Costume designer Ruth E. Carter on dressing Black people for the future

Costume designer Ruth E. Carter on dressing Black people for the future
SCAD Atlanta, Fall 2020 exhibitions. Ruth E. Carter: "Afrofuturism in Costume Design." Photography courtesy of SCAD.

Ruth E. Carter shares insights into her career, Afrofuturism and the role of activism in costume design.

When costume designer Ruth E. Carter was researching customs and garments for “Black Panther,” studying how Africans harvested indigo was critical to her process. Though Bavarian immigrant Levi Strauss brought the hue to commercial success with the blue jean in 1873, indigo has a centuries-long history in Africa, where generations have been extracting blue dye from the indigofera tinctoria plant to color their clothes. For Carter, to dress Black people for the future, it was essential to understand this past.

Ruth E. Carter in front of her designs in the exhibition "Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design." SCAD Atlanta, Fall 2020 exhibitions. Photo courtesy of SCAD.
Ruth E. Carter in front of her designs in the exhibition “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design.” SCAD Atlanta, Fall 2020 exhibitions. Photo courtesy of SCAD.

Her research on indigo, sketches, renderings and inspirations for the costumes that have built her 35-year career in film are on view through Sept. 12 in “Ruth Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design.” The exhibition is a collaboration between Carter and SCAD FASH, the fashion and film museum of the Savannah College of Art and Design, located in Atlanta.

Carter is known for her attention to detail in building garments for films such as “Do the Right Thing,” “Amistad,” “Selma” and “Dolemite Is my Name.” She is the first African American woman to win an Academy Award for costume design for her work on “Black Panther,” a distinction that also helped make “Black Panther” the first Marvel film to win an Oscar. And on Feb. 25, she became the first Black costume designer to be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Installation shot of the exhibition "Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design." SCAD Atlanta, Fall 2020 exhibitions. Photo courtesy of SCAD.
Installation shot of the exhibition “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design.” SCAD Atlanta, Fall 2020 exhibitions. Photo courtesy of SCAD.

The exhibition opens with Mookie’s (Spike Lee) and Tina’s (Rosie Perez) signature looks from “Do the Right Thing.” The mannequins stand across from Carter’s very first sewing machine, which had been in her family home in Virginia since her mother gave it to her at age 12. Behind the sewing machine is a video interview with Carter, who speaks about how she views her work as a way of honoring her ancestors.

ALL ARTS caught up with Carter to discuss her career in costume design and what it means to dress Black people for a future that many never thought they’d live to see.

Do you view your work as a form of activism?

Absolutely; whenever I have the opportunity, but not every film calls for it. I did “Keeping Up with the Joneses” as a professional costume designer, but perhaps my activism, in that case, was being a Black designer on a white film, which is rare. There is a bit of activism that I have to implore for myself, not just as a designer, but also for my crew and my mentees. People may be surprised that there is a Black woman in charge of design on a white film. But, in the films I chose for the exhibition, I was very clear about the director’s vision and being true to who we are as a people. I’m proud to say that I’ve had so many that were activist films.

Installation shot of the exhibition "Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design." SCAD Atlanta, Fall 2020 exhibitions. Photo courtesy of SCAD.
Installation shot of the exhibition “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design.” SCAD Atlanta, Fall 2020 exhibitions. Photo courtesy of SCAD.
Installation shot of the exhibition "Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design." SCAD Atlanta, Fall 2020 exhibitions. Photo courtesy of SCAD.
Installation shot of the exhibition “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design.” SCAD Atlanta, Fall 2020 exhibitions. Photo courtesy of SCAD.

Generationally, how do you think the ideas of Afrofuturism have changed?

I don’t think they have changed. I think they’ve evolved with different words and phrases, but when I think of Angela Davis and the Black Panther Party, and the things they were doing with after-school programs … When I think of how we created a new language through rap and spoken word, it’s not much different than when Nikki Giovanni, Ed Bullins and Angela Davis were creating words through prose and spoken word. We call it something different, but the passion behind it is the same. The want and need behind it are the same. The power behind it is the same, and I think that’s something that is passed on as a gift to each generation — the power of protest.

You’ve told the story about working on “School Daze” with Spike Lee a few times, about hiking up to Brooklyn with your portfolio in hand to show him sketches. What is the most important thing you learned on the set of “School Daze”?

It was my first film, and we did it right there in Atlanta. It wasn’t a small film. We had Gammites, Gamma Rays, Jigaboos and Wannabes — there were a lot of people to be responsible for. I had to give up hanging out. I was the same age as everyone else, so there was no shortage of social activity going on during the making of the movie, but I had to be focused. I sacrificed social activity for the craft.

Installation shot of the exhibition "Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design." SCAD Atlanta, Fall 2020 exhibitions. Photo courtesy of SCAD.
Installation shot of the exhibition “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design.” SCAD Atlanta, Fall 2020 exhibitions. Photo courtesy of SCAD.

I’ve always been curious about the dresses for the little girls in “Selma.” It’s the only movie I can think of that opens with children being blown up in a church. You took such care with the dresses, even though they were only onscreen for a minute. Tell me where you went as an artist to create those garments for that moment.

My mom would dress me up for church every Sunday. I remember how my face and hair felt when she had it smoothed back into two ponytails. My mom would take me to her friend’s house on Easter to show me off, and I felt like a little birthday cake. I was excited about Easter clothes, and I anticipated that day with a great amount of joy. The level of that experience is so high, it made that act of racial violence so low. It really brought home to people how ugly and tragic that event was and set the tone for Martin Luther King, Jr., and what he stood for. It was a brilliant opening on Ava’s part to shock us all with that.

What does it mean to you to dress Black people for the future?

It’s aspirational. I feel like “Black Panther” gave a lot of kids hope and a superhero costume to adorn themselves with and feel empowered. There’s no greater gift than to give a culture that is in need of something to hold onto.

Installation shot of the exhibition "Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design." SCAD Atlanta, Fall 2020 exhibitions. Photo courtesy of SCAD.
Installation shot of the exhibition “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design.” SCAD Atlanta, Fall 2020 exhibitions. Photo courtesy of SCAD.

What do you want people to take away from the experience of seeing the exhibition?

I want people to understand that you can do whatever you want to do. You can reach the pinnacle of your career — for me, it was receiving the Oscar. I was thrilled to see my old sewing machine out of my mother’s basement and in the exhibition. In the beginning, you see my first sewing machine, and at the end, you see my Oscar dress. This is a bird’s eye view of a life of someone who gave it as much of my soul as I could.

Top Image: Portrait of Ruth E. Carter. SCAD Atlanta, Fall 2020 exhibitions. "Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design." Photo courtesy of SCAD.