Costume designer Ruth E. Carter adorns stars for Hollywood

Ruth Carter speaks at the 2018 WonderCon at the Anaheim Convention Center California. (Gage Skidmore / WikiCommons)

Credit: Gage Skidmore

Credit: Gage Skidmore

Ruth Carter speaks at the 2018 WonderCon at the Anaheim Convention Center California. (Gage Skidmore / WikiCommons)

Ruth E. Carter was designing costumes for superheroes long before “Black Panther.” The beloved Marvel icon may have acute senses, enhanced strength and healing powers, but Carter has reimagined real-life legends with superpowers for the big screen, too. Think Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.

The award-winning artist has had a pivotal role in dressing some of cinema’s most memorable characters. From “Malcolm X” to “Selma” to “Marshall,” Carter has been authentically translating Black style and fashion through a theatrical lens for over three decades.

With more than 60 film and television projects under her belt, the visual storyteller has mastered multiple genres and time periods, making her one of the most sought after costume designers in Hollywood.

“It’s been my life’s honor to create costumes,” she said in 2019 while accepting her first Academy Award for best costume design for “Black Panther.”

The "Black Panther" costume worn by Chadwick Boseman and designed by Academy Award-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter, whose work is featured in a show at SCAD FASH.
Courtesy of SCAD. Photo by Awol Erizku for The New Yorker

Credit: Awol Erizku

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Credit: Awol Erizku

But crafting masterpieces wasn’t always her passion.

Carter — born April 10, 1960 in Springfield, Massachusetts — experimented on her mom’s sewing machine as a kid, but that didn’t spark her interest for costuming. She also grew up sketching with one of her seven siblings, but that didn’t quite do it either.

It was her time at Hampton University, a historically black institution in Virginia, that put her on a path to designing. After ditching a special education major for a theater one, she auditioned for a role in a play. When she didn’t land the part, her professor recommended she try costume design.

She followed the suggestion, and it stuck. Carter leaned into her talents, remembering childhood lessons on sewing and drawing from her mother and brother. She would sketch and conduct research in her dorm room in preparation for campus performances.After graduating from college and completing a few internships in the early 1980s, she moved to Los Angeles, where she continued to construct costumes for stage productions and dance studios.

Then fate stepped in. While working on a show, she met filmmaker Spike Lee, who’d just finished his first feature film “She’s Gotta Have It.” He was interested in her creations and advised her to join a student’s senior film project at UCLA or the University of Southern California to gain film experience. She obliged, and a while later, she received a phone call.

“Ruth, this is the man of your dreams,” Carter imitated during a 2019 talk at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “It was the ’80s and I responded, ‘Denzel?!’ He said, ‘No, this is Spike. I want you to do my next movie, “School Daze.”' So I quit my job and I started sketching and drawing.”

Lee has since tapped Carter for at least 10 of his movies, including “Do The Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever,” “Mo Better Blues,” and “Chi-Raq;” and she eventually got to actually meet the “man of her dreams,” Denzel Washington, while on set for “Malcolm X,” the flick that led to her first of three Academy Award nominations.

SCAD Atlanta – Fall 2020 – Exhibitions – Ruth E. Carter – "Afrofuturism in Costume Design" – Teaser Documentation – Photography Courtesy of SCAD

Credit: Chia Chong

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Credit: Chia Chong

Carter’s knack for veraciously capturing Black culture also caught the attention of other filmmakers, such as Keenan Ivory Wayans (“I’m Gonna Git You Sucka”), Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love and Basketball”) and John Singleton(”Baby Boy”). And she’s adorned several A-listers from Oprah Winfrey and Angela Bassett to Eddie Murphy and Forest Whitaker.

During Halloween season, it’s not hard to spot a young boy dressed in an all-black jumpsuit in admiration of King T’Challa from “Black Panther” or a pair of women in bright, latex outfits impersonating Nisi and Mickey from “B.A.P.S.”

Carter’s work is extensive, and her impact is undeniable.

In December 2020, SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film opened the “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design” exhibit to celebrate her journey. It features 60 of her ensembles, along with her sketches and research materials.

Carter has designed for many superheroes throughout her career, but her indelible mark on history proves she has superpowers of her own.

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“Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design”

Through Sept. 12. SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film. 1600 Peachtree St. NW, Atlanta. 404-253-3132, scadfash.org.