Academy Award winner Ruth E. Carter details career in costume design

Fresno State. (Vendila Yang/The Collegian)

Academy Award winner Ruth E. Carter gave insight into a historic career in costume design to Fresno State students, faculty and staff in an exclusive virtual event on March 4.

University Student Union Productions presented the hour-long event, “A Hollywood Career in Costume Design,” moderated by Fresno State student Lyssa Gomez.

Carter kicked off the presentation with a stunning visual montage of some of the major films she worked on, including “Malcolm X” and “Black Panther.” 

From there, she offered a detailed account of both her professional and personal life journey.

Carter recounted her humble beginnings. She and her seven siblings were raised by a single mother in Springfield, Massachusetts. 

Carter’s decision to leave her hometown and move to Hollywood was inspired by the stories of Black historical figures. 

“Some people think that I got started because I liked to play with my Barbies or I loved designer clothes, and it was none of those things,” she said. 

“It was reading the stories [of historic Black figures].”

Carter gained her first chance to hone in her talents at Hampton University, possessing an early love for theater and costume design. 

She credited her experience there with providing the foundation and skills necessary for her success.

Her first big break on screen came when she received a phone call while living in Los Angeles.

When the person on the other end of the line described himself as the man of her dreams, she quipped that she assumed it was actor Denzel Washington. 

Though it wasn’t the Hollywood heartthrob she had hoped for, it was American film director Spike Lee. 

He asked her to work on his then-upcoming film “School Daze,” the 1988 musical comedy-drama based loosely on Lee’s time as a Morehouse student in the Atlanta University Center during the 1970s.

Working on that project led to a fruitful professional partnership between the two creators, including their collaboration for the film “Malcolm X” where Carter finally got to work with Washington.

She told the audience how honored she was to receive one of her first Academy Award nominations for that film and another for Steven Spielberg’s 1997 historical drama “Amistad.”

Carter then provided an in-depth look at her creative process for the Spielberg project. 

This entailed researching the actual cargo list of the real-life ship from the movie and using those historical details for inspiration.

It’s this attention to detail, she said, that led her to win an Oscar for her costume design on “Black Panther,” making her the first African American person to do so in U.S. history.

“It was a great time to celebrate culture. It was the culmination of my entire career,” Carter said. 

“Everything I had done, everything I had learned, culminated in the work of ‘Black Panther.’”

Through the rest of the event, Carter shared how she managed to create a wide variety of costumes for “Black Panther.” 

She described the overall style of the film’s wardrobe as both Afrocentric and Afrofuturism. 

Afrocentric styles consist of traditional African garments, and Afrofuturism explores the history of Africa diaspora culture along with fantasy and modern technology. 

She chronicled the meticulous efforts the team made, which included sourcing over 100 traditional garments from Aranda, the only company that makes them in all of Africa.

Carter then answered questions after her presentation and talked about her experience working on films with primarily African-American cast members.

“In many ways, it feels like we have a common bond. We’re sharing a common purpose…we really felt like we were doing something special [with Black Panther],” she said. 

For those aspiring to follow Carter’s footsteps and dive into the costume-designing industry, she offered words of encouragement to help them pursue their dreams. 

“Keep going…It’s as simple as that. Keep going, and it will happen for you too,” she said.

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