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July 16, 2019

BLACK HISTORY MONTH 2019:’Black Panther” costume designer gets accolades for creativity and African authenticity

February 7, 2019
Traditional African fabrics, designs and inspiration was used by designer Ruth Carter, who got special permission from tribes to some garments for “Black Panther.” (Marvel Studios)

Thanks to the skills of costume designers, movie imagery remains with viewers long after the film ends.

And whether her work is for a fictional or a true-life story, award-winning designer Ruth Carter has helped make characters memorable in her 30-plus-year career in the costume-making business – succeeding time and time again in big ways and various genres.

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Her diverse talents be now seen in the Western-themed Paramount Network series “Yellowstone” starring Kevin Costner, for which she created authentic Western gear: cowboy hats, chambray shirts and accessories such as leather riding chaps.

Then there’s “Black Panther,” which earned Carter a Best Costume Design Oscar nomination for her colorful African patterns, intricate hand-beading and jewelry emblematic of the Zulu, Masaai, Nigerian and Ndebele tribes and many others in the groundbreaking Marvel film.

Carter and the film’s production designer, Hannah Beachler, worked to create breathtaking costumes with international themes for the superhero characters in director Ryan Coogler’s $1.3 billion 2018 Afro-futuristic blockbuster.

She designed fabric with an African-inspired geometric triangular pattern she calls “Okavango” for King T’Challa’s suit, which was created by Marvel designer Ryan Meinerding. After being granted special permission from the Basotho people in Lesotho, Africa, Carter used their traditional wool heritage blankets. The brightly colored weather-resistant blankets from the southern Africa region have detailed patterns that hold special cultural significance and are sometimes worn for ceremonial events

There are also Asian influences in some of Carter’s costumes, including inspirations from fashion designer Issey Miyake, Japanese samurai and with Filipino handicrafts.

And the keen African authenticity in the “Black Panther” costumes caught the eye of Yayra Tamakloe, hails from the continent and is studying at Kent State University.

Tamakloe, a senior fashion design student from Ghana, appreciates Carter’s work on the film.

“Black Panther’ positively represented African history. She did a really great job because there’s no way she could have known the tiny little details, but I think she did justice to representing the entire country. She represented a whole continent very well,” said Tamakloe.

Carter, whose creative mind operates like that of a textile historian, has worked on more than 50 films with a diverse group of notable directors, including Spike Lee, John Singleton, Stephen Spielberg, Ava DuVernay and Lee Daniels. She has won multiple primetime Emmy, Tony and Golden Globe awards.

Despite being one of very few African-Americans in the field, Carter has a stunning ability to create authentic looks using clothing, fabrics and accessories to bring eras to life, and her talent has made her a leader in costume design – and one of the most sought-after costume professionals in the industry.

The Springfield, Mass.-born Hampton University graduate first began designing costumes for film in 1988 for Lee’s “School Daze,” and she worked extensively on his other epic productions, including the 1992’s “Malcolm X,” which earned her an Academy Award nomination.

Her ability to research and capture history using fabrics earned Carter her second Oscar nomination for work for Spielberg’s 1997’s film “Amistad,” the true story of the African Mende tribesmen who gained control of their captors’ slave ship in 1839.

The designer also worked on Singleton’s “Rosewood,” the historical fiction-drama which highlighted the 1923 massacre and destruction of African-Americans in a Florida town; Daniels’ “The Butler,” a 2013 movie based on the career of black White House butler Eugene Allen, and DuVernay’s “Selma,” about the voting rights marches in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery.

All illuminate Carter’s seemingly inborn talents. The Wakanda kingdom of “Black Panther” is fictional, but Carter’s costumes inspired a mainstream and international interest in African culture and fashion.

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In addition to black audiences wearing costumes to see the film in theaters, several styles of adult and child costumes for characters King T’Challa/Black Panther and his sister, Shuri, are sold at Party City, Target and other retailers. Cosplayers create their own versions of Wakanda outfits to wear at their events from some of the pre-made items. Even traditional Basotho blankets have become popular items – replicas of the traditional accessory seen in the film are sold on Amazon, while authentic versions can be found on Etsy and at other online retailers.

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