In Her New Book, Oscar-Winning Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter Chronicles The Art Of Dressing Black Hollywood
“We want to go to the movies to be entertained but I also want to bring the details so that it feels real to people, not some kind of Hollywood version of it.”
Ruth Carter has always been a storyteller. The costume designer and first Black woman to win two Oscars is known for elevating narratives and helping bring characters to life across films and television shows including Black Panther, Do The Right Thing, Coming 2 America, Being Mary Jane and Yellowstone, among many others.
But for the first time ever, Carter is telling her own story in a bright, beautiful book about her own professional journey in Hollywood.
The Art of Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture, which released on May 23, spans across three decades of Carter’s Academy Award-winning work, filled with original drawings, stories about her relationship with the actors she worked with and an unconstrained passion for craft. With an introduction by none other than Danai Gurira, who credits Carter’s work as “bringing [movie] moments to life [and] making them more vivid, more memorable,” Carter hopes her new book will inspire a new generation of Black and and Brown creatives in film.
Carter’s life story is nothing short of remarkable: raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, she attended Hampton University, where she developed her love for costume design by working on university theater productions. By her own account, Carter was initially interested in costume designing for the theater, pursuing internships in Springfield and New Mexico. The rush and complexity of live performances gave her the foundation for the work she still does today. Costume designing for film wasn’t on her radar until Spike Lee encouraged her to pursue it in 1986, when Lee himself was still an up-and-coming filmmaker. Carter jumped at Lee’s advice to pursue film costume designing, and a legendary career was born—as well as a decades-long partnership with Lee that started with Carter’s work on School Daze.
For Carter, the process of putting the book together became unexpectedly emotional when she stopped to think about her career as a whole. “As I started to think about what stories I wanted to tell, when I went from one film to the next, I even said to myself: ‘Wow. What kind of life have I led? How much have I given?’” Carter told Sweet July over a video call. But the book is also about how much the people she met over the years gave to her: Eddie Murphy, Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Chadwick Boseman, and many more make appearances throughout the book through anecdotes and Carter’s own awe for their talent.
There’s one particular memory that sparked the costume designer’s interest in telling her own story. It’s one involving Tina Turner helping Angela Bassett (who plays Turner in the 1993 film What’s Love Got to Do With It?) get a wig best suited for the movie. In Carter’s own words, it was “a queen preparing a queen to step into her role as a music icon.” Carter adds, “It just felt like that was a beautiful sisterhood—I definitely wanted to write that down. It was about writing down a lot of the stories I knew I wanted to tell, and some I knew most people didn’t know about.” Another one of these moments, she recalls, was traveling to Egypt for her work on Malcom X and trading designer hats for food and a rug. “That, to me, was as much a part of the experience of creating the costumes as my anecdotes with actors.”
Though the book was initially supposed to be a how-to of her creative process, Carter realized she had too many of these iconic stories to tell about some of the fiercest and most interesting people in the entertainment business. Take her relationship with Spike Lee, for example: Carter trusted him so much that it took a single phone call about School Daze for her to quit her theater job and start designing outfits for every single character—even the ones who had no lines. Then there was her work on Lee’s Do The Right Thing, where she took on the challenge to make the film “look hot,” as per Lee’s instructions.
Over the course of a career, Carter’s dedication to amplifying underrepresented storytelling on the big screen has been unwavering. “When I look at images of Black and Brown America, I see our social economics. I see our local environments,” says Carter. “And I look beyond the surface and I can see where we take care of ourselves. We want to go to the movies to be entertained but I also want to bring the details so that it feels real to people, not some kind of Hollywood version of it. That has been my commitment my whole career, to recreate the Black and Brown experience.”
She wants her highly decorated career (her accolades include the history-making two Academy Awards for her work on Wakanda Forever and Malcolm X) to be an example of what people who look like her can accomplish in the industry—but not a blueprint.
“I had to be like a chameleon coming up through this industry that didn’t have representation in my field,” says Carter. “So my advice to the next generation of costume designers is to take the mantle from where I have pushed it and move it forward because you don’t have to do it the way that I did it. I’ve opened up the door. I’ve shown the world that we can do it and we can win. Learn your craft, be an artist, throw that color up there, do your thing and move this thing forward.”