With over 40 film credits and two Oscar nominations to her name, costume designer Ruth E. Carter took on superhero scope for the first time with Ryan Coogler’s Marvel phenomenon Black Panther. Following T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman)—a superhero and King-to-be in the technologically advanced, African nation of Wakanda—the Marvel pic hinged largely on one central question. That question, for Coogler, was: What does Africa mean to me? “For Ryan, it was an exploration of his own ideas about Africa, what he knew and what he didn’t know. That aspiration, for him, was important, to delve into culture, into things that are mysterious about Africa to people, and dispel a lot of those mysteries,” Carter explains. “To tell the stories of the vast tribal customs and beautiful traditions that we see across the continent.”
Crafting and sourcing around 1500 costumes for the project, Carter’s work embodies the international nature of its ambitions. For a film that moves between a fictional African kingdom, South Korea and the United States, she sent shoppers out to South Africa and Ghana, had outfits made in South Korea and Busan, and had embroidery done in Thailand. “We went around the world,” she says. “We really, actually bought from the source.” In early conversations with Coogler and Marvel’s Nate Moore, the conversation was “about Afrofuturism, about how we grew up and what our lives were like, as far as how it fit within the consciousness of African Diaspora,” Carter shares. “Ryan shared with me a story about seeing Malcolm X with his dad at the movies when he was a little boy, and how he remembered [my] costumes, and was really happy to meet me.”
Designing fashions for almost all of Spike Lee’s films—going back to the very beginnings of his career—Carter saw in Coogler a “young Spike Lee,” a visionary with the utmost respect for her craft. Of course, while the myriad cultures of the African continent were paramount to the director, in terms of his aesthetic vision for Black Panther, there was no getting around Marvel’s comic books, which Carter knew very little of. On a scale of Marvel fandom, she jokes, “Ryan was a 10, and I was a -3.” Out of respect for this tradition, though, and “fans young and old”, the designer did her due diligence, looking at the way in which the character and his world were dealt with over the years. “What I discovered was that each writer and illustrator interpreted Wakanda in a similar way, and yet their own way. They all had the edict that Wakanda was a technologically advanced place, a fusion of many African tribes, where technology was laced into their clothing,” she reflects. “[But] I could see within their works that technology had advanced beyond what they had done, even if they had done it in the most recent past. So, the idea of the looks, in terms of technology combining with clothing, felt a little obsolete.”
What remained for Carter, after looking at the comics, were their characterizations. Ultimately, for Coogler and his costume designer, one of the most important tools in differentiating the film’s myriad African tribes was the meticulously thought-out use of color. “Ryan had a very strict palette for each section of Wakanda. Nobody else wore black or red but the Dora [Milaje]. No one else wore green but Lupita [Nyong’o] and the River Tribe. No one else wore orange but the Miners,” Carter notes. “We were very clear on that, and that also told the story of the comics. It reminded us that this was a folklore, where we could have these beautiful, bright, vibrant colors and have this palette play out in front of you, as you would when you’re reading a comic.”
As evidenced, in looking at early sketches for the costumes of Black Panther, each one was taken seriously. Details were important, and there were so very many of them to get right. For an exclusive breakdown by Carter of her pre-production materials—charting the development of her costumes from computer-generated imagery to the fully rendered final versions—read on.
THE BORDER TRIBE
“Part of [Ryan Coogler’s] story with regards to creating Black Panther was a trip to Africa, to the Lesotho Tribes, where he spent some time and got to know these beautiful customs, the tradition of their blankets. He wanted me to bring the Lesotho blankets to the look of our Border Tribe, which was paralleling the Lesotho Tribe. The Lesotho people of Africa are mountain dwellers; they are expert horsemen, they have cattle that they graze throughout the mountainous area, which gets rather cold, and they use these blankets to keep warm. They have these heart-shaped wool hats that they put over their heads, and also these rectangular straw hats that they wear for the intense sun.
The look of the Lesotho people was endearing to Ryan, and we brought that into our Border Tribe. But we gave it a Black Panther story, which was that the Border Tribe was protective of Wakanda’s border. They were expert horsemen, but also fierce fighters. Their blankets would be laced with vibranium, so they could not only cover their bodies from right to left, but they would also protect them in battle. Their blankets would hide their weapons, and also within the design elements and the parallel of the two tribes, we wanted them to have more of a folksy look to them, more of a countryman look, so that you could imagine them down by a fire with their horses, [receptive] to sounds and things that could be in natural environment.”
“Zuri’s sketch gave us a sense that he is not of one tribe; he’s a combination of many tribes, and it really came to fruition as we built his costume. Because you see in the final version of the costume that he has Tuareg symbols on his cuffs, and he’s wearing a traditional Ghanaian drape over his shoulders. We made up elements like the tubular poncho that travels around his body and falls on his shoulders. The actual costume in the end became much more interesting than the sketch—I think it was a marriage of many concepts and ideas.
There were many ideas that were brought to us from the Visual Development team at Marvel. The shoulder piece was taken from one sketch that they submitted; the color was taken from this sketch. We pleated his underlayer like an Issey Miyake piece. When you go in close up to this purple garment in the film, you see this staccato print pleating that is pleated in every direction. You see very intricate beading down the center front, which mimics the language that we see throughout other uniforms in Wakanda. [He’s wearing] the beaded tabard, which you also see in the Dora Milaje costume. He also wears his own set of black leather neck rings, and it’s a very powerful and mysterious costume.”
THE DORA MILAJE
“The initial sketch for the Dora Milaje was done by Anthony Francisco of the Visual Development team. When I received it, there were several layers that needed to happen to make it come to life, to bring it into Wakanda. One of the things that I wanted to do was to bring it into the beauty and vibrancy of Africa by upping the red color, as you see with the Massai and the Samburu and the Himba women. The red became very significant for me because we were producing so few of these costumes, and I didn’t want them to feel like very few. When you saw them together, they felt very strong and made a very strong statement—if you see six, it [should feel] like 10.
Again, the beaded tabard—part of the language of Wakandan uniformity and royalty—was a special piece examined by my team. I felt that since it was riding down the front of the body, not only did it need to be a source of protection, but it also had to have a significance and a meaning, in that it was almost like a flag, or a badge, or a chevron of some type. The beadwork on the tabard was dealt with in similar ways that beadwork is dealt with in Africa, where it signifies fertility and femininity, married or not married. There are trinkets on the tabard that signify what tribe the Dora wearer is from; because their heads are shaved, you don’t really know. They come from different tribes, and I felt like the one connection that they might have in staying connected to their tribe was the trinket on their tabard. So, we put amethyst and jade, and things like that on the tabard, which was pretty fun.
They also had a leather harness that drapes and straps around the body, in a way that actually brings honor to the female form. It travels around the bust area; it tightens around the waist. The manner in which the strap is crafted is much like the South African leather works that I obtained from my work on Roots. They wear these cloth straps that have prayers in them, that are locked inside in their little square tabards. When you see Senegalese wrestlers, they wear these little leather boxes and strap them all over their body, with prayers of protection inside, and these little boxes were inspired by that.
Their leather back skirt is inspired by the Himba women, who stretch these hides and hammer metal into the hem. The craftspeople we had making the Dora back skirts took the leather hides, and I believe they used some kind of leather soap to soften it and stretch it. Then, we put rings and metal trinkets on the edges so that we could have the same decoration that the Himba women did to their skirts. Ryan liked the idea of them making some kind of sound, either by having rings on their ankles or the sounds that the rings on their skirts made. When you were on set, you could actually hear the Dora approaching because their skirts made this kind of jingle-jangle sound. Their boots were split-toe, and that was based on a concept that Ryan wanted to bring into their look, being that they were the highest-ranking fighting force in Wakanda, and protect the King. This split-toe boot would be a show of their agility and their martial arts abilities.”
T’CHALLA’S NIGERIAN SENATOR SUIT
“What we wanted to do was show how T’Challa would be walking, would be seen throughout the palace, when he’s not in his panther suit, and we ended up changing that embroidery several times. Actually, the final rendition of what it was ended up completely different than that sketch. This “Nigerian Senator suit” is an actual garment worn by a Nigerian male, and it’s called a senator suit because it’s a tailored garment. We wanted to give T’Challa this Senator suit because he is now in place of his father in the palace—at the throne, at the Elders’ Council—and we felt that it was a formal way of presenting him as a king around Wakanda. Usually a Senator suit is a tunic and pants, and I made it more of a cutaway coat, which you see in traditional Western clothing. But I gave it an embroidery that was more traditional to Nigeria.”
The Black Panther Superhero Suit
“The Panther suit was brought to my by Ryan Meinerding and the Visual Development team at Marvel, and it was discussed throughout. There are visual elements like Wakandan language that vein throughout the suit. It’s a language that really doesn’t have a meaning; you can’t break it down, as to what it’s saying, but it is the Wakandan font and language that travels throughout the suit, so that once he’s met with kinetic energy, it lights up.
The suit was designed to be much simpler than the Captain America: Civil War suit, which was a lot bulkier, and the pitch of the ears on the helmet is also a little different. One of the aspects that I brought to the suit was the triangular pattern that you see as the surface throughout. I call that the “Okavango Pattern.” The triangle is used in artistry throughout the continent of Africa. It’s like sacred geometry: It means the father, the mother and the child. As far as a surface texture, the suit needed something that would combine with this Wakandan language that was veining throughout. It needed an African element that would create a print that felt like an African print. When I looked at the triangular pattern next to the Wakandan language that veins throughout, it looked like a roller print, which is a process used to create African prints—and therefore, when T’Challa is walking throughout Wakanda with the suit on, with just the helmet, you can feel like he is wearing a habit. It’s not just a super suit; it has more of a story.”