Costumes from ‘Black Panther,’ ‘Do the Right Thing’ featured at SCAD FASH Museum

The film work of Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter highlights themes of race.

A journey through the captivating career of a prolific film costume designer, “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design” is also a look at how race has been treated in American film.

Though Carter has had a long and varied career in film beginning with her first, Spike Lee’s 1988 “School Daze” filmed in Atlanta, “Afrofuturism” co-curators Rafael Gomes and Christina Frank have chosen to focus on the films Carter has contributed to that foreground race, whether slavery or segregation or the depiction of African-Americans in blaxploitation films of the ‘70s. As Carter said during an interview from her home in Los Angeles, “The study of history is the study of people and what they are up against.”

Credit: Chia Chong

Credit: Chia Chong

Sixty costumes by the designer, along with her costume sketches, research materials and even the dress Carter wore to accept her 2019 Academy Award for “Black Panther” (the first Best Costume Oscar for a Black woman) are featured in the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film exhibition.

The exhibition opens, in a sense, at the very beginning, with her mother’s wooden sewing machine. Given center stage on a dais all its own, Carter once used it as a drawing table until she opened it up to discover the sewing machine inside, thus launching her vocation.

“Afrofuturism” shows Carter’s career trajectory in her detailed, often carefully weathered, historically evolving costumes for the History Channel’s 2016 “Roots” reboot, for Steven Spielberg’s 1997 “Amistad” and for Ava DuVernay’s 2014 “Selma.” There is a strain of male dandyism in the exhibition in the flamboyant, oversized zoot suits on display from Spike Lee’s 1992 “Malcolm X,” to the outrageous canary yellow suit worn by Antonio Fargas in 1988′s “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.”

Credit: Chia Chong

Credit: Chia Chong

The undeniable highlights that will undoubtedly lure many Atlantans to the exhibit are the “Black Panther” costumes. Carter’s work on the film entailed extensive research into authentic African decoration and clothing. That blending of tradition and a superheroic Black utopian society made the film a deeply affirming, powerful brew to viewers. “I actually have my own directorial story going on that’s supporting the storytelling in the script,” says Clark of the meaning-laden and history-infused costumes she created that lent visual gravitas to the film’s message of Black empowerment.

Carter borrowed from an array of African cultures to achieve the iconic look including Maasai garments from Kenya, ceremonial corsets inspired by the Dinka tribe of South Sudan and a traditional South African marriage hat, which Carter translated for the film into a cutting edge 3D printed headdress. For Carter, “Black Panther” was in many ways a culmination of all she had learned over the course of her career.

“You can see the steps of learning in this exhibition that led up to ‘Black Panther,’” she says.

Over the course of her career in costume design, Carter has become her own archivist, rescuing costumes she has worked on that would normally just be discarded or given away. Her preservation and conservation of those costumes are the basis for this exhibition. “I come from theater,” Carter says, “and in theater, we save everything.”


EXHIBIT

“Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design”

Through Sept. 12, 2021. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays; special holiday hours through Jan. 6, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. $10 general admission; $8 seniors/military; $20 family (three or more); $5 college students with ID and SCAD alumni; Free for children under 14, SCAD students, faculty, staff and museum members.

SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film. 1600 Peachtree Street NW, Atlanta. 404-253-3132, scadfash.org

Bottom line: For film and design fans this walk through a sliver of Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter’s career output offers real insight into the impact costume designers can have on a film’s look and feel.