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“Dress Up Your World”: Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter Visits American University

Costume designer extraordinaire Ruth E. Carter, joined our webinar with a smile while she was on the set of “Black Panther 2” in Atlanta; she came eager to share her three-decades worth of experience and talent with university students.

Carter was one of two guests invited to participate in “Creating Your Reality,” a two-part event hosted by the Student Union Board and the Women’s Initiative. “Creating Your Reality” was designed to share the voices of black creative minds in modern pop culture.

On the first day of the event, Carter shared her story with students in “Dress Up Your World.” The second segment hosted “Gossip Girl” revival series’s Jordan Alexander to speak about her dynamic career and rise to stardom in “Breaking the Rules.”

As a fashion designer for over 40 films, including “Black Panther,” “Malcolm X,” and “ROOTS,” Carter holds an impressive resume. When asked to consider her lengthy catalog, Carter identified two of the movies as most impactful. She explained that Spike Lee’s “School Days” was the most influential. “School Days” served her first movie as a costume designer; “School Days” was a dream come true – and a challenge – for the young fashion guru.

“It was hard, I cried, and I died,” Carter joked. “It was hard, but it was worth it.”

Met Gala Gown
Alanna Martine Kilkeary / Her Campus

“School Days” was of great personal importance but “Black Panther” was of immense professional importance. Carter explained the severity of stepping into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with no experience as a triumph, in which she learned “to trust [her] voice.”

“Black Panther” tasked Carter with the goal of representing and celebrating African culture and its tribes through costume. Carter famously celebrated this culture in the ways she did best – through color, shape, and detail. She said her most notable feat was the uniforms of the Dora Milaje, the warrior women who serve the fictional African nation of Wakanda.

Carter’s work throughout the film allowed people to experience African-American history through costume. Her work prompted the audience to reconsider its perception of beauty through the use of scarification and traditional tribal elements of adornment.

Carter says that it is always important to explore the depth of character and to consider the smallest details in costume; she explained that dressing a character is similar to exploring their psyche; it identifies what makes a character unique. Carter’s impressive work on “Black Panther” earned her an Academy Award and in 2019, Carter made history as the first black woman to win an Oscar for costume design.

Carter’s Oscar is only one on her long list of impressive historical achievements. Earlier this year, Carter became the first black costume designer to earn a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. This made Carter only the second costume designer to be given a star. (The last costume designer to do so was Edith Head in 1974.)

To have earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Carter says that “the trail has been blazed.” She believes that her work has opened up opportunities for other women of color like her.

When asked how she has gained so much success, Carter gave audience members the advice that she gives many of her mentees: “Nobody can beat you if you stay focused.”

Carter’s work has already established her as a historically important and culturally-relevant fashion designer, but she is nowhere near done creating. The costume designer told us of her upcoming project, the highly anticipated “Black Panther 2,” and encouraged us to watch out for her book “The Art of Ruth E. Carter,” coming to shelves next summer.

Kaitlyn Newport

American '24

Kaitlyn is a sophomore at American University majoring in journalism and political science. She enjoys creative writing, photography, and reading, and she is passionate about women's health, LGBTQ+ rights, and climate justice. Kaitlyn is a Contributing Writer for HCAU and currently living in D.C.
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