'Black Panther' costume designer Ruth E. Carter on creating the wardrobe for Wakanda

Courtesy of Ruth E. Carter

Ruth E. Carter, "Black Panther" costume designer, in her studio.

These aren't your mama's dashikis.

The colorfully printed garments, which are most commonly worn in and associated with western Africa, have been co-opted as the uniform de rigueur for Hollywood depictions of the entire continent of Africa. "Black Panther," based on the longstanding Marvel comic book series and released in Feb. 2018, takes a much more thoughtful approach to its wardrobe. 

Wakanda, the fictional land where "Black Panther" takes place, is located, according to Marvel lore "in equatorial Africa." Costume designer Ruth E. Carter wanted the film adaptation of the comic book series to reflect the true diversity of Africa. Carter, who earned an Oscar nomination for best costume designer for her work on the film, also wanted the superhero flick to "respect" and "preserve the culture" of Africa through costume.

Therefore, when creating the costumes for T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the Black Panther, and his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), Carter was thoughtful about paying "homage" and respecting the various cultures of the continent. 

espnW talked to Carter about the many worlds of Wakanda and creating costumes that allowed for mobility during action scenes. 

espnW: What was your top-line vision for bringing "Black Panther" from beloved comic book series to film?

Ruth E. Carter: Hannah Beachler, the production designer, and the director, Ryan Coogler ("Creed," 2015), had already come up with what Wakanda would look like. I also reviewed Reginald Hudlin and Ta-Nehisi Coates' versions of the comic. I wanted to ensure I was up on legend. It was like cramming for a test. However, the production team had already laid out a nice framework of what Wakanda would look like, so it was easy for me to make some fast decisions.

I had to create looks for each district in the film's road map. For example, I wanted to incorporate forward-thinking and simple shapes from Japanese designers like Issey Miyake and Mitsuhiro Matsuda in the medical district. Then there was Steptown, a neighborhood in Wakanda, where you'll see an Afropunk influence. For the business district, you'll see the more formal suiting, which features African-inspired looks by designers like Ozwald Boateng and Ikiré Jones. There was also the military, royal palace and palace guards -- all of those scenes needed to be broken down as well.

However, Coogler deemed what the color palettes were and what the influences should be. For example, he noted that Queen Ramonda was Zulu, so I followed more of the Zulu tradition when creating her looks. If the royal guard was protecting the palace, Coogler wanted their color to be purple. I had to search for the most wearable purple I could find. And purple can be a very difficult color.

Courtesy of Marvel

An inspiration sketch for Queen Ramonda.

espnW: You gave nods to various African tribes in the film's costume design, but you also introduced very slick and futuristic pieces. How did you strike a balance?

REC: I had to keep the designs very high-art so that when the visual and special effects were integrated the items would marry nicely. There were certain elements like Vibranium [a super-powered fictional metal that is often featured in Marvel comics] that needed to be integrated into several costumes. So, we infused this metal we created in the costumes. Because Vibranium is supposed to be the strongest metal known to man, it couldn't have a cracked appearance. 

We also had to create Kimoyo beads, which are a fictional [advanced communication technology, developed and used in Wakanda], and they can be strung together to be worn as a bracelet. Then the digital effects team would do their magic on the back end.

Coogler and Marvel were very specific about infusing technology into the film.

Courtesy of Marvel

Dora Milaje women envisioned.

espnW: How was the body armor, specifically seen on the members of the Dora Milaje, a team of women who serve as protectors of Wakanda, developed? 

REC: I hired a jewelry designer, Douriean Fletcher, to handle the armor. She did some handcrafting and created the shoulder pieces. Then we made molds of her work and created several versions of her pieces in a softer fabric. Thereafter, we painted them to look like metal. The armor was actually made of rubber. The material had to be soft because the women were doing so much stunt work.

espnW: Could you speak a bit about conveying personalities through the costume, specifically for T'Challa, Queen Ramonda and Zuri (Forest Whitaker)?

REC: For the Queen, she was the from the Zulu tribe, so I wanted to pay homage to the Zulu women. Traditionally, married Zulu women wear the style of hats you see Ramonda wearing. We wanted to make sure that her crown was a perfectly symmetrical shape. It couldn't be handmade, so we had to create it via computer, specifically 3-D printing. I wanted to ensure she was the epitome of beauty, technology, and fashion -- but in a regal way.

We got to see T'Challa in more of his everyday wear as he takes over the throne for his father, T'Chaka (John Kani). But then he moves to being this leader, and we see in him in military looks and very elegantly embroidered pieces. 

Zuri is like a shaman. He's a medicine man and a fortune teller. So we didn't want him to look like he was from one particular place; he needed to embody several nations of Africa. 

Courtesy of Marvel

One of T'Challa's many looks.

espnW: You were able to truly honor the diversity of Africa in this film. Please speak on that. 

REC: Even in my most recent trips to Africa, I've witnessed how much pride people have in their nation and heritage. They have fought for their language and identities. There is such a sense of pride. We highlight this in many ways, but specifically with the Black Panther costume by detailing it with the Okavango triangle pattern, [inspired by the Okavango Delta, a vast inland river delta in northern Botswana]. I developed the pattern, as sort of my own sacred geometry. And I felt like, not only am I making him a superhero, but also an African king.

espnW: How did you create movement in the costumes?

REC: It was not easy. The Black Panther costume had to allow for performance. I had to ensure Boseman had mobility. We got a fabric called Eurojersey that was printed and dyed. We had to manipulate it to work. We also paid a lot of attention to his helmet; he needed to be able to breathe and see with it on. 

For the [Dora Milaje] women, they were real athletes, real stuntwomen, and they had 999 complaints. Everything from shoes to tights. It was just like working with dancers. They needed the ability to perform in a certain manner and the only way to do that is to have them test the pieces. Then I'd have them come back and send notes. Which meant there were lots of changes as we went along, but it had to work. They had to move.

This story originally posted on Feb. 2, 2018 and has been updated.

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