When it came time for costume designer Ruth Carter to create looks for Marvel’s “Black Panther,” she took a page from the fictional nation of Wakanda itself, marrying African tradition and technological innovation to help create a bold, breathtaking vision unlike any captured on screen. The two-time Oscar nominee — whose resume includes collaborations with Spike Lee (“Do the Right Thing”), Steven Spielberg (“Amistad”) and Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) — recently spoke to The Envelope about outfitting Chadwick Boseman’s heroic T’Challa and the formidable women who surround him for director Ryan Coogler’s acclaimed box office blockbuster.
The Black Panther suit: The costume is sleeker and more advanced than the model that debuted in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” which was designed by Marvel Studios’ head of visual development Ryan Meinerding. It’s also more regal. To give the form-fitting suit texture on screen and to “describe it as having been made from a royal cloth,” Carter added a triangular pattern to the fabric. “The ‘Okavango’ shape, the triangle pattern, represented the sacred geometry of Africa—the three-pointed triangle means the father, the mother, the child,” she said. “In combination with the Wakandan language on the suit… [it] felt very much like a roller print. And roller prints are very common in African textiles.”
T’Challa’s throne room garb: When attending to royal obligations, T’Challa wears a Nigerian senator’s suit. “It’s a tailored garment that has elaborate embroidery on it,” Carter says, adding that the costume communicated the idea that the king of Wakanda was “someone who was refined, someone who was well bred.” It also helped T’Challa stand apart from Michael B. Jordan’s villain, Erik Killmonger, whose hard-edged, street-savvy style grew out of his Oakland roots. “We really wanted them to be very different from each other,” Carter says, “to create an image for the Black Panther that was soft and kind, believable, regal and functional.”
The Dora Milaje uniform: For Wakanda’s elite female fighters, color was paramount. “I felt like a vibrant red would be an imposing color,” Carter said, “that if you saw three Dora, it would feel like six, and if there were six Dora, it would feel like 10.” Carter recruited jewelry designer Douriean Fletcher to create the uniform’s neck rings (which were inspired by South Africa’s Ndebele tribes) and other metallic adornments. The costume also featured a tabard, a short, sleeveless coat, embellished with African beads and precious gems such as jade or amethyst.
A calfskin back skirt completed the look. “The Himba women wear these beautiful calfskin skirts that ruffle at the ends,” Carter said. “They stretch them, and then they stud and put rings on them. I wanted to do the same treatment to the back skirt by stretching the edges, studding and putting these little tiny rings on them. Ryan wanted the Dora to have a sound, [and we] did that by having these groups of rings interspersed on the edging of the skirt. They jingled together, and you could hear the Dora approaching.”
Queen Ramonda’s crown and collar: The distinctive Zulu headpiece Angela Bassett wears, known as the Isicholo, recalled the character’s origins. “It actually connected us to Ramonda’s hat in the comics,” Carter said. But there were inherent challenges in Carter’s design. “I felt like that cylindrical shape needed to be perfect,” she said. “The only way to achieve that would be to have it computer generated and 3-D-printed.” To fashion both the Isicholo and the African lace-inspired collar that attaches to the Wakandan monarch’s gown, Carter turned to UCLA architecture professor Julia Koerner who created the pieces using a special 3-D printer in Belgium. The items were made from PA 12, a polyamide material that looks fragile but is “almost like a stiff rubber,” Carter said.
Shuri’s lab dress: “Shuri bucked every tradition possible,” Carter said of Letitia Wright’s scientist. “A lab coat would be the last thing she would put on.” With that in mind, Carter designed for T’Challa’s little sister a sleek white minidress with a mesh overlay to give the character “a young feel that was feminine as well.” Shuri’s footwear reinforced her youthful spirit. “Ryan really wanted her to have a strong sneaker game, so we sourced everywhere for great tennis shoes that were unusual and cool,” Carter said.
Nakia’s evening gown: “It was her Bond Girl moment, super sexy,” Carter said of the glamorous green gown with revealing dual side slits that Lupita Nyongo’s spy, Nakia, wears on a mission to South Korea. The garment was made from the same material as the Black Panther suit, Eurojersey, which was custom dyed and then printed with a raised pattern to resemble kente cloth. “Once we got the dress made, we painted it with an ombre effect,” Carter said. Fingerless gloves reinforced the superhero look.