On view through September 12 in Atlanta is “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design” at SCAD FASHION Museum of Fashion + Film. Curated by Rafael Gomes, the exhibition features 76 costumes, sketches, and various ephemera that illustrate Carter’s illustrious career spanning the past four decades. Garments and accessories from generation-defining films—like Black Panther, Selma, Malcolm X, and Amistad—are presented among original murals by SCAD alum Brandon Sadler, whose work was notably featured in Black Panther.
On the occasion of the exhibition, Whitewall spoke with the Oscar-winning designer about her monumental oeuvre and how it tells the tale of Black history through film’s forthright lens.
WHITEWALL: Presented in the show is your childhood sewing machine. How did your childhood set the stage for your career in costume design?
RUTH CARTER: I cannot believe that we got that sewing machine out of my mom’s basement. It was down there forever! I started sewing on it when I was ten years old. At first I didn’t know it was a sewing machine, using it as a desk. One day I opened it up and there was a sewing machine! It was a toy, in a way, to express my creative side. Learning how to sew those complicated patterns was a trip. I never made anything that I wanted to wear because I was always going off-book. I remember making a patchwork jean jacket blazer, and my next-door neighbor Tommy said, “If you don’t want to wear it, I’ll wear it!” So I gave it to him, and he wore it every day. I was so proud!
WW: With “Afrofuturism,” you said you wanted to inspire the next generation to trust their voice and “embody their Afrofuture no matter who they are or where they come from.” How is this demonstrated in the show?
RC: Families are unsure about a career in the arts. When parents are financing your education and you say you want to go into theater, they panic, but this is a way of showing that it’s viable. We can enjoy this as a family who came from modest means, who started on a little sewing machine, and ended up with an Oscar in her hands. This is proof-positive that there is a career for artists. This makes a big statement about how families can enjoy the artistry that is produced by their children. It’s not just an exhibition of costumes, it’s an exhibition of a person who went through the paces to get to the top from the bottom.
WW: Costume design is an unforgettable element of storytelling. How through clothing are you creating dialogue around vital topics like culture, race, and politics?
RC: I’ve learned amazing things about our story of survival through the years in every project. Through Roots, I learned about these people who were brought to this country from Africa. They desperately wanted to hold on to their culture, and I was able to infuse their cultural story in Roots. We travel on to Amistad, and I learned so much about the fabrics that they wore, given only one complete outfit for the year, and it was a system of wash and repair. It’s kind of like our story. We travel with the same fabric of our core—our intellectual integrity—and we deal with racism and politics and underserved economics, and we wash and repair and move on.
The spirit of that goes back to slavery, travels through the civil rights movement, and is seen in Black Panther. Killmonger was a part of the lost tribe in that he didn’t know where he was from, but he had this passion to reclaim his right to live in Wakanda and be the king. There’s a through line that can be subtle, it can be connected personally and historically, but that’s what threads the “Afrofuture” part. That’s the trajectory of our past, present, and future and why it connects us.
WW: You connect actors to their characters through garments, which is a special relationship. What’s been an unforgettable example of this in your work?
RC: When David Oyelowo played Martin Luther King, Jr., I made his collar a little tight so that the flesh of his neck would roll over the top like King’s. David needed to have that detail.
And with Chadwick—the late, great Chadwick Boseman—he came into my office and put the panther suit on and started to stretch and move in different poses. I had him come in because I wanted him to point out any problems, but he was majestic. Different from being on the mannequin, as soon as he put the costume on, it really came alive.
WW: You’ve created costumes for films that have defined generations and ideas–like the construct of “Wakanda” in Black Panther. How does it feel knowing that you’re a part of shaping history through clothing?
RC: I’m very proud. I worked hard, kept my head down, and proudly worked hard behind the camera. I supported great directors and writers and really wanted, on every job, to do a better job than the last. All of a sudden, the camera is turned on me and now I’m getting to tell my story. It feels fantastic.
WW: Your exhibition incorporates original artwork by SCAD alum Brandon Sadler, whose work was featured in Black Panther. Tell us a bit about this, and working with Sadler.
RC: Hannah Beachler, the production designer, said, “Ruth, you have to come over to the stage where the lab is and see this mural painted by an artist that is out of this world.” When I got there, I was so inspired knowing we would include this kind of work in Black Panther. It spoke to everything that we wanted to say about Afrofuture. It framed the story in a beautiful, colorful, artistic way.
I felt like I was looking at an untouchable, unattainable artist. I did a collection for H&M, and they asked him to do a mural of me. He came and did it, and I couldn’t believe I was going to meet him! When I did, I met a guy who was humble, and very much an artist. I grew up with brothers that painted, and I felt like I was meeting another brother. It was so nice to connect the person to the artist. When we conceived this exhibition, I immediately thought of him. And I had forgotten he was a graduate of SCAD! It’s kismet. It’s meant to be.