If there is a singular, exhilarating accomplishment that makes costume designer Ruth E. Carter especially proud of her work on “Black Panther” — the new big-screen, black superhero saga — it is the uniforms worn by the all-female security force called the Dora Milaje.
The women — bald, athletic and fearsome — are responsible for protecting King T’Challa, the character who comes to be known as Black Panther. Carter was determined to express their power, womanliness, history and spirit through their costumes.
It was a lot to ask of warrior wear, which on female characters in fantasy films very often resembles something more appropriate to a strip club.
“Comics are produced for boys, and they want the girls to be sexy and bad-ass,” Carter says. The Dora Milaje are “wearing a corset in some of the [comic book] iterations . . . . The culture we’re in now — look at videos — women are barely dressed. But you don’t want [T’Challa’s] highest-ranking female fighting force walking around in bikinis.
“A lot of times, people are using the body and sex as a form of weaponry. I think that cheapens the look. I wanted to create a story behind the costumes and use elements that were . . . attractive and intimidating, because that’s what they needed to be,” Carter says.
To that end, the veteran costumer researched history’s great warriors. The result is a costume that calls to mind the red hues of traditional Maasai attire, along with intricate beadwork that wraps around the neck and bodice. A single beaded tabard runs down the torso.
“There are tribal elements like rings to give it a beautiful sound when [the women] move,” Carter says. “Their armor pieces were made by a jewelry designer. I wanted them to have a hand-tooled presentation.”
Ultimately, she says with a note of triumph, the costumes were “feminine, masculine, beautiful and strong — and without showing an inch of skin.”
When she finally presented her vision to director Ryan Coogler for his approval, “I was speechless. I held my breath. When he asked questions, I could barely answer. I was just praying that he wouldn’t change anything,” she says.
The director focused on subtleties. Was the tabard — the wide flap of fabric that falls like a shield below the breasts — too long? He wondered whether the embossed metal buckle was the right size — or was it too big? No and no. It all worked.
“I cried,” Carter says. “Not boohoo, but I got very emotional when it came to getting that costume right.”
Such are the burdens, expectations and goals of “Black Panther,” the superhero movie that embraces African history, African artisans, comic book lore and African art as sources of inspiration for its vividly colored, futuristic costumes.
Carter, who graduated from Hampton University, has been creating film and television costumes for 30 years. She has worked on a host of Spike Lee films, from “School Daze” and “Do the Right Thing” to “Malcolm X,” for which she received an Oscar nomination — becoming the first African American recognized for costume design. Her work on Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad” was also nominated; she has yet to win.
More recently, Carter created the well-received, era-appropriate fashion aesthetic for the casts of the “Roots” revival, “Selma,” “Marshall” and “The Butler.”
“I think there’s a definite bias in Hollywood for ‘pretty’ pictures,” Carter says. “My pictures aren’t pretty — even though they’re accurate.”
“Black Panther” is her first blockbuster fantasy film. And her résumé, which has regularly led her into historical archives and museums, duly prepared her for the massive undertaking.
The African country of Wakanda, home to Black Panther, may be fictional, but, aesthetically, it is informed by Carter’s visits to North Africa; the library research she had done for 1997’s “Amistad”; the two-volume photo collection “African Ceremonies,” by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher; and a lot of serendipitous discoveries in flea market stands and antique shops run by African entrepreneurs from Atlanta to Pasadena. Carter even had shoppers in Ghana and elsewhere sourcing inspiration from local artisans.
Whether it was beads or headdresses, “I feel like I was very specific,” Carter says. She was less inclined to whip things up solely out of her imagination. She wanted the designs to tell a true story, or at least one rooted in fact. For example, the character Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister, wears clay beads rather than glass, because they are the sort typically made by children.
“I always try to [design] from the inside out,” Carter says. “In order for you to wear it well, it has to be real to you.”
This is also a story that will unfold on Imax screens and in 3-D. There is no room for smudged lines and murky colors. Beside, Carter is the sort of costume designer who does not just wander into the weeds of minutiae — she delights in them.
“When I’d get a TV project, people would roll their eyes and say, ‘Here comes the girl obsessed with the details,’” Carter says with a chuckle. “But 3-D just makes the details even more important. People are really viewing [things] under a microscope. There’s no aesthetic distance. You can’t get away with plastic substituting for something else.”
Instead of using trompe l’oeil techniques to give the illusion that the Dora Milaje wear split-toe boots, the women actually wore split-toe boots. “They were the bane of my existence, because it was uncomfortable for the stunt women,” Carter says.
But sometimes, it is simply not practical to use the real thing. For the stunt men and women, beads and neck rings had to be molded from rubber rather than traditional metal or glass, which would have been too heavy. “They painted them using a magnifier to be really specific,” she says.
For maximum maneuverability, Black Panther wears a costume constructed from Eurojersey spandex with a raised print in the shape of pyramids.
The nuances are striking. They are admirable. But it is the lines and proportions and, most important, the colors — red, gold, green — that resonate against the skin of the many black actors. Carter invoked the saturated color of the African continent, the intense hues of comics and the subtle shades of the African diaspora to tell a visual story that aspires to not only elevate the words on the page but to stand on its own.