Costume designer Ruth Carter explains the film’s most captivating looks—including Angela Bassett’s 3-D-printed accessories.
Chadwick Boseman had just one request for Ruth Carter as she began designing the costumes for Black Panther: he wanted to be able to move.
Black Panther‘s introduction in Captain America: Civil War was, as Carter put it in an interview with V.F.,“kind of an afterthought”; he was added to the film later in the production process than other characters, so his suit had to be made in a hurry. As a result, it came with a few shortcomings: “Ruth, I could not breathe out of my nose in that helmet. I couldn’t lift my arm above my shoulder,” the designer remembered Boseman telling her as she got to work. “So when you make me the new superhero suit, could you make it so I can lift my arms?”
Thankfully, in the phenomenal Black Panther stand-alone film, the titular hero gets an upgraded suit—courtesy of his little sister, Shuri (played by breakout Letitia Wright), on screen, and Carter off.
Wakanda, the fictional African nation in which Ryan Coogler’s film unfolds, is thoroughly captivating—a seamless blend of ancient and modern, of tribal tradition and ultra-high-tech gloss. That balance is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Carter’s costumes, which infuse centuries-old styles and accessories with dashes of the future. Just look, for example, at the hat Angela Bassett’s character, Ramonda, wears in her first scene in the film. Its shape comes from hats traditionally worn by married Zulu women, and the pattern woven in sturdy white lace appears traditional enough—but, Carter revealed, the whole thing was actually 3-D-printed.
When the Black Panther, whose real name is T’Challa, sees his mother for the first time in the film, she’s wearing a stunning white ensemble—a gown, a cylindrical hat, and a shoulder mantle that fans out behind her head like a setting sun. To Carter, the Wakandan queen’s hat needed to be immaculately shaped—a level of perfection that could only be achieved with algorithms and computers. “I felt that if she was the queen, there needed to be kind of like a legend [about the hat],” Carter explained. “Or some kind of words written about the queen’s hat—that if it faced north, south, east, and west, it was perfectly cylindrical. There was no side that was not perfect.” Ramonda’s shoulder mantle, also 3-D-printed, came from a different point of origin: English fashion designer Gareth Pugh. “He designed this shoulder circular thing that was really heavy,” Carter said. “It looked like it was made out of leather, and I thought, ‘I love that shape!’”
Pugh might have gotten his inspiration from the Victorian era, Carter said, but to keep the garment tethered to African tradition, she made sure to research African lace patterns as well. She also worked with a friend at U.C.L.A. who specializes in wearable art; together, they came up with the design and sent it to Belgium. Six months later, it was ready.
“When it arrived, we opened the box and it was like Christmas,” Carter recalled, adding that everyone was extremely careful not to break the garment. “It was fantastic.”
The team also made a black version of the outfit, but that didn’t make it into the movie. Perhaps, Carter said, it might be used in the seemingly inevitable sequel.
The creatives behind the film came in at different points in the process, as is typical, Carter noted. But all of them were following one unified vision spearheaded by production designer Hannah Beachler, who had the whole world of Wakanda literally mapped out by the time they arrived. Beachler had compiled what Carter described as “a 500-page outline,” including a map of the country. There was the central district, called the Citadel; the merchant district; the mining district; a park very similar to Central Park; a high-fashion downtown district filled with students; and Step Town, an up-and-coming neighborhood populated by entrepreneurial and artistic types. Within that bible of sorts, Carter said, Beachler had written down suggestions.
“Maybe the Step Town is like Afro-punk and you have the influence of the Turkana tribe,” Carter said. “Maybe the merchant tribe is like the Meatpacking District and you have the influences of the Tuareg. So within that outline it was a great jumping-off point for me.”
Another source of inspiration? The original comics. Carter took time to study images from Black Panther stories by Reginald Hudlin and Ta-Nehisi Coates,and used those images as a jumping-off point for her own work. To Carter, the comics offered a “general brush of what Wakanda is.” With her costumes, she tried to pay homage to those designs while also taking them to the next level.
For Carter, this project was a bit of a family reunion: when she got the news that she’d nabbed the Black Panther gig, she was already working with Chadwick Boseman on the 2017 biopic Marshall. Being new to the genre, Carter recalled being “very shy about it” at first; she kept the news from Boseman until they had finished their first film. When she finally told the actor, however, he already knew. She suspects Coogler might have been the one to let it slip.
When designing costumes for Black Panther, Carter said she didn’t focus on personal style so much as what she described as her “family aesthetic . . . the family aesthetic of being an African-American in this country who respects culture.”