After becoming the first African-American to win the Oscar for Best Costume Design with Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter embarked on her sixth collaboration with Eddie Murphy on Craig Brewer’s biographical comedy, Dolemite Is My Name.
Here, Carter channeled the essence of Rudy Ray Moore, a charismatic self-starter who gained a cult following in the ’70s as a comedian, guerilla film actor and producer, through his creation of the Dolemite character—an eccentric ‘urban dandy,’ who entertained the masses with his karate kicks and iconic, handmade looks, over the course of four films.
Going through 75 different story days over the course of the film, Moore (and his alter ego) subsequently had 75 different looks, so Carter spent a substantial amount of time with Murphy in prep, taking the actor through fittings until he was exhausted. “I could always tell when he was exhausted [because] he got real quiet. But in the onset, we’re going down memory lane, I’m playing some ’70s music. We’re very close to the same age, so we remembered a lot of the same things, and once I put him in that high-waist, polyester pant, I was like, ‘Wow, that’s it. That’s Dolemite,’” the costume designer recalls. “We knew [the Blaxploitation] genre so well, especially in the urban communities, especially in the black community, and it was fun to bring those looks back, because I think it just reminds you of how you grew up, and people you knew and saw, and movies you went to.”
Up next for the costume designer is Coming 2 America, the highly anticipated sequel to a 1988 classic, on which she’s reteamed with Brewer, Murphy and Dolemite co-star Wesley Snipes. “Let me tell you, it’s exciting to [revisit] this classic that was created by John Landis and his wife, [costume designer] Deborah Nadoolman Landis. We have big shoes to step into,” Carter admits. “I wanted to create a Zamunda that was 30 years advanced from the first one, and not make it look like Black Panther. I was very conscious of that, and thought, Well, if Wakanda was the tribal, technologically advanced part of Africa, then Zamunda is the fashion capital.”
Below, the costume designer breaks down visual concepts for Dolemite Is My Name, and the process of bringing the ’70s to life for the Netflix pic.
Carter’s starting point on the comedy was watching all four Dolemite films to get a sense of the custom work in every costume.
What the designer saw in Moore’s “dandy” looks was an ingenuity and personality reflective of the “urban flare” of his time.
Pursuing an “uber-realistic” portrait of Rudy Ray Moore’s world, to make Dolemite pop off the screen, the designer looked to “fictitious Hollywood pimp films” of the ’70s like Super Fly and The Mack—films that had inspired Moore’s creation of Dolemite—to recreate looks for his character.
Early on, the designer also looked at behind-the-scenes photos of UCLA film students involved with Moore’s low-budget productions, which screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski had amassed.
While real vintage was sourced for cast members including Keegan-Michael Key and Mike Epps, each of Moore’s costumes was, out of necessity, created from scratch. The way in which Moore matched the texture of his shoes with that of his pants was singular, Carter says, to the extent that “you can’t find Rudy Ray Moore clothes anywhere.”
Noting the essential elements of Dolemite’s style, including homburg hats and the rose on his lapel, Carter tracked down Los Angeles fabric store International Silks & Woolens, which gave her access to “quite a bit of dead stock from the ’70s”—fabric that had never been used or sold, and subsequently wound up in a warehouse.
Carter then had the fabric over-dyed, “to get it into the story, and the composition of what we were trying to do,” and had tailors all around Los Angeles making clothes for Murphy’s Dolemite.
One of the biggest challenges of the production was crafting platform shoes that Murphy could wear comfortably. “I look at the film, and I love to see him with that sway in his step. He really overcame a lot of pain that he felt in his feet, so I was constantly trying to remake the shoes,” the costume designer explains.
Ultimately, the solution was to develop a platform shoe made partially from Adidas sneakers.