‘Wakanda Forever Is Not a Period Piece’: Ruth E. Carter Unpacks the Film’s Costumes


Black Panther is a fashion film as much as it is a superhero film. The Ryan Coogler–directed film—which won three Academy Awards and grossed more than a billion dollars—inspired hoards of moviegoers to dress up as the film’s characters (or simply don Africana-inspired garb) and attend screenings across the world, striking the Wakanda warrior pose. Tutorials on how to recreate Shuri’s chalk white warrior facial paintings, inspired by the real-life Karo and Suri tribes, populated the internet. A Black Panther–inspired fashion presentation featuring original designs by LaQuan Smith, Cushnie et Ochs, and Chromat even took place during NYFW fall 2018.

Responsible for the distinctive, battle-ready Afrofuturist fashion on display in that first film is costume designer Ruth E. Carter. Her oft-referenced work landed her the 2019 Academy Award for costume design, and she became the first Black person to win in the category. (The win also felt like a capstone for Carter, who has worked on a bevy of Black Hollywood classics for three decades, including B.A.P.S. and Do the Right Thing.) When the sequel was announced, many wondered: Could lightning in a bottle be captured twice?

Judging by the viral photos of the sequel’s jewelry-laden villain, Namor, spreading across social media this week (sparking enough thirst to fill the Atlantic), the answer is yes. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has expanded the universe’s world from Africa to Mesoamerica. When asked how her creative process on Black Panther: Wakanda Forever differed from the first film, Carter is straight to the point. “I was Ruth Carter then, and I’m Ruth Carter now,” she answers. “My process of what actually gets me to my understanding of what we’re doing doesn’t change. I have to do the groundwork, I have to have a process that works for me. That’s research first and foremost.”

But some practical tinkers and adjustments for the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe entry were necessary. A chief portion of the film centers around a hidden, underwater kingdom with ties to pre-colonized Mesoamerican civilizations. In other words, a lot of water was involved on set. “We had to remake everything to be submerged in water. So everyone’s wearing a bathing suit, basically,” Carter says.

Below, Carter breaks down the process of making some of the key outfits and items featured in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and their deeper connections to the vast, anti-imperialist narrative at the film’s center. Carter, who is now at work on the upcoming Blade reboot, highlights not only overlooked thematic elements embedded into her costumes but also the personal touch that goes into making a big-budget Marvel film, dispelling some misguided notions about how the CGI sausage gets made. “Sometimes people just believe that Marvel does a magic thing,” she says. “That there’s some guy behind a curtain and he’s just pulling levers and shit.”

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