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Meet Ruth E. Carter, the costume designer behind ‘Black Panther,’ ‘Malcolm X,’ and more

Ruth E. Carter, the Oscar-winning "Black Panther" costume designer, is the subject of an exhibition at the New Bedford Art Museum
Ruth E. Carter, the Oscar-winning "Black Panther" costume designer, is the subject of an exhibition at the New Bedford Art MuseumAntwon Maxwell Photography

You may not recognize Ruth E. Carter’s name, but you likely recognize the costumes she’s designed. They’re featured in a dozen Spike Lee films, including “Do the Right Thing” (1989) and “Malcolm X” (1992). The latter was her first Oscar nomination. They’re in Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” (1997), her second nomination. Her third was for “Black Panther” (2018), for which she became the first Black person to win a best costume Oscar.

Other credits include “Selma” (2014), the first season of “Yellowstone” (2018), “My Name Is Dolemite” (2019), and this year’s “Coming 2 America.”

Carter, 61, is one of two costume designers to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (the other is Edith Head). A Springfield native, she returns to Massachusetts this weekend, but it’s the eastern half of the state.

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Carter is to be honored Saturday at the Boston Arts Academy’s annual BAA Honors event, which raises funds for the city’s only public high school for the visual and performing arts.

Also that day, “Uncommon Threads: The Works of Ruth E. Carter” opens at the New Bedford Art Museum, where it runs through Nov. 14. The exhibition has been organized by the museum in partnership with the New Bedford Historical Society, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, New Bedford Free Public Library, and University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s College of Visual and Performing Arts.

Last Tuesday, Carter spoke by Zoom from Atlanta, where she’s working on “Black Panther II,” which is scheduled for 2022 release.

From left, Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick Boseman, and Letitia Wright in "Black Panther."
From left, Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick Boseman, and Letitia Wright in "Black Panther." Disney via AP

Q. Tony Curtis said that Laurence Olivier told him once, “Just put on the clothes, Tony, and look at yourself; you’ll know what to do.”

A. Whooo! Fabulous. Well, we all imagine these characters. The costume designer has a vision. The actors have a vision. It’s still in the hands of the costume designer to realize the costume, and because it’s in our hands we have to interpret the collaborators and their ideas — not only the actors, but the directors and the composition of the scene. So I can imagine that if an actor adorned a costume in their trailer and then walked to set and saw themselves in this environment that was curated by weeks and weeks of planning, and a costume that was made exclusively for their body, that fits within all of the workings of their arms and their chest and their breathing and their legs, that they would feel that they were embodying this character. You know, I’m not an actor, but that’s my goal. That they feel that the mind and the body do work together and that they sort of have to take an inside-out approach to how they feel about being in the scene.

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Q. It must be fun designing costumes. You’re helping other people play at dress-up.

A. It is fun. I think I like the details the most. Those details sometimes play out for me when I watch it, and I wonder if anybody sees what I see.

H&M’s 2020 street wear collection designed by Ruth E. Carter.
H&M’s 2020 street wear collection designed by Ruth E. Carter. Richard Drew/Associated Press

Q. Last year you did an 11-piece collection for H&M. How different was it designing for civilians?

A. Oh, it was a little hard, because it was done really quickly and the approach that I had was to make a statement. So I was like, “Okay, trust your voice. Let’s do a T-shirt that says, trust your voice.” Everybody needs to be reminded to trust your instincts. The colors we used were liberation colors —

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Q. A lot of reds.

A. Yeah, red, black, and green, and for the times we’re in I thought they were colors people would feel empowered by. The experience was positive, but I just like being a costume designer the most.

Chadwick Boseman and Angela Bassett in "Black Panther."
Chadwick Boseman and Angela Bassett in "Black Panther."Marvel Studios

Q. Do you do your own clothes? Do you have favorite designers that you like to wear?

A. I have favorites. I have favorites I can’t wear. They only make it up to a size four, and it’s hard to get in those designer clothes. I like Rick Owens. I like Gucci. I like a lot of the innovative designers that are new to the scene. I like Japanese designers; I like [Issey] Miyake. Also Alexander McQueen. But for myself I have to make the clothes sometimes, because I can’t really find exactly what I want. Usually, I can imagine what I want for myself and I’ll get into making it then.

Q. You become your own character.

A. I do, I do: the character of a costume designer. And to feel like you’re representing yourself as a costume designer requires a costume [laughs].

Kevin Costner in "Yellowstone."
Kevin Costner in "Yellowstone."Paramount Network

Q. Is period or fantasy as much of a challenge as contemporary or everyday is? Put another way, is “Yellowstone” as much of a challenge as Wakanda?

A. I would say so. There’s research in everything. A lot of actors, like Kevin Costner, who are really good at acting, they also are very good at how they want to represent themselves on screen. So they give you tons of details. Sometimes the jeans aren’t being made anymore, you have to make them. Or the jacket he has in mind, so we’re building clothes, like we are in Wakanda.

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Denzel Washington in "Malcolm X."
Denzel Washington in "Malcolm X."

Q. Do you have a favorite among the actors you’ve dressed?

A. Oh, Costner is really up there. Chadwick Boseman is really up there. Denzel Washington is really up there. Angela Bassett is high on the list. I don’t have a one-two-three list. I have a top tier, and it’s crowded.

Q. You’ve done 12 movies with Spike Lee. How different is that from doing a one-off?

A. Spike, after so many films, still enjoys the process, still enjoys the details, still wants to see what are you going to do. There’s a trust that builds over time. Sometimes with new directors you get to that trust really quickly. With others, you know you have to show them lots of choices and ideas ahead of time. I don’t mind that, because I don’t want to be on my own island. I want to collaborate.

Eddie Murphy and Shari Headley in "Coming 2 America."
Eddie Murphy and Shari Headley in "Coming 2 America." Amazon Studios

Q. Tell me about the New Bedford Art Museum show.

A. This one is really special. It’s more of my voice. It really does highlight a lot of the things I’ve said. It deals more with process. You can see the difference between a costume that is just freshly made and how it gets aged. Just all of the layers that are involved in the philosophy of costume designing.

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Q. If someone had told you when you were growing up in Springfield that this is where you’d be someday . . .

A. I would have said, ‘Yup, you’re right” [laughs]. When you dream big, you keep going. I felt like I wanted to be a costume designer from the start. It’s the only job I’ve had. Wait, I take that back. I drove an ice-cream truck one summer in college. But I’ve always felt this was a good fit.

Q. So to speak.

A. Yeah!

Interview was edited and condensed.

Ruth E. Carter's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Ruth E. Carter's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

UNCOMMON THREADS: The Works of Ruth E. Carter.

At New Bedford Art Museum, 608 Pleasant St., May 1-Nov. 14. 508-961-3072, newbedfordart.org



Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.