The Stories Behind Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter's Memorable Looks From 'B.A.P.S.,' 'Black Panther,' and More

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Image via Complex Original

Ruth E. Carter is long overdue for a museum exhibition.

The Oscar award winning costume director, who got her start in the late 1980s working on Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing, is responsible for dressing some of film’s most indelible characters and translating Black style through an authentic and theatrical lens.

Most of these looks are on display at her first fashion museum exhibition titled “Afrofuturism in Costume Design” at the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta, which will be open through Sept. 12, 2021. Looking at pictures from the exhibit, you get a glimpse of Carter’s range. She’s designed everything from a technical superhero costume worn by the late Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa) in Black Panther to a canary yellow, fur-trimmed pimp suit worn by Antonio Juan Fargas (Huggy Bear) in I'm Gonna Git You Sucka. But despite how varied her work is, Carter says each look is imbued with Afrofuturism.

“Afrofuture means that you can envision for yourself and who you are and your culture in mind—your own future. You can take your Afro into the future,” says Carter over a Zoom call. “I feel like when I was on the set of Selma, I witnessed Ava DuVernay, who was a publicist and became a director and is a writer. I witnessed her standing in her Afrofuture, envisioning her Afrofuture. And so there's many definitions of it, but it's all good. It's all promise. It's all about tomorrow, and embodying your true self.”

Here, Carter talks about some of her most memorable moments from films like B.A.P.S., Do the Right Thing, Clockers, and more. She also talks about her research process, artists she wants to work with, and why Black costume designers are better suited to tell Black stories.

I want to start with Do the Right Thing and Rosie Perez with the red dress because that's such an important scene and it's so powerful. What was the thinking behind that outfit?
Well there was going to be a montage in the opening credits of Do the Right Thing and Public Enemy was doing the song “Fight the Power,” and Do the Right Thing in many ways was an answer to the protests that were happening in Brooklyn, so it was a protest film. It talked about relationships between the Italians and the Blacks and the Puerto Ricans, so Public Enemy at the time was perfect to write this song that was “Fight the Power,” and it was a strong commentary. Rosie was discovered in a dance hall, basically, dancing on top of a speaker. All of that led to the idea that we were going to make this protest film and use garments of protest, and that was one of them. Boxing gloves and a red tight dress with a big elastic belt, and all of the moves of Rosie Perez. The intensity of the color and the hottest day of the year, it just made sense. Spike is so cerebral and very artistic, and he wants your ideas as well as his own. So his idea was to bring in the boxing gloves.

What about the Love Hate ring that Radio Raheem, played by the late Bill Nunn, wears?
It was part of pop culture. Guys who were wearing gold grills in their mouths, and those rings are very popular. And it was written in the script. When you read that script and you get to certain parts like that one, where he's talking about love and hate, you realize that this is not only a protest film, but it's also a film full of abstract ideas. When you think about the Love Hate rings, this is a four-finger ring. It's a knuckle ring. They were selling them in Fulton Mall. I went to the jewelry store and had them made. People were getting their names written on four fingers and stuff, and so part of what Spike had written about love and hate had to do with these rings that were also written in the script.

Where did you find that “Bed-Stuy Do or Die” T-shirt?
Yes, that was hand-painted in Brooklyn by a small business owner. Her name was Nasha, and the Brooklyn that I know of the past had a lot of small businesses that were very Afrofuture, Afrocentric. And you could buy your Kente top. You could also buy hand-painted T-shirts. I went to her shop and it was really hard for me to decide what to pick. I don't know how I decided that would be the shirt, but I loved Nasha, and she actually is still alive and well. She painted four more shirts for me to have for my exhibition, and I felt really proud to be able to put a local Brooklyn artist in Do the Right Thing.

Spike is obviously very well-known for his cultural contributions to film but also sneaker culture. I'm sure he had his own Jordans, but were you sourcing any? Was he just wearing his own to set? How did that work?
That was very much calculated, because Spike is definitely a sneakerhead. I mean, every year he hosted the Sneaker Jam, which was given at the Puck Building in New York. Big, huge party and everyone had to wear sneakers, even the girls. Back then, wearing Air Force 1s to a party was like, "I'm going to be all flat. I want to wear something with a heel." Now, everybody wears sneakers all the time to every concert, every dance, you see tennis shoes. So he had very specific ideas about the tennis shoes. Some of them, the Jordans, were written in. Where John Savage walks by Buggin Out and scuffs the tennis shoes and he's like, "Oh, what did you just do?" So Spike would be very specific. He would write down what style of shoes that he was going to wear, that Radio Raheem was going to wear, that Buggin Out was going to wear. And the rest was up to me.

Spike partnered with Nike on Do the Right Thing, and so we were doing it like an independent, low-budget film. We didn't have enough for the wardrobe, so not only did they give a lot of sneakers, they gave us a lot of gear, and that actually pushed us into this saturated look, because most sports apparel is team colors. It's very saturated, and since I was using a lot of compression shorts and tennis shoes, it was a lot of athleisure. I had to balance all of that color with African fabrics that also are very bright

What about the yellow pimp suit and platform shoes with goldfish that Huggy Bear (played by Antonio Fargas) wore in I’m Gonna Git You Sucka? How did that come about?
Well honestly, John William "Frenchy Fuqua, who was a football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the '70s, had a pair of platform shoes with goldfish in them. He was really the first to bring that concept to life, and Keenen Ivory Wayans, who wrote I'm Gonna Git You Sucka wrote that in the script. We went to some costumers and they came up with the shoe. Now I actually just wanted the fish in the shoe, without all the aquarium bits. But I was asked to do Do the Right Thing at the same time, so I left I'm Gonna Git You Sucka early and went to New York, and then I flew back to LA and during that scene they had added all the aquarium bits. So I looked at that shoe, and I feel like it has a Latino vibe to it. It has a little bit of a Latino and Mexico vibe to it, and that's the result of having that built in Southern California.

Are a lot of the clothes in the exhibit reproductions? What do you do with your archives? Does the studio house them?
Sometimes there's a studio that produces a film, but they don't have storage. They're not in the wardrobe business, so I either request or I ask in my contract up front. In the beginning though it was like, "What do we do with this?" Because I came out of theater, and we always save stuff in theater, because the next production could use it, and film really wasn't up to speed on that, and I felt really sad when a film was done and they were donating it to a church. And I'm like, "What is the church going to do with this?" Or bartering it, because we had a bill and we were trying to not have to pay the cast, so they would barter the clothes, and I would walk through these big costume houses in California and see my work for rent, for somebody else's show. That always disturbed me, so I started collecting. I would keep it. I would ask for it. That's part of the problem, you don't get a lot of things in writing. But now it's in my contract.

I want to talk about Clockers. The outfits weren’t very costumey or theatrical, but they were still really impactful, and true to the time. So I'm curious about Mekhi Phifer and those overalls with the ruffled straps.
On Clockers, we were really trying to be trendsetters. People used to say every time I got a job, “We want you to come up with some really new ideas, and trends and stuff.” So I used to look at how guys were wearing very big, oversized clothes. Back then it was 2XLs and stuff. And I decided to do some interesting re-imagining those silhouettes in the form of overalls and shorts with bibs in front of them. So all of the guys that hung out with Mekhi, they all had some version of my trying to reinvent the basketball short. It's funny, I had just done a baseball film, and I had done a lot of knickers [for that film], and so I just brought knickers with me back to Clockers, and I know that was the influence there.

I wanted to talk about School Daze, and the “Good and Bad Hair” scene. What was your inspiration for that? Did you go to a Historically Black College?
Yeah. I went to Hampton University, and it was Hampton Institute then when I first went. When I met Spike and I got to School Daze, it was a perfect first film because I had gone to an HBCU. We were shooting around the Spelman, Morehouse area in Atlanta, and it's not much different. We were all aware of that culture of going to school. It's the haves and the have-nots, and the fraternities, and what they did. Step shows and all of their looks. So it was theatrical for me. I was coming out of theater, and so I knew how to get the point across with costumes, and to be able to grab shin guards and duct tape, and work with their silver and black colors. So I had no learning curve where that was concerned.

That's a good transition to a question that I had. How do you feel about, because I know you're doing the costumes for Coming 2 America, and they were previously done by Deborah Nadoolman Landis who wasn’t Black. And this is something I see come up a lot. How do you feel about non-Black costume directors being in charge of Black films and stories and costumes?
Well it's hard to bring people up to speed when they haven't lived the culture. When you live the culture there are nuances that I think you know, that a lot of times if you're not a part of that culture you have to learn. I think Deborah Landis, who did the costumes for the original “Coming to America,” she did a good job of researching things that were significant costume-wise, and herald from Africa. There was also a very strong British influence in that film. The whole hierarchy, and then that worked in all of that. And so going back and understanding what they presented as a film, being directed by a white costume designer, I could see that we are now a much more sophisticated audience. That we now have Black Panther, and we know what Africa is. We can't make it up completely.

So in my version, there's a lot you don't see because it got cut. But what you do see is it's not one monolithic place. I use more South African influences. So you see big, bold, graphic colors, and you can actually place African culture in what part of Africa it's coming out of. And so because it's a comedy, I didn't worry about that so much. I mean, they had so many Ankara fabrics and stuff in the first one, you could say, "Oh, Zamunda must be somewhere in West Africa." And here I come with South African stuff. Well most of my prints are South African so it's like, "Oh, Zamunda must be South now." I didn't worry about that so much.

I just think it's fun, it's tribal. Also they had a lot of Indian stuff in the first one. Madge Sinclair wore a sari, so I was like, "I'm going to mix that in," because when you look at Ethiopia, and look at the countries around the Eastern side of the continent of Africa, you can see how they borrowed from Asia. You can see the influences and the trading. So I used a lot of that. I'm just like, "Oh, don't be mad at me. I mixed it up."

How do you deal with being able to see people comment or critique your work on social media? Does social media affect your process at all?
It’s actually so rewarding, because for years we were waiting for, if Spike went on Johnny Carson, we were like, "Spike's on Johnny Carson." We're watching like, "Maybe he'll say our names." Then he would, we would go like, "Ah," and that was it. But no it doesn’t affect my process. Not at all. As a matter of fact, it hinders my process if I get on my phone too much. I think I can live without my social media. It entertains me. I have fun watching everybody else engage. But my process is real work, and I got to research. I would say Instagram has given me another avenue, because I follow painters, and artists, and designers, and craftspeople, and I follow historians. So in that way, I have contacted people off of Instagram, and have had some incredible help.

Talk about your process. Are you pulling references from books? Traveling?
Yes. I have a library. I still like books, but I do a lot of in-depth research on blogs, on Pinterest. But those Pinterest, Google Images, some of those things, they get really old really fast and you start seeing repeat images. So I really try to also contact people who are historians in the field. I will look people up. I'll go to Wikipedia. I'm not an anti-Wikipedia person. I know sometimes they can be wrong, but it will give me a bibliography, and it will tell me where their sources are. I'll do the Library of Congress. They have a great database. And the historians usually can give you databases also that lead you to where images are.

What do you think has been the hardest movie to source for, or research for, that you worked on?
They're all hard, they're so hard. Malcolm X was one. I knew about how to research and stuff, but I was on my own island with that research. But going to the Department of Corrections, and I looked at his file while he was incarcerated back in the '40s, and they gave it to me in file folders, and they sat me down in a cubicle, and they were like, plunk. "Here it is. Go ahead. There's a copy machine down the hall if you want to copy anything." And I was reading his original letters that he wrote while he was in prison to be transferred to another prison that had a bigger library. He was educating himself, and it really connected me to the man. Because I had to make decisions about him that weren't in pictures. What kind of pajamas that he wears to bed. So I really needed to get to know him.

Color is such a big part of your work. Especially with Malcolm X. And I know Malik Hassan Sayeed was the cinematographer on that film. How do you work with the cinematographers?
They're brilliant. The DPs could be visual artists. If you were to snatch their camera away and say, "I'm sorry, you cannot use a camera," it would be trying, but they would pick up a paintbrush. Because they have to see color and light, and they have to understand the relationship between color and light so in depth, that they could see it as a painter, because that's what they're doing. And we all work together. They do blue boards, they communicate. It's a collaborative medium. They don't dictate. And they say, "This is what I'm planning, and I know that you as an artist can," they're like, "I can't wait to see what you're going to do here. I want to light it like this." "Oh, I've got to put that cherry-red zoot suit on that."

Obviously you're a costume designer. Have you ever been approached by an artist to do a tour? Or to do costumes for a music artist?
I would do Janelle Monáe in a heartbeat. There's a lot of artists that I would love to do. Ariana Grande, I would do her show. I would do Missy Elliott, but June Ambrose has got that side of the world all sewn up. They just love her, but give a girl a chance!

Ruth Carter SCAD Exhibit Black Panther
Awol Erizku for The New Yorker

What did you think of Black Is King? I think your work on Black Panther definitely informed that.
I thought it was a masterpiece, and I thought that it was a lot of videos that I wished I could have watched over several days. I wish there was a Black Is King version one, version two, version three, and then the finale, because I was standing on my head watching that for hours. In so many positions on the couch, and going to get a snack and coming back. I thought it was a masterpiece. I'm proud that they were so influenced by Black Panther and The Lion King to put something like that together for people. Again, there are some people, you feel like they have privilege, like the Beyoncés of the world, and the Jay-Zs, and they do, because it also looked like it cost a whole lot of money. But they stay connected to the culture in a way that I think they want to honor themselves, and honor the culture, and that's good for our soul. That's good for enriching our blood, and to talk about ourselves. But I would have probably had Beyoncé wear less sunglasses. I would have said “I know you want them, but we're going to take them off for this, because I want to see your eyes. I want to see your emotions, I want to see the story.”

I wanted to talk about B.A.P.S. And rest in peace to Natalie Desselle-Reid. But those costumes are so iconic. The ones that stick out to me are the latex ones. But I’m also curious because that movie is tricky. You could have easily been offensive. So what was your approach?
I was really young. B.A.P.S. was only maybe my third movie. I felt like if I were to do it now, I would probably be more sensitive to my Atlanta sisters. But I looked at it like it was satire, and coming out of theater, I was very much accustomed to satire, and when we think about our history of Vaudeville, and how we really did know slapstick, and it was very funny. I mean, I think Pigmeat Markham played the Apollo more than any other venue. We knew how to laugh at ourselves in a big, broad way. If it's too real, maybe it's not as funny. I think some people really know how to make satire hysterical.

And those two girls were out of this world. They were just out of this world. They were superheroes in their own way, because they went for it. With the hair, and the idea, the look. But the latex came about because of the bidet scene. When I read it in the script. I thought, "I have to give her something to wear, that by the time when she gets there and all that water is happening in that bathroom, she just cannot control it."

And then the pink tweed suits? I mean, I guess that was their version of, "We've made it."
Yeah it was supposed to be sophisticated, and I didn't know what sophisticated was. I was such a young costume designer. I just searched all over Beverly Hills, and you have your classics. That would be St. John. And there's a certain type of woman that wears a St. John. Not me, but there is a certain type of woman. That was custom made. But I bought all their other pieces. It was also done very low budget, so that probably came from a discount store.

I know things have changed, and I presume you have more resources now. But what were some of the challenges when you were first starting out, with sourcing costumes?
No film ever gives you enough money for costumes.

Not even Black Panther?
Not even Black Panther. We had a lot of specialty builds and stuff to do, and when we first submit our budget they go, "Oh God, we didn't put that much money there for you. You've got to cut." So we're always trying to figure out what they are going to give us, and what we need. We meet somewhere in the middle, and then you put the money in more of the bigger scenes, that they'll be seen, and you pray that they don't get cut. But it's always a juggling act. You go wholesale if you can. Nowadays it's quicker to make it than to try to find it.

I don't try to compete with Paul Smith and Alexander McQueen. If a character calls for that kind of stuff, like you see on Black-ish and stuff, you've got to give it to them. That's what people will recognize. Right now, athleisure is so big. Everybody wants to wear a hoodie and a pair of sweatpants with some sneakers. That does define the time we're in, so there is a certain class of that. You can go to K-Mart brand, or you can go to Gucci. They're both selling sweats.

What do you say no to now? Because I'm sure a lot of things, like movies and scripts, come past your desk now. So what's informing what you want to do?
I have been very fortunate to get offered really great projects, and I never feel good about my no’s. I would like to say yes a lot more than I am able to. I was on Da 5 Bloods with Spike Lee, and I had to leave it because I got nominated for an Oscar and couldn't go to Thailand. I was asked to do Gina Prince-Bythewood's movie with KiKi Layne, The Old Guard. And then Coming 2 America happened, and so I had to say no. So my no’s are so heartbreaking. You can't do it all. I even get asked to do little independent films. I just did a weekend with a guy on his independent film because I wanted to support him as a young filmmaker, and it wasn't much to ask. It was me doing a lot of things I normally don't do, because I usually have a bigger staff, but I wanted to support him, and three days wasn't going to kill me. So I say yes to the things you might think I would say no to, and I say no to the things that I wish I could say yes to.

I am curious, from your point of view, what do you think is the throughline for Black style? Something that you see comes up again and again, all across the world, any region.
I think that Black people consistently define their own style, and you can go far back as you want, all the way back to Africa, and come right on up to current day, and you will see an anachronism. You will see some African influences from our past. You will see anarchy and revolt and protest. You will see unapologetic—in every decade you will see it. The Black Panthers, the '70s Blaxploitation. Go into gangster rap and its influences in fashion. Garments of protest, in Trayvon Martin. You can see urban style, Black urban style, in every decade, defining a voice of Black America.

And that, I think, is the thing that makes me love being a costume designer most, because I feel like I got my people. I've got this, and I'm going to say, "That's not what they do. They do it like this, or do it like that." I remember when I was growing up and going down South, and I know how my grandmother and my cousins looked, as opposed to how I look coming from Boston. That is a part of who we are.

I wanted to ask about you winning an Oscar, because I know it took a long time. And then now you have this museum exhibit, and I know that’s taken a long time. Why are these things important? Why is recognition important to you?
Because we have to show people who don't see a way, that there is a way. For me, to show young artists that they can actually love being an artist, and believe that they can make a living and actually win awards, they have to see that there was this person who had very little, came from a single-parent home, who made it to the top. People have to see that. I didn't see that. I didn't have that available to me. I dreamed it, and I dreamed that it was possible, and so every film I did I worked to be better. Now I can show you all of that work and say, "Here's a display of passion. Here's something you can bring your parents to and say, 'See, she was an artist. She liked to draw, and she liked to sew, and she parlayed that into a costume designer's career.'"

Ruth Carter SCAD Exhibit
Image via Publicist

What’s inspiring you now?
Small Axe, the Steve McQueen limited series on Netflix. It's about how Blacks in Britain, how they translated culture and the times of the '60s. It's a little bit different than us, so we don't see the Caribbean, the Trinidad. We see it in our neighborhoods, they live it with us. They migrate to the US just like they migrate to the UK, but a stronger presence in the UK. I think we have a little something to learn about acceptance.

And what else do you want to achieve with your career? What’s on the bucket list?
I would love to do, like, a Moulin Rouge musical. High, high musical. See the colors dance, fabulous. So Coming 2 America had a lot of dances, dance in it too, so it got me close, but it's not like a Moulin Rouge. And there are certain actors I want to still work with, like Riz Ahmed. I want to work with him. I haven't got to Viola. I want to get to Viola. I'm a painter, and so I really want time to paint. That's my big thing on my list, to be able to say, "OK, I'm going to take this year and just do as many paintings as I can," and have another show that's just my paintings. But yeah, I’d need a year or two.