Ruth E. Carter, Academy Award-winning costume designer and Massachusetts native, has been representing Black lived experiences through fashion since well before 2018′s “Black Panther” and its 2022 sequel, “Wakanda Forever,” for which she won Oscars. In her discussion with Jeneé Osterheldt on Day 3 of the 2023 Globe Summit, Carter shared some of the inspiration behind her work on older films directed by Spike Lee, including “Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever,” and “Malcolm X” of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
“In ‘Jungle Fever’… we really worked hard to find the colors in the clothes and the textures that really accentuated the beauty,” said Carter. “It was about beauty, and I think that’s something that we really worked on to redirect what we weren’t seeing to something that exists amongst us.”
When it came to designing the costumes for the 1997 comedy “B.A.P.S.,” Carter explained that her inspiration for Halle Berry’s orange catsuit “had everything to do with that bidet scene”—where Berry turns on a shining bidet only for the water to shoot right out at her. The costume’s rubber material enhances the scene’s comedic value, causing Berry to slide around on the floor instead of planting herself firmly on her feet to turn off the water.
In addition to comedic moments, Carter said, “there were elements of ... ‘ghetto fabulous’ that I wanted to make sure were there and actually heightened” throughout the film. While working on these films, she said “there was a need to show all the different hues of Black people in a beautiful way.”
Later, while working on “Black Panther” and “Wakanda Forever,” Carter engaged with Afrofuturism, finding inspiration in pre-colonial African communities to create Wakanda, Marvel’s fictional African kingdom in which the two films take place.
“We believed in the story, and I think that heart and soul went into the work,” said Carter. When her name was announced as the winner of the 2019 Oscar for Costume Design, “[she] felt a real sense of bringing the culture with [her] to the stage. ... It was nerve wracking but joyous.”
Osterheldt told Carter that seeing her designs on the silver screen felt like being seen. Living in Carter’s home state of Massachusetts, Osterheldt said she knows it’s one people don’t often associate with Black communities.
“Hey, listen. You may not think we’re there, but we’re there and we’re woke,” said Carter, who hails from Springfield. As a high school student, Carter was involved in programs run by Black student unions and cultural groups from colleges throughout the state. “They were all about imparting some knowledge,” Carter said. “They were about sharing and giving back.”
Carter recalled one group from Amherst College that taught her about Kwanzaa and helped her pick up some Kiswahili, a group that taught her about The Last Poets of the civil rights movement. “That was my experience growing up in Massachusetts,” said Carter. “It was definitely about being immersed in culture and being aware of it.”
When she moved to Virginia to attend Hampton University, a historically Black institution, things were a little different, but Hampton was where she discovered her passion for costume design. Although Carter initially wanted to be an actress, she realized that through costume design, she “could examine every character in the play, not just one.”
“It opened up my world,” said Carter. She quickly became the go-to costume designer on campus, dressing members of the step team, actresses in one-woman shows, and thespians in school plays. “I was that girl!” Carter said. Osterheldt assured her, “You are still that girl!” bringing laughter from the audience, with many nodding their heads in agreement.
Elena Giardina can be reached at email@example.com.