Warning: Spoilers for "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" below.
Costume designer Ruth E. Carter made history in 2019 as the first African American to win an Academy Award for her awe-inspiring work in Ryan Coogler's box office-busting "Black Panther" (which also set a benchmark as the first superhero movie to receive a Best Picture nomination). Through fashion, the 30-year industry veteran helped build the vibrant, technologically-advanced Afrofuturist utopia of Wakanda, celebrating the culture and people of Africa.
In the thrilling and moving sequel, "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," she may have outdone herself.
The film, also directed by Coogler, honors the late Chadwick Boseman, who played the titular superhero and Wakanda's beloved leader, T'Challa. Carter infuses her work with the impact that both Boseman and T'Challa had on the sweeping storytelling and on the cast and crew. There's a heartrending and inspiring royal funeral sequence, featuring an all-white mourning palette, which she describes as "beyond, beyond, beyond emotional," for example.
In "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever," Carter also expertly brings another storied and culturally significant realm to life through costume: Talokan, a re-imagined Atlantis, which honors the Mesoamerican people and highlights the colonial trauma brought on by the Spanish conquistadors in the early 16th century.
Ahead, the Oscar winner discusses the meaning behind the sequel's costumes, from Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett)'s even grander headpieces to, yes, that new Black Panther supersuit. Again, spoilers below!
The Poignant Wakandan Funeral Attire
"The experience of the funeral scene was very traditional — similar to Warrior Falls [from 2018's 'Black Panther,']" says Carter, discussing the visually and emotionally stunning funeral sequence at the start of the film, in which all Wakandans honor the life of King T'Challa. "When we were shooting, it was much more impactful for us, because we were actually having a ceremony for Chadwick." (Carter also worked with Boseman in 2017's "Marshall.")
The costume designer unified the mourning Wakandan people through observing the African tradition of wearing funereal white. "I wanted to honor the tribes," she says, pointing to the Sub-Saharan, Tuareg-based River Tribe in white turbans and the South African Zulu-inspired aristocracy in white fur.
To carry the king's adorned casket, the Dora Milaje — elite women warriors led by Okoye (Danai Gurira) — expose one arm in their draped finery. The dancers' dynamic fringed-shell capelets and grass skirts help express the rousing celebration of T'Challa's life and impact on the Wakandan people.
"It was such a journey," says Carter about the "completely organic" process of devising their costumes. After experimenting with bleaching raffia for the skirts, she revised them with unraveled lightweight cotton rope, to create the compelling, grass skirt-like movement in the pure white palette.
Resilient Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) wears a regal isicholo, the traditional South African "married woman's hat." Her streamlined Bertha collar gown, by Indian couturier J.J. Valaya, reveals elaborate beaded embroidery.
"She had symbols all over her dress of the Ndebele [of southern Africa]," says Carter. "It felt very ceremonial and traditional."
A bereft Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright, above) wears a deep-hooded gown, embroidered with hearts representing both the royal family and the Black Panther power-fueling Heart-Shaped Herb.
"It was a precursor to the scenes to follow," says Carter, who also worked with Paris-based designer Tzuri Gueta for Shuri's imposing beaded neck ring collar and tusk earrings.
Shuri's Superpowered Tracksuit
Carter collaborated with design teams at Adidas — including alumni from the brand's School for Experiential Education Design (S.E.E.D.) program, which uplifts designers from underrepresented communities — for seven action-ready custom pieces.
During a mission to extract M.I.T. wunderkind/Vibranium tracker inventor Riri (Dominique Thorne) to safety, Shuri wears a purple-blocked tracksuit to go undercover amidst the students. But the athletic set itself makes for a pretty significant Easter egg: The shades of purple represent the Wakandan royal family and the Heart-Shaped Herb — plus, the windbreaker's A-line swing silhouette boasts a surprise, supersuit-referential cape, especially evident when a rogue Shuri takes off on a motorcycle.
"We want to actually see the costume have a have a presence, like a superhero," says Carter. She engineered the surprisingly heavy cape with hidden strings and a high-neck silhouette to keep the jacket in place, which also proved kismet. "Sometimes those accidents work out," pointing toward a champagne-hued, mock-neck caped gown that Queen Ramonda wears while anxiously awaiting her daughter's return (below). "I'm like, 'Okay, [the high-neck is] a Wakanda thing."
Okoye's Dora Milaje Red Bodysuit
Okoye joins forces with Shuri on the mission to Cambridge — although, she doesn't quite blend in with the college population.
"I can be discreet," she insists, still coordinating with the Princess in a sleek red bodysuit, also custom Adidas. (Okoye's attention-grabbing Louis Vuitton shades and very chic cut-out, power-shouldered black blazer, say otherwise.)
The Dora-red bodysuit harks back to Okoye's sublime undercover gown in the first film's action-packed casino sequence. "We put the design on the front [of the bodysuit] that was more Wakandan, and the banding is similar to the harness on the Dora Milaje uniform that travels around the female form," says Carter.
She designed the one-piece for performance, with muscle support around the knee and thigh, and also to nod toward the new territories the franchise traverses.
"It was in the forefront of my mind that when we tell the story, everybody was going to go into the water," says Carter. "I needed to give her a submersible suit that also felt like wearable athleisure."
The Women-Empowering Sartorial Motif
The movie opens with Shuri in a sheer, checked organza overlay dress with a single short sleeve, frantically trying to develop a cure for her older brother's illness. Her mother, in a shoulder-baring royal blue gown, enters to break the tragic news. At the funeral, the Dora wear one-sleeve white robes. A year later at the U.N., they decisively deliver Vibranium-seeking French mercenaries back to their home country leaders while wearing sharp-shouldered, "Western"-style, arm-baring Dora uniforms, with graceful and commanding asymmetrical draping across the bodice.
"We wanted to show how women are powerful, vulnerable and sometimes exposed, but also very strong," says Carter of the ongoing asymmetry theme across women in the film. She points to Queen Ramonda in a ceremoniously sculptural (and Wakandan high-neck) pewter gown (above) as she meets with the council leaders to strategize over an impending conflict with Talokan.
"I felt like it was a great story of women and how we can be non-traditional," she says. "We can be aesthetically fashionable. We can be off-center sometimes, but also very centered. We can be vulnerable with our arm and our skin exposed, and complicated but beautiful."
Queen Ramonda's Ruling Crowns
"In the first movie, Ramonda felt like the queen. In this one, she felt like the queen and the king," says Carter.
After the deaths of her husband and son, Queen Ramonda resolutely takes charge of her kingdom and people, an endeavor even more complicated now that the true Wakanda is exposed to a world greedy for its Vibranium.
In a regal purple sleeveless gown with molded gold high collar and matching ornamentation on her grand isichola (below), she authoritatively calls out the power-hungry intentions and hypocrisies of the U.S. and French delegations. For Ramonda's headpieces, Carter re-teamed with Los Angeles- and Vienna-based 3D artist Julia Koerner, who created the majestic ivory headpiece and shoulder mantle in "Black Panther."
"Instead of doing a large shoulder mantle, we did a [gold] collar because Ramonda's actually sleeveless at a business meeting at U.N. in Geneva," says Carter. "We felt the collar would be her version of a business attire, but also showing the strength of Wakanda and Vibranium."
Carter and Koerner collaborated on a series of headpieces with more "intricate line-work" than the first movie; they also added grander décor elements. Atlanta-based jeweler Douriean Fletcher also returned to hand-make the jewelry armor, including Ramonda's chest pieces.
Namor's Ode to Mesoamerican Culture
Also known as "Ku'ku'lkán" (the Feathered Serpent God), Namor just wants to keep Talokan and his people safe — and remain secret — from the imperialistic vultures in the surface world. The Talokanil have been thriving in their underwater territory, also powered with Vibranium, since the Spanish colonizers brought brutality and disease to the Mesoamerican people in the early 16th century. (That last part is actual history, not Marvel mythology.)
Carter and her team conducted intensive research into post-classic Mayan culture. "We relied on the historians," she says of accurately differentiating costume details from the earlier Aztec or classic Mayan periods.
Namor's aquatic shorts and breathtaking collar (drawn by former Marvel Visual Development Artist Anthony Francisco) incorporates historically-accurate elements — for instance, by the time the colonizers arrived, Mesoamericans were regularly utilizing rubber in sophisticated ways, like the Mayan Ball Game. "It gave me permission to use materials that felt like molded rubber," says Carter
In addition to the rubber, there are pearls on Namor's blue and gold neck piece that represent water, with two feathered serpents framing the large centerpiece.
"Namor is the oldest superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it was important that when Ryan decided to make him Mayan, that we also brought in the culture of the 16th-century Mayans," says Carter, thrilled for Marvel's first Indigenous Latinx superhero (or antihero), also played by a Mexican actor of Indigenous descent. "We used a very old ancient culture to tell his story, which honors Mesoamerica and honors Latinx. It brings a superhero to the world that's Mexican."
Namora's Oceanic Headpiece
Carter also took a mini-marine biology course in costume designing the Telokonil. The swimming citizens would have repurposed kelp and aquatic plants around them to make clothing that would also withstand the underwater elements. Like the Mayans, Telokonil leaders wear imposing headdresses, which also needed to respect the oceanic environs and marine life of Telokan.
Once experts shared that fish bones populate the oceanic floor, Carter incorporated that idea into warrior Attuma (Alex Livinalli)'s "hammerhead shark" headdress and his arm armor. Cousin Namora (Mabel Cadena) wears a breathtaking piece with a burst of orange feathers that are actually depicting fins from the venomous lionfish.
"We figured, since they were a developed underwater world, they would have ways to honor what they are living amongst," says Carter.
The New Black Panther Supersuit
As Shiri's Adidas tracksuit portended, the princess takes on the mantle of Black Panther, but in her own version of the supersuit — also because tech genius Shuri made it.
In real life, Carter brought the concept art from the Marvel Visual Development team off the page (or computer screen), first incorporating Coogler's suggestion of mixing brilliant gold with the silver established in T'Challa's suit.
"Like the Dora, we always wanted the armor to feel like jewelry, and for this to be a woman superhero, it really felt good to see that," says Carter. "She was adorned, and it wasn't just muscle strength.
The costume designer carried the Africa-celebrating Okavango triangle pattern (her idea for T'Challa's Black Panther supersuit) into his little sister's — "so when you do see her, it's just like, 'Wow. She's a princess, and the Black Panther."