Black Panther costume designer Ruth E. Carter talks Michael B. Jordan's, ahem, lack of costume as the shirtless Killmonger
It’s been months since Black Panther took theaters by storm and had literally everyone exclaiming “Wakanda Forever!” — and you know what? Months later, we’re still as obsessed as ever.
We’re obsessed with Black Panther‘s talented cast, with the long-overdue representation, with the record-breaking response to the film, and so much more. And turning to the “look” of the film, let’s not forget the bold and beautiful costumes (or, in the case of a certain villain vying for the throne, the lack of costumes).
We have costume designer Ruth E. Carter to thank for bringing T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Shuri (Letitia Wright), Eric Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and so many more to impressive life through their wardrobe.
And here, Carter — a seasoned vet, who received Oscar noms for Amistad and Malcolm X — tells HelloGiggles allllll about how she balanced the royal and traditional and futuristic, and how she emboldened Black Panther‘s badass ladies through costume.
Oh, and when and why Killmonger is shirtless in certain moments — because we know you’re wondering. (Looking at YOU, retainer girl.)
HelloGiggles: What was your general approach to the costumes? What did you want the viewers to understand about Black Panther and Wakanda in their (major) introduction to this world through the costuming?
Ruth E. Carter: I wanted people to see a world that they had never experienced before. I wanted people to relate to them in many ways by infusing African culture, but also, I wanted to shake it up a little differently so that it felt fresh and new. I wanted the costumes to represent a royalty, a royal family — that we’ve kind of only seen in maybe one other film about Africa — but I wanted ours to be more of a realistic point of view, not a comedy.
Because this is a superhero film, it needed to live in a real place. So I worked really hard to make sure that the costumes didn’t look like costumes to laugh at. I wanted the costumes to look like wearable clothes that you would want to wear to your prom, to any special occasion.
HG: There’s so much at play in the costumes between the royal, like you were talking about, and the traditional and futuristic. How did you strike that balance and lean into any of those over the other in particular moments?
REC: It was difficult. At times, things start feeling like costumes, and when they did, you had to go back to the origin or go back to the history books and see what [they actually did]. “Is this the Dora [Milaje] and the leather-back skirt that they have, that was like the Himba tribe that used leather? Well, how come the Himba tribe, when they do it, it doesn’t look like costume? How is that so? Is it the color palette? Is it the way that they stretch the edges of the leather to ruffle? What is it about the real clothing that makes our costumes look real?”
That’s what I had to kind of go back [to] and reimagine a world that was not colonized, that kept some of their traditions, and also moved their culture forward in a way that felt real. It was a lot of back and forth, but it is modern. “Is the modern too cliché?” If it was cliché then I’d go back again and say, “What can I do that would be less?” Sometimes, you want to do more, more, more, and then you end up with a total disaster.
HG: There are so many vibrant reds, and blues, and greens, and more, and as I understand, writer-director Ryan Coogler gave you a specific color palette to work with. How did you play within that color palette, between all the different shades you could use, and mixing and matching?
REC: Yes, it was very difficult, especially for Nakia. Nakia’s costume was always supposed to be green, and you just don’t want to use one green all the time because that would be kind of boring. So I had to examine her green, and her green needed to have more blue and more yellow in it — and no brown. So olive green was not the best green for Nakia, but emerald green was a beautiful green for her. Or chartreuse was a beautiful green for her.
In examining that, it was a palette that I pretty much had to come up with every time she had a new costume, and that was difficult, really difficult. It was challenging, I should say, because we don’t always wear one green either, which could also be boring, so I worked with lots of greens that would work together and tell her story.
HG: The costumes for the ladies — Nakia, Shuri, Okoye, and the Dora Milaje, for starters — really reflected their power and strength. How did you embolden them through their costumes?
REC: The Dora Milaje [have] a completely covered uniform, and part of that had to do with Ryan Coogler saying that he wanted them to be taken seriously. He wanted their uniform to be a real fighter’s uniform with protective qualities. On the same token, he wanted them to be beautiful, and he wanted the armlets to feel like jewelry.
With that directive, I upped the color. I upped the beautiful reds so that the reds would be much more vibrant, like the Turkana or the Himba. I wanted them to feel like if you saw one, it felt like three. If you saw three, it felt like 10. Then, we plated the gold armor and the silver armor so that it had a brilliancy. Doing that kind of stuff really made the beauty of the costume come alive, as well as it became this badge of honor to wear.
HG: Turning to the guys, how did you pit T’Challa and Killmonger against each other as their respective versions of Black Panther through costume? Killmonger appears a bit bolder with more gold elements, to me, whereas T’Challa seems a bit more traditional.
REC: That’s exactly what happened. You meet the two suits very early in the story when T’Challa gets to choose which one he wants to wear based on the necklace, and one necklace is silver and the other necklace is a bigger, more gold, a little bit more gaudy. What that did was it set up the two cats, if you would, the two Black Panthers, and Marvel was very concerned [about recognizing the two of them] when they’re fighting.
So, Killmonger’s suit had a muscle suit underneath the black skin, I call it, that was gold with leopard spots; it was really a metallic gold underneath. T’Challa’s suit had a muscle suit underneath his detached skin that was silver vibranium. So the two, one was a vibranium cat, and the other was like a gold cat. That’s how we got there.
HG: What’s also interesting about Killmonger’s costumes is the lack of them at times. What was the thought process behind having Michel go shirtless?
REC: He has this amazing scarification that was done by Joel Harlow, the make up designer. We had to show that. Then, we had the scene at the air strip where the Dora begin to fight him, and he raises his weapons and his cloak turns into the suit. There was that, and on that day, I think that Ryan needed something. I remember being called to set because he had on his tactical vest with his camo pants, and Ryan felt like he needed something simpler since he had already taken on the king’s throne. But he had arrived in Wakanda with very few pieces, just a little duffle bag, and really in the duffle bag was cloth.
He really shouldn’t have had any clothes when he arrived in Wakanda, so the things that we see him wear should look like he borrowed them from T’Challa’s closet. It was nice to give him a real simple kind of out of the shower sort of look, that was the sweater that had the asymmetrical hem, and he had very thin, drop-crotch pants in one scene where he first walks into the palace and takes the throne. It looks like he took off his military look and he fancied himself as the king, but he’s still a little arrogant and a little self conscious. So, he doesn’t mind walking around without a shirt and showing his prowess.
Black Panther is now available on Digital and DVD.