Ruth E. Carter
Photo by Rich Fury

Ruth E. Carter: “We have to make it come to life”

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Short Profile

Name: Ruth E. Carter
DOB: 10 April 1960
Place of birth: Springfield, Massachusetts, United States
Occupation: Costume designer

Ms. Carter, how do you know when a costume for a film is complete?

I don’t dwell on things. When it rings and it feels good, I move on. I have so much to do, I have so many marks to hit, so many deadlines in front of me… People don’t realize the layers that are involved in one costume alone — and I do hundreds in one film. So I have to move in a space that’s in flow. When things feel like they are right and they are in the flow of the story and I can present them to the director and get feedback, I am really ready to move on. I could return to it and change it and change it again and go down that slippery slope, but it wouldn’t be prudent of me to keep changing things.

In theory, you could just keep tweaking things endlessly… I guess there has to be a point where you need to keep going forward.

Sometimes we do a lot of illustrations, hundreds of illustrations like we did for Black Panther. We didn’t just come up with one thing and say, “That’s it we are going to move on.” Lots of people collaborate on it. But then there’s a point where we have to materialize it, we have got to make it come to life, we can’t just have that actor in their underwear holding up a sketch in a scene! No! There’s another thought process to the design that has to be engaged, and that can be just as complicated and often even more complicated than the first sketch.

“I was always immersed in the storytelling of culture. I recited poetry to anybody who would listen! I think those influences helped me grow as a person.”

Apparently your work is inspired not by fashion designers or clothing trends, but often by novelists, writers, and poets like Langston Hughes or James Baldwin.

I think very early on, maybe in junior high school, I had older siblings that told me about James Baldwin, they told me about The Last Poets. I listened to The Temptations and The Delfonics and I could imagine how it worked within their world. I knew that African diaspora, I knew about Kwanzaa… So I was always trying to articulate that in my small way, whether I was knitting something, showing something, going to school with African wood sculptures that my teacher would put on display for Black History Month. I was always immersed in the storytelling of culture. I recited poetry to anybody who would listen! I think those influences helped me grow as a person who knew a little bit more about the depth and the breadth of the culture.

And that naturally evolved into costume design?

I guess so! (Laughs)

When you first started out, did you ever imagine the career that was ahead of you? You have over 40 films to your credit, been nominated for three Academy Awards, and were the first African American to win an Oscar for costume design for your work on Black Panther.

I was hopeful! I was always hopeful for myself, because I came out of theater, I was a theater girl. And I had done opera and I had seen those big time opera costume designers come in with their fabulous sketches. They would stand next to the cutters while I was on the sewing table stitching up a doublet. And they would be very, very strong in their opinion about how things were made and how things were done… It was very aspirational, even when I started working with Spike Lee, I still had that theater girl mentality where I was going to do delve into character and do the best illustration that I could and present my work in a certain way. I did imagine myself going to the top, I didn’t know which top, but I imagined myself going there.

How has it been working with Spike Lee all these years? Would your respective careers be the same without one another?

No, he could not possibly have done it without me. I think I taught Spike and Spike taught me. He was my first mentor in film. We would go shopping for certain items together for characters in the film: we shopped for Rosie Perez’s necklaces in the jewelry district on Canal Street. We went to a sportswear shop in Manhattan and bought all of the pledges sports costumes. On those journeys, he would tell me, “You got to get doubles on this because we are going to shoot it this way,” or “This is going to be a stunt, so make sure you have at least five.” He offered up that advice, and he always respected me as the costume designer on his team.

And how did you reciprocate?

Because I was so dedicated to that job, I taught him what that dedication should look like. I taught him what the contribution of a costume designer should be. And at least I hope that I had shown him that you can have someone on your team that is totally dedicated to your script, your writing and your art.

Were you ever worried that this ongoing collaboration would typecast you as a costume designer in the same way that an actor can be typecast to certain roles?

We do get other opportunities, but they are not widely celebrated: I did Keeping Up the Joneses, that was Gal Gadot and Zack Galifinakis. And I did the Ty Cobb film, I did the pilot for Seinfeld back in the eighties, I did Teen Beach Movie for Disney. So there’s a lot of other things. The typecasting comes in when they look collectively at your work and there are people in your work who are celebrated, like Spike Lee. We have 11 features together, not including all of the smaller projects. And then they look at your nominations and see you worked with Steven Spielberg and did Amistad. And so collectively that kind of shapes you. There are a lot of wonderful black cultural films that I worked on and am super proud of…

“I wanted to make sure there was representation, because I think that’s what people would be looking for in a film about Africa today, that there was representation there.”

But it doesn’t mean that’s all you know how to do.

Right, there’s other things too! And I always say when Angela Bassett is starring they say, “Oh, get Ruth Carter,” but when Jennifer Garner is starring, they say, “Let’s get this other person.” It’s really baseless! Costume design is research, it’s character development, it’s understanding fashion trends and fashion history, it’s a little bit of everything. And we are all capable of it. I find that in my case I don’t mind this kind of typecasting because I feel like it’s important work.

Is it essential in that respect to also avoid any crossovers or connections in the costumes for these films?

Oh, I made sure that there were no crossovers! As a matter of fact, we created Wakanda for Black Panther, everyone wanted to talk about Coming to America. And I would say, “This is not Coming To America folks, this is Wakanda!” I didn’t even know that I would ever be working on Zamunda for the sequel, Coming 2 America. So there was a whole bunch of stuff that I didn’t allow into Wakanda, because it reminded me of Coming to America. And that really gave me a wide berth to make them really, really different. Creating the world of Zamunda was thrilling! I involved a lot of African designers like Lavie by CK and Laduma Ngxokolo. I wanted to make sure there was representation, because I think that’s what people would be looking for in a film about Africa today, that there was representation there.

And how was it for you to make the costumes for a comedy? Does it allow you to really get larger than life?

Yeah, I feel like I have a comedic side to my personality, so I appreciate the funny in things and I think there are subtleties with costume design that helps support the performances. You know when comedians say, “Well, this word is more funny to say than that word,” with costumes, you go, “This silhouette is more appropriate for this comedy than that silhouette, that one might be a little too serious.” And so we were big with the shapes, the women’s clothes had big shoulders, and there was fun in the fabric combinations, and the crowns were ginormous. That is where we had fun!