Ruth E. Carter's body of work tells a story of Black excellence that spans centuries. The designer has costumed 18th century African warriors, 19th century freedom fighters, and countless Civil Rights icons, along with everyone from the Queen of Rock and Roll to the Godfather of Rap, from B.A.P.S to Marvel's first Black superhero.
In 1993, Carter became the first Black designer to be nominated for Best Costume Design for her work on Spike Lee's Malcolm X. (She earned a second nomination for Amistad in 1998.) In 2019, she won the Oscar for Black Panther, becoming the first Black costumer to do so.
"When I stood at the mic, Spike Lee was there in front of me, and I went off my little card and I thanked him for my start. I told him, 'I hope that this makes you proud,'" Carter remembers. "And he jumped up out of his chair! That's the best memory of receiving that award. Also, when I got onstage, the guy who gave it to me" — Brian Tyree Henry — "bowed his head, and that was cool. But everything else is a blur."
She returned for the movie's sequel, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, for which Carter received her fourth Oscar nomination. ("I feel very honored that my peers recognized the heart and soul put into the texture of storytelling," she stated.) For the designer, who will remain in the Marvel sandbox for Blade, awards are one thing, but she feels a particular pride over the undeniable impact that her Black Panther costumes have had on the culture.
"It's empowering the kids, that's what I love about it!" she exclaims. "They were ready for that Black Panther to come about! And girls were ready for the Dora. They can put on some tights and go be a Dora. I love that."
It's a long way from Hampton University, where Carter only tried her hand at designing costumes when she wasn't cast in the college play. She later made her way to L.A., where she met Spike Lee while working at the Los Angeles Theater Center. The rest is history.
Below, Carter shares with A.frame five of the films that made her into the costume designer she is today.
This article was originally published on Nov. 10, 2022.
Directed by: Gordon Parks Jr. | Costumes by: Nate Adams
In my childhood, the Blaxploitation era of the '70s was huge, because it was so rich with storytelling. As a young girl, Shaft, Super Fly, The Mack, they had great clothes, and they influenced fashion for people. If you ever saw the video of the Joe Frazier-Muhammad Ali fight at Madison Square Garden, they show all the people going into the Garden, and the pageantry is out of this world! And it's influenced by those films, that we didn't even think of them as exploitation films.
Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel
Directed by: John Berry | Costumes by: Bernard Johnson
When you think of the films that were telling the story of urban life in New York, I was influenced by it. Because it was cool, and it was what I was seeing on the street as well as watching in the movies. Films like Claudine, this story of a single parent. You know, I came from a single parent household. And how she was still a woman, and still cool, and her kids were all in-sync. Those movies influenced me.
Directed and written by: Haile Gerima
Sankofa influenced me, as it was the first film that I had ever watched that I felt represented the African American experience in America. The costumes, the storytelling, set design and the characters were very real and creative to me.
Directed by: Sidney J. Furie | Costumes by: Ray Aghayan, Norma Koch and Bob Mackie
Lady Sings the Blues had a huge impact on me as a designer. Hands down, it is one of my favorite films. Diana Ross' performance, and Billy Dee Williams, and the clothes Bob Mackie designed were amazing. I wanted to be a costume designer when I saw Lady Sings the Blues. I'd come out of theater and I did a lot of period work in theater, so I was really into watching period films. I was examining some really special pieces, like For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and Sty of the Blind Pig, and Raisin in the Sun. I was doing those plays in college. So, when I saw that film, I was like, 'I've been doing that, and I can do that for this medium. I just need to understand the medium.'
Directed by: Steven Spielberg | Costumes by: Aggie Guerard Rodgers
I had just moved to L.A. and somebody invited me to go to the screening of The Color Purple. I sat there, and I was enthralled in it. When I saw Margaret Avery walking down the country road, going to the church, and singing that song, and everybody coming out of the juke joint, I was like, 'Hey, I can do this. This is the world that I want to be in.'
I remember sitting through the credits — because everybody in Hollywood sits through the credits. It was one of the first times I sat through the credits, and I saw so many people in the costume department! And I was like, 'My name is going to be there one day.'