Things did not go as planned for costume designer Ruth E. Carter when she envisioned her career.
While studying at Hampton University, she had her sights on acting. Working on a play, the director steered her toward the costume department. The change in direction has given Carter a 35-plus year career and work on over 40 films including “The Five Heartbeats,” “BAPS,” “Sparkle,” “Baby Boy,” “Marshall,” “Amistad,” “Malcolm X.” “Selma” and “Do the Right Thing.”
Her credits can be seen on many projects by Spike Lee, which whom she has forged a 10-film collaboration starting with his second film “School Daze.” After being nominated three times for an Academy Award, she finally got the prize last year for Best Costume Design.
“We have seen her work many times before. Few people outside of the film industry knew her name until last year’s Academy Awards,” said Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at the University of Maryland. “She’s known for her research, and diligence in producing both ensemble and period films.”
Carter’s attention to detail was evident when she showed the audience through photographs and film clips, her process on “Black Panther.” For that film, she was intent on an authentic connection to the motherland. She started a conversation with others working on the film by asking what they look like in Wakanda. Carter viewed the comics from where the character Black Panther originated. She explored how people dressed in western African countries but felt a need to create a more forward-looking aura.
“We added those elements to the younger Wakanda population you saw in T’Challa and his sister Shuri,” Carter said. “The elders still honored tradition.”
Carter explained how she created the headdress worn by Angela Bassett’s character Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother. It was an original design, which explains why it was difficult to find it in specialty stores after the movie was released.
Carter was further inspired by looking at a Masai warrior headdress and a beaded placemat for another costume piece worn by some of the male characters. It was not until a group picture was taken of the key characters that Carter felt the impact of the “Black Panther” film.
“Entertainment Weekly was going to get the first look at the cast in costume,” said Carter about the eye-opening experience. “We were doing something special that had never been done before. I wanted to jump up and down and run around in circles.”
Now Carter has expanded her vision to retail clothing design. Her line called “Ruthless,” a nickname Carter got from crew members on the set of Lee’s films, is now sold in H&M stores. The new collection launched Feb. 13 with sensibilities aimed to inspire pride, connection and personal expression. Liberation flag colors of red, black and green are prominent through the designs.
“Not many costume designers have this opportunity,” said Carter, who partly credits her work with Lee, especially on “Do the Right Thing,” for inspiring for her retail line. “I did a lot of ‘cross colors’ and I wanted to share with everyone my experience of that era.”
Carter said the retailer is also contributing a $25,000 endowed scholarship to the Ruth E. Carter Endowment at Hampton University.
A sharp eye mixed with curiosity has propelled Carter to be a highly sought-after costume designer. Her most recent recognition was the “Artisans Achievement Award” presented in January by the Hollywood Critics Association for her work on “Dolemite is My Name” starring Eddie Murphy. She is teaming up again with Murphy, another longtime Carter collaborator, on the highly anticipated “Coming 2 America.”
Though acting was her first inclination, being pointed to the costume department yielded greater rewards. From film to retail, Carter continues to soar. Up next is “The Art of Ruth E Carter” a coffee table book.
Carter’s early “ah-ha” moment tells it all: “Once I realized I could be a storyteller through costume design, it stuck.”