Name a Hollywood costume designer. Now name five. Unless you're in the fashion and costume world, you likely couldn't really name any, could you? I'm here to fix that and introduce you to the amazingly talented Ruth E. Carter. If you don't know her name, you are sure to know her work: Coming to America, Dolemite is My Name, Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, and, of course, the film that won her an Oscar: Black Panther.
She talks a lot about her process and what went into creating some of her more iconic costumes in the Netflix design-focused docu-series, Abstract: The Art of Design. Fresh off her 2018 Oscar win for Black Panther, Ruth talks about getting inside a character's head to figure out what they would dress themselves in, and making sure the outfits make sense not only for the situation, but the story, characters, and the world they live in.
The example she brings up is of course Black Panther: it's the real world, but kind of. Wakanda exists in our world, but it's a culture that has been sheltered from outside influences, so the designs are tribal while also blending with them the futuristic technologies and resources Wakanda is known for developing. A more realistic example of this can also be found in Do the Right Thing: she talks about looking through photos and sources of fashion influences in that neighborhood of Brooklyn at the time to make it feel authentic.
Carter Brought to Light One of the 1990s Most Iconic Trends
She is Spike Lee's go-to costume designer, with their first collaboration being 1988's School Daze, followed closely by the slightly more iconic Do the Right Thing in 1989. Why is that iconic, you ask? Let's dive a bit into the costume design of Do the Right Thing, shall we? It's credited with bringing hip-hop fashion into the mainstream as well as making the world shown on-screen match the one we live in perfectly. The film takes place on the hottest day of summer, meaning there's swimwear, shorts, tank tops, and cut-off jeans in addition to consistent fashion influences of the Brooklyn neighborhood's culture. The colors often repeated in the film's wardrobe are those found in African flags, large statement pendants, fresh sneakers, and kente shorts – her aim was to highlight how pop culture responds to the inner city, and she succeeded.
That film kicked off the "street style" iconic to the 1990s and served as inspiration for not only fashion, but it brought Black and specifically African inspired fashion into the mainstream. I mean, in case you aren't fashion-savvy, the 90s are back (in ways that reach beyond fashion too), and with it comes the bold afro-inspired tribal prints, chunky funky jewelry, and the trends brought to light by one Ruth E. Carter.
Now, enough of me gushing over her costuming. If you're interested in not only creative storytelling through costumes but her story and a well-done documentary, I highly recommend Abstract: The Art of Design. Her episode is the third episode of the second season and it's powerful, especially with current events. Not only do Black Lives Matter, but Black fashion, representation, and creators matter – just as they always should have.