Bloomsbury Fashion Central - Film and Television Costume Ruth E Carter

Ruth E. Carter

Author: Gina D. Lewis

Image from the 1992 film 'Malcolm X'.
Figure 185.1. Malcolm X (1992). From left: Shorty (Spike Lee) and Malcolm X (Denzel Washington). Costume designer: Ruth E. Carter. Director: Spike Lee. Copyright: Warner Bros. [US/Canada], Victor Company of Japan [Japan], Largo International N.V. [ROW]). Image Courtesy: Maximum Film/ALAMY

Ruth E. Carter is a champion of costume design, from period dramas to superhero movies. Carter is celebrated for her ability to access the cultural lexicon through in-depth research practices, giving specific detail to characters and communities, especially African Diaspora culture and Black American life. Her storied collaboration with film director Spike Lee, who gave Carter her first opportunity in film costume design, has led to twelve films together over several decades. With over forty films to her credit, Carter became the first Black Academy Award Winner for Costume Design for Black Panther (2018) and then won the Oscar again for Wakanda (2022). Her deeply researched cultural storytelling has anchored her career, creating memorable images of both everyday life and monumental depictions of Black culture and humanity for the screen.

Carter was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1960. Her love for research began at an early age, citing Black history as a core interest in her childhood upbringing. She attended Hampton University, a historically Black university in Hampton, Virginia. Carter began creating costumes in the university’s theater department. After graduation, she began her career in the Los Angeles theater scene, beginning as an assistant for the LA Theater Center. She learned every side of costuming and was well known in the college thesis circuit for her theater and film projects. During one of her theater productions, a chance introduction to promising film director Spike Lee began his pursuit of Carter for an upcoming film project.

Ruth E. Carter and Spike Lee: Collaboration and the Early Years

Carter received her first phone call from Lee in the spring of 1987 to design the costumes for School Daze (1988). As Carter’s first feature film, costume played a significant role in showcasing Black collegiate aesthetics. Black fraternity and sorority life, pageantry, and Afrocentricity were captured by Carter’s designs, while also exaggerating bold colors and textures for the screen. Particular scenes have been immortalized as pop culture references over the decades, most notably a “Good and Bad Hair,” where Carter dressed two squads of women in rival jerseys as they performed their slander in a hair salon. The signature hockey jerseys were custom-made, per the direction of Lee, and color held symbolic significance for Black Greek life tradition and to Afrocentric expression. Lee was also intentional about including designers of color in his projects, which led Carter to collaborate with fashion designer Willi Smith. Smith’s contributions included the velvet and tulle gowns for the homecoming queens and their courts. Carter spoke of her role: “It was my job to select the things that would create a character, using the realm of fashion in a very modern and contemporary way to tell a story through color, composition and style” (Lisby nd).

Do The Right Thing (1989) became a breakout film for Lee, garnering many accolades for its cultural portrayal. Tasked with costuming the “Hottest Day in July” in Bedford- Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Carter captured the vibrancy and heat through each character’s cultural identity and neighborhood’s reputation. The film’s costumes featured a branded partnership deal with Nike. Other statement accessories included a Jackie Robinson baseball jersey, Sal’s embroidered bowling shirt, and the boxing gloves as a “garment of protest,” underscoring director Lee’s affinity for sports regalia. Carter also created shorts from Kente cloth and hand-painted shirts from local artists to signify the Afrocentric themes that were central to the Brooklyn-based story.

Carter and Lee collaborated on twelve films from 1988 to 2015. In addition to School Daze and Do the Right Thing, Carter designed costumes for Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), Malcolm X (1992), Crooklyn (1994), Clockers (1995), Summer of Sam (1999), Bamboozled (2000), Oldboy (2013), Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014), and Chi-Raq (2015). Carter has been a signature contributor to Lee’s film aesthetic and their shared language, and passion for authenticating Black lived experiences has led to the creation of cultural iconography.

Historical Representation of the African American Journey through Costume Design

Throughout the 1990s, Carter’s costume design for the films Malcolm X, Rosewood (1997), and Amistad (1998) took on historical significance for retelling Black history on film. Carter received her first Academy Award nomination for Costume Design for Malcolm X. Her second Academy Award nomination would come for Amistad.

Malcolm X took audiences through the complex life of the famed civil rights leader, from the Harlem Renaissance to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Carter’s role was central to painting a portrait of each era. She cited a love for the “theatrics of the period and also re-creating realistic Black life of the period”. Spanning several decades, stylistic eras, and geographic locations, her approach took on the primary role of researcher, which aligned with Spike Lee’s vision for immense detail. Using The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a starting point, Carter sought to understand Malcolm’s own sartorial choices. The costume design for this film has been cited as one of Carter’s most extensive and complex projects in her career (Sherwood 1993).

Black musical performance is another cultural cornerstone for Carter. Her iconic costume design for musical performances include The Five Heartbeats (1991), What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), and Sparkle (2012). Other contributions include the reimagining of 1960s and 1970s Blaxploitation films. Carter created the costumes for I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (1988), Shaft (2000), Black Dynamite (2009), and Dolemite Is My Name (2019). Continuing into the 2010s, Carter’s played a key role in historical storytelling that brought The Butler (2013), Selma (2014), Marshall (2017) to life. She also designed the television miniseries remake of Roots (2016).

Black Panther: Imagination and Afrofuturism

Carter was selected to design costumes for Marvel Studios’s Black Panther (2018) by director/co-writer Ryan Coogler. While Marvel Studios films appeared to be a departure from Carter’s background, historical research and detailed execution for her prior film projects served as master preparatory class. She created more than fifteen hundred Afrofuturistic costumes with intentional symbolism and a connection to broader Africana diasporic themes and cultures. Carter made a significant contribution to the film’s visual representation of Wakanda, the fictitious Afro-Future land, which ultimately led to the film’s global success and garnered her first Academy Award in Costume Design.

Black Panther’s futuristic world aligned with the technological advancements of the costume design. Carter took the opportunity to bring traditional materials and iconography from Africa to tell a story through symbolic dress and adornment. For her second Academy Award for Black Panther 2: Wakanda Forever (2022), Carter used her designs to deepen the cultural complexity for this Marvel franchise. As Ryan Coogler observed, “Ruth Carter took the initiative and pushed the film further than I could have ever imagined. I just keep my eyes and ears open to her bringing it to life” (Taylor 2023).

Carter’s career has extended beyond film and into the arena of fashion brand collaborations, museum exhibitions, and cultural foundations. In 2018, Carter co-founded the Black Design Collective with fashion industry leaders in Los Angeles, California. The mission is to “amplify the influence of and create opportunities for the community of Black apparel and accessory designers and costume designers within the US and abroad.” In 2020, Carter designed a capsule collection for global retailer H&M, inspired by her approach to Black historical references and streetwear. Her costumes have been the subject of several curated exhibits, including Uncommon Threads: The Works of Ruth E. Carter and Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design, the latter exhibition including more than sixty of Carter’s original creations. Carter also published a book entitled The Art of Ruth Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture, from Do the Right Thing to Black Panther.

References and Further Reading

Abstract: The Art of Design. 2019. Season 2, Episode 3 Ruth Carter: Costume Design, September 25. Director, Claudia Woloshin. USA: Netflix Original Documentary Series.

Bahr Lindsey. 2015. “Ruth E. Carter’s Meeting with Spike Lee Changed Everything.” AP News, February 18. /article/761831350b46493e8d76ab8957806d4b.

Benson Sheila. 1989. “Movie Reviews Spike Lee Comes of Age.” Los Angeles Times, June 30.

Carter Ruth E. 2023. The Art of Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture, from Do the Right Thing to Black Panther. Chronicle Books.

Friedman Vanessa. 2022. “Dressing Wakanda.” New York Times, November 16.

Goodwin Betty. 1993. Designers: Spike Lee veteran turns to Tina: Los Angeles Times, June 9.

Goodwin Betty. 1998. “Fashion; Screen Style; Bassett’s New Look is Pearls, Not Power.” Los Angeles Times, August 13.

Gross Terry. 2023. “Movie Interviews: An Oscar-Winning Costume Designer Explains How Clothes ‘Create a Mood.’” National Public Radio, February 14.

Haley Alex, and Malcolm X. 1992. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. United Kingdom: Random House Publishing Group.

Lisby Darnell-Jamal. n.d. “Ruth E. Carter on School Daze.” Interview.

Martin Sue. 1990. “Blowing Hot and Cool.” Los Angeles Times, August 15.

Newman Scarlett. 2019. “Profile: Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black Panther.” The Fashion Studies Journal, March 23.

Okwodu Janelle. 2020. “Costume Designer Ruth Carter Brings Truth to Her First Collection with H&M.” Vogue, February 4.

Quintanilla Michael. 2000. “Hot Threads for a Cool Cat: Shaft!; Giorgio Armani, Style Machine.” Los Angeles Times, June 16.

Ryzik Melena. 2018. “African Designs Inspire a Film’s Look: The Arts/Cultural Desk.” New York Times, February 24.

Ryzik Melena. 2018. “The Afrofuturistic Designs of ‘Black Panther.’” New York Times, February 23.

Sayej Nadja. 2021. Ruth E. Carter: “Nothing is Set in Stone Until the Cameras Start Rolling.” The Guardian, February 17.

Sherwood Rick. 1993. “Doing the Right Thing: After Spike Lee Gave Her a Leg up, Costume Designer Ruth Carter Sprinted to the Top of Her Field.” The Hollywood Reporter, January 27.

St. Félix Doreen. 2018. “Ruth E Carter’s Threads of History.” The New Yorker, September 10.

Taylor Drew. 2023. “How ‘Black Panther’ Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter ‘Took it up a Notch’ for ‘Wakanda Forever.’” The Wrap. January 16.

Turan Kenneth. 2001. “Movie Review; This isn’t Neverland; in ‘Baby Boy,’ John Singleton Delivers a Heartfelt but Ragged and Raw Look at a Young Man in L.A. Who Won’t Grow Up.” Los Angeles Times, June 27.

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