Black Panther designer Ruth Carter reveals the African symbols embedded in the costumes

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Feb 15, 2018

I have been raving about the costumes in Black Panther since I first saw the teaser images last year. Then when the trailer dropped, I was stunned. Never in my life did I think I would see adinkra symbols, Lesotho blankets, Ethiopian crosses, Nigerian agbadas, and lip plates in a Marvel movie.

And Angela's crown? Fierce.

I immediately looked up who the costume designer was and was unsurprised to find out that the looks I was drooling over were created by legendary costumer Ruth E. Carter. Carter's tenure in Hollywood spans over 30 years. She worked on everything from Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992) to Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997), Serenity (2005), and Ava Duvernay's Selma (2015). So I was thrilled when I got a chance to talk to Carter about her work on the purple carpet as well as after the premiere.

WARNING: Some of the following interview contains minor spoilers for Black Panther.

How did you come up with the various looks for the different ethnic groups represented in Wakanda?

Ruth E. Carter: Actually, that was all Ryan (Coogler). When we met he had done a lot of research and knew that the different ethnic groups needed to be represented very visually. He knew he wanted the water tribe to be green -- that's Nakiya (Lupita Nyong'o) and her father's region -- and the Dora Milaje to be red, and the priests, like Forest's character, to be in purple. Then it was just up to me to find the right purple.

That's also very African, for color to be associated with different deities.

Exactly. And we wanted to express that.

I have to ask about the details. I noticed the adinkra symbol, which I believe means "cooperation,” stamped across W'Kabi's (played by Daniel Kaluuya) blanket and other symbols in the movie. How did you come up with that, and who would wear what?

Ah! You caught that. Very good! Yes, there was a Ghanaian adinkra symbol on W'Kabi's blanket, as well as on Shuri's blouse when you first see her in the film. There are symbols everywhere, actually. T'challa also wears a different symbol in his throne room, Killmonger's mask is a dogon piece, and N'kiya and her father of course has the most prominent traditional symbol with his lip plate.

Tell me more about those blankets, because they were magnificent, and also, it was fantastic how you were able to link them to technology.

Oh my God, the blankets. Well, those are actually patterned after the Basotho blankets worm by the Lesotho people of South Africa. It's a mountainous region, and they wear the blankets as coats. Those became the symbol of W'kabi's people, because the Border Tribe lived in an elevated area, not quite the mountains. And the tech, well, as you saw, Vibranium is in everything in Wakanda. So why wouldn't it be processed into thread and woven into fabrics? It's in their kimoyo beads, it's in everything. We really wanted the tech to be integrated into everything, not just worn or held.

Tell me about Angela Bassett's magnificent crown and shoulder piece: How was that intricate filigree work created? And I know in some parts of Nigeria white is worn when in mourning, was that a choice there?

You know, I didn't think about that, about the mourning and the white, not consciously, anyway. But Angela's crown and mantle were actually 3D-printed. They were 3D-printed in Switzerland from a manufacturer that uses a polymer that can bend easily but is still strong. In my research, I found that the married Zulu women wear hats shaped like Ramonda's, so I wanted to incorporate that but update it for this film.

How did you research for this project? Did you rely on cast members like Jon Kani and Connie Chiume to introduce you to local African artisans?

Not really, because Marvel has a tight schedule. So we traveled and we learned; I had teams that went and studied how items were made in South Africa and other parts of Africa. We watched how beading was done and how beads were made. What colors were used, the lines of the blankets. And I worked with some of the best artists in Hollywood and Broadway, I mean people who know their stuff, but sometimes that posed a challenge. Because we weren't trying to be "African-inspired." We were trying to build a distinctly African futuristic movie. But this is not Coming to America, this is not The Lion King. Honestly? I had to beat The Lion King out of a few of them. [laughs] Just to make them see that this is a different story.

Now personally, I was a little worried about M'baku's character, because of how he was represented in the comics. But you gave him a fabulous twist.

Yes, well, most of that, again, was Ryan. Winston's character and the Jabari people had to be handled differently because they lived away from the city in the mountains and were anti-technology, you see. Their totem was the white ape, as T'Challa's was the Black Panther. They didn't believe Vibranium should be used the way it was in the city, they prefer the old ways, so there had to be fur and woven fabrics, because they lived in a colder climate. But not blankets, as with the Border Tribe.

Which actor was the most fun to work with on this project?

It was like a family, really, they were all fun, but you know Forest came to me early on and wanted to see my sketches and wanted to hear all about the research I did for his character. His ceremonial outfit was very layered and is based on what's worn in Southwest Nigeria. He wore an agbada, which is a long robe that Yoruba men of high stature, including priests, wear; in fact T'Challa wears something similar a few times. The top layer was all tubing that had been dyed and layered to drape just like the fabric beneath it. But yes, he wanted to know what every piece of his garment was for and how he would have gotten dressed in it to help with his character.

What was your favorite piece to work on?

The Dora Miljae costumes. Simply because besides T'challa, they were so important in the comics, and although Ryan wanted to use the red, I got to run with that and design them. In fact, it was Ryan's idea to keep the Dora covered from neck to toe. He did not want them seen as sexual objects, and neither did I, so only in the ritual scene where they are going to actually be in the water do you see a little more of their bodies, but it's still pretty modest.

They were patterned after the Masai of Kenya, you know that red and the beadwork, but also their neckwear. The golden collars were reminiscent of the Ndebele women. Also, I hid some symbols on the Dora Milaje costumes. They all had to look uniform, of course, but each pallet that hung from their waist had a symbol, which represented where each member of the Dora was from. Some were water tribe, some were Jabari, if you look closely, you can see that they were from all different regions, and we wanted to represent that in a subtle way.

Black Panther opens in theaters on February 16. If you are interested in Ruth's work or costuming in general, definitely check out her blog. She's also featured in Comcast's new short film Groundbreakers: Heroes Behind The Mask, which "puts a spotlight on some of the talented contributors behind America’s favorite superhero stories, shows and movies."