It’s official. Black Panther, the movie about a superhero who also happens to be the king of the wealthy, secluded African country of Wakanda, has captured imaginations and broken box-office records since its premiere.
Which is no surprise. The movie, starring Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o and Angela Bassett, has garnered an insane amount of attention not only because it’s the first major film with a black superhero; not only because Africa is depicted in a positive way; not only because of its strong black female roles … but because of those fashions. From the sleek, textured, superhero gear worn by King T’Challa/Black Panther and the distinctive, predominantly red uniforms worn by the Dora Milaje (the king’s all-female team of warrior-guards) to the majestic purple garb worn by Forest Whitaker as shaman/mentor Zuri and those regal ensembles worn by Ramonda, Queen Mother of Wakanda, the movie is a sartorial feast.
The credit for this goes to one Ruth E. Carter. Carter’s costume designs have graced more than 40 films and garnered Academy Award nominations for the movies Malcolm X (1993) and Amistad(1998) as well as a 2016 Emmy nomination for the reworked Roots miniseries.
Even with her impressive record, Carter says, she did feel a bit of intimidation about designing costumes for the first major film about a black superhero.
“I knew I had a responsibility that was monumental,” Carter says in a phone interview. “I had a responsibility not only to fulfill [the movie’s] costume design in a creative way; I had a responsibility to the fans — especially the fans who have followed this story of the Black Panther and have waited, for many, many years, to see [it] come to the big screen.”
It was the compilation of a Wakandan “Bible” (a reference book on Wakanda) that put Carter on the road to distinguishing the different ethnicities of Wakanda through dress and combining traditional African garb to purvey the look of Wakanda and its five tribes.
“It’s a place that you imagine … as if it weren’t colonized,” Carter says. “So it just made sense that if they evolved from a place of antiquity, and then created new technology and new fashions stemming from that, that there would be remnants, or inspirations, from their traditions that carry through.
“I won’t say it was easy, but it was rather exciting and thrilling to reimagine [Africa] in a futuristic model.”
KEEPING TRADITION ALIVE
When it came to creating Black Panther fashion from tradition, Carter borrowed from such groups as the Maasai of Kenya (the uniforms worn by the king’s guard), the Zulu in South Africa (the crownlike hats worn by the Queen Mother), the Mursi in Ethiopia (the lip plates worn by a tribal leader), the Igbo in Nigeria (a mask used in the film) and the nation of Ghana (known for its kente cloth sported by T’Challa), she took a look at the histories behind some of the attire.
Take the neck rings worn by the female guards, for instance. Brass neck coils were, according to legend, worn as protection by Padaung women in Asia from tigers who went for the jugular when attacking humans. “The neck rings became a symbol of beauty as well, and they were adopted by other cultures as well,” Carter says, including the South African Ndebele. “But to know that they were a form of protection, and then to use them in our futuristic model as part of the armor, makes perfect sense.”
Director Ryan Coogler, she adds, “really wanted the neck rings to feel like jewelry. We took these rings and we gave them a high shine so that the costume in totality would have an elegance and a beauty and ascend to royalty level.”
Little Rock resident, fitness trainer and former college professor Hasaan Rasheed has seen the costumes firsthand … and worn one in his role as one of the king’s male guards. Rasheed is the red-haired warrior on the left in a much-shown movie still of a key battle.
What did he think of the costumes? “Oh, man, they were beautiful. I mean, elegant,” he says. “It was very unique seeing the different costumes that were put together the way they were because it showed a lot of [African] culture and it showed it in a sense that it was really royal. And to add that extra technology part of being an advanced society along with the culture, it made it look even better.”
As with the other costumes, Rasheed’s ensemble of purple and gold was depicted as being made of vibranium, and with the concept of looking like royalty. Wearing his costume, “I felt powerful,” he says. “Every time I hopped in that costume, it felt like I was going to save the world again.”
Liberian-born designer Korto Momolu, who lives in Maumelle and came to national fame as a runner-up and fan favorite on the reality-TV competition Project Runway, was also bowled over by Carter’s costume work. She remembers seeing the pictures Rasheed showed of his costume. “The intricate detailing of it was amazing,” she says.
Momolu, who styled some moviegoers in African wear, says she was touched by the fact that Carter researched the different African tribes and took care not to be disrespectful of them. When replicating a tribal fashion tradition, she notes, “They kept it as close [to the real thing] as they could … so no one would feel misappropriation was going on.
“So I appreciate that, being somebody who’s African … She did take the time to research what the meaning was behind what people did. A lot of the things that we do have deep meanings behind them.”
BLANKETED IN A CHALLENGE
Ironically, the costuming Carter and her crew wrestled with the most were the costumes that onscreen looked the easiest: the Basotho blankets from the mountainous country of Lesotho. These blankets are used as the shields by the agrarian border tribe.
Coogler, who’d spent some time in Africa, “fell in love with the blankets, and he wanted me to make sure that we used them,” Carter says. They imported about 200 of the blankets. As it happened, the supplier had an overstock of single-color blankets and a low stock of the multicolored ones Coogler requested, so 80 percent of the blankets Carter found herself with were a solid blue. “That should have been my first clue that these blankets were going to be a thing that I wrestled with all the way until they got on camera.”
Furthermore, in order for the tribesmen to use the blankets as shields, “they had to project some of the comic-book legend that would give them strength,” she says. “And in that legend there is vibranium. Vibranium is the strongest metal known to man. It’s Wakanda’s precious metal that … everyone is trying to get their hands on so they can become rich, and Wakanda has not shared it with the rest of the world.”
Just as their real-life wearers do in their cold, mountainous environment, Coogler wanted the warriors in the movie to cover themselves with the blankets — “but when it was time for battle, the blankets would burst open and they would be equipped with weaponry,” Carter says.
The “vibranium” was silk-screened onto a blanket along with African Andinkra symbols (visual symbols representing original thoughts or concepts) and the Wakandan language. “We presented it to Ryan. And Ryan looked at it and he said, ‘You know, vibranium is the strongest metal, so it wouldn’t have any cracks in it it; wouldn’t have any folds in it.’
They camera-tested the blankets on Daniel Kaluuya, who plays the border tribe leader. The verdict: The heavy-pile blankets were too stiff. To make matters worse, they were to be in one of the first scenes shot.
Carter says,” “It was Christmastime, and so a few of us decided that we could skip Christmas and figure out our blanket problem. So we put the little Christmas tree on the … table, and we sat around the table with this blanket in front of us, and one of my assistants said, ‘I’m going to get a shaver.’ She got a shaver and she shaved the blanket. She shaved the pile. She shaved a blanket that was maybe three-quarters-inch thick down to a quarter [inch].” After that, the blanket was pliable and flow-y. “It was great.”
But the shaving of that blanket took two hours — and they had 200 blankets, Carter adds. Luckily, a second idea emerged: The idea to burn the thickness off them. “[Each] blanket was made up of two fibers — one that would burn up quickly, and one that would stay intact. So we burned the blankets. And in a matter of minutes,” they had the desired texture.
SEWING HER ROYAL COATS
To create a suitable look for T’Challa’s scientist sister, Shuri, along with the people in her laboratory, Carter used a mesh fabric that covered all of her clothes, giving the implication that this fabric allowed Shuri to do her lab work while protecting her — “instead of what we normally see in every lab: a lab coat. It’s like we can’t take our minds out of the lab-coat concept,” Carter says.
Then there are the show stoppers worn by Bassett’s character, Ramonda … gorgeous ensembles topped by headgear echoing that worn by married Zulu women and accented by bold jewelry pieces. In her first scene, meeting T’Challa at the air strip, Ramonda is wearing an off-white ensemble featuring a lace shruglike garment that rises up to a dramatic circular collar that frames her face. “I call it a shoulder mantle,” Carter says. And, she adds, “since this is Wakanda, and Wakanda is a forward-thinking place, [I felt] that her crown needed to have a perfection to it.”
As it happened, Carter met Julia Koerner, a lecturer at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Architecture & Urban Design. “She was leading the way in this technology where you could 3-D-print clothing. I was fascinated by that idea and thought that this would be something I could use for Wakanda. So we invited Julia to my office, and she explained the technology involved and also explained that there’s only one printer — and it’s in Belgium — where we could have clothing printed.”
Carter and her crew designed the hat and the shoulder mantle on a computer. “And Julia, her process was to first communicate to the printer with her computer and create this shape in 3-D, using algorithms and such. It’s a process that took about six months. I gave Julia some African lace that I wanted [for] the shoulder mantle; since it was such a large structure, I didn’t want it to look heavy or burdensome. So I used the idea of lace so that light would shaft through it, that it would look just like this beautiful crustacean, if you would, of lace.”
COMING TO STORE NEAR YOU
The results of Carter’s hard work in Black Panther may well go far beyond the big screen. Rasheed says Black Panther has “definitely” started a fashion revolution.
Momolu says, “I think it’s awesome that a movie can come out like this and kind of unite everybody.”
Rasheed concurs: “To see something so colorful all in one place [has] been a beautiful experience. It’s opened people’s eyes to a different world, which essentially is what society needs to see anyway.”
Carter anticipates Black Panther designs setting off some new fashion trends. She hints of plans for movie-inspired clothing to show up in stores.
“Afro-futurism is kind of what I like to say Black Panther represents. “I think it’s more than just a clothing trend; I think it’s a state of mind. It represents pride, free expression. It speaks to the African American and his culture being super-diverse.
“Whereby everything was always … ‘That’s African,’ ‘This is African,’ now maybe you can say, ‘It’s Wakandan.’ That means it’s multidimensional, it’s forward-thinking, and it’s from Africa.”
By Helaine Williams for www.nwaonline.com