballet.
It was a huge learning curve for me, and I had really experienced people behind me that said, “Okay. You’re on.”
But just as important to superhero movies, increasingly, is finding a way to dress the film’s women, so that their clothes are beautiful but not exploitative, striking but also battle-ready. This is particularly true for Black Panther, where the all-female Dora Milaje are Wakanda’s fiercest warriors. Here’s how Carter describes that process:
First, let me just say that that was one of the suits that Ryan Meierding’s team started out for us. My first reaction was, “Oh, hey. I’m surprised. There’s no skin showing.” And [director] Ryan Coogler was the one who said, “You know, the Black Panther’s walking around in a catsuit. We don’t want to have naked ladies following along behind him, talking about how they’re here to protect the king.” He didn’t quite say it like that, but I’m saying it like that.
It made sense. If they are the highest fighting force in Wakanda, if they are with the royal family, they need full protection. As we were creating the costume, the design elements were all placed in very attractive ways. I’ll put it that way. So now that the suit is made, it’s fully covering every inch of their body. It makes sense for fighting.
They have metal armor pieces that are designed like jewelry. They have a harness, which is what I call it, that’s been engineered to go around the body in a very lovely, very fitted way. They have what I call sacred geometry, the African striations and gold and red color of the Masai tribe and beadwork, that actually makes it a poignant costume. If you are fighting for the king, or protecting the king, you have a certain rank in this Wakandan nation that’s one of the highest ranked, and therefore, receiving this uniform for battle is an honor. So the costume needs to look like it’s an honor to adorn it.
I approached it in that manner. Every time we did a prototype, it needed to evoke some kind of emotion for me, so we kept going back over, how should this be made? It needed to have a hand-done element to it. I hired a jewelry designer to come in and do some of the specialty pieces, and then we molded from her prototype. The tabard in the front, I feel like if you’re going to have a tabard on the front of your body, it should have a significant meaning. It maybe has some power. It could be laced with vibranium. It could have some trinkets that are protective for you, that make it more personalized.
That tabard became a canvas for this message that this uniform was going to convey and make it even more glorious and special.
For much more with Carter, including her thoughts on telling the story of Wakanda through clothing, her memories of working with great directors, and her feelings on what she’s learned about the black experience through the costume design for so many films that tell black stories, listen to the full episode.
To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.