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10 Quick Questions for Ruth E. Carter

Award-winning costume designer takes readers behind the scenes in her new book

spinner image ruth e carter smiling and wearing a yellow dress and long dangling earrings in front of a purple background
Mike Coppola/Getty Images

Ruth E. Carter, 63, won her first Oscar for best costume design in 2019 for Black Panther, and then won again this year for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. In her new book, The Art of Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture, From ‘Do the Right Thing’ to ‘Black Panther,’ she shares personal stories, sketches, moodboards and film stills that showcase her groundbreaking Hollywood career.


When did you become interested in costume design?In college … and I got a lot of accolades for being “the costume designer,” and I just enjoyed it. I didn’t really even think of it as Wow, this is my path. I guess I did in the sense that when I graduated from college, I sought out internships, and I was, like, Yeah, this is the path I’m on. But it wasn’t like a big light bulb went off. It was more like I started doing something I really enjoyed, and I wanted to just keep learning about it.

spinner image book cover for the art of ruth e. carter: costuming black history and the afrofuture, from ‘do the right thing’ to ‘black panther' with a man in a red and black pinstripe suit and a woman in red and black with boxing gloves
The Art of Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture, From ‘Do the Right Thing’ to ‘Black Panther’ features personal anecdotes, sketches and moodboards showcasing Carter's career.
Chronicle Books

Was writing a book something you always wanted to do?
I’ve always told stories. I’ve always been a real good storyteller about things that have happened along my journey. I’m always entertaining my colleagues with a crazy story about how some costume came to be or the difficulty in shooting the particular material or what have you, so the idea was very comfortable for me.  

You’ve worked with filmmaker Spike Lee since 1988, when you were head costume designer for his movie School Daze. What's your relationship like?

He’s like a brother. … There is an expectation, there is an aesthetic, there’s a relationship that was built over years and years and you know that’s undeniable. I would say he is my mentor as well as my brother and my friend.

Is there a particular movie that inspired you to become a costume designer?

As I became a costume designer, there are some movies that I felt stood out to me as great costumes, and I followed those designers. [The 1984 film] Places in the Heart and [the 1991 film] Fried Green Tomatoes — those films [made me] say, I want to do costumes like that.

spinner image ruth e carter at work
Before she won her first Oscar for best costume design, people didn't realize how many movies Carter had already worked on.
Hampton University Theater Department; courtesy of Ruth E. Carter

Did life change for you in 2019 after you won your Oscar?

Yeah, it did, in a lot of ways I didn’t expect. A lot of people didn’t realize that I had done so many films and had been nominated twice before [for Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X and Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film Amistad]. They wanted to know about my whole career, and so I traveled, did a lot of lectures at universities — which was really interesting and fun to talk to students and see how they perceive me. I was behind the camera, and I didn’t realize how completely cloaked that is. People said they didn’t realize that I had done so much. I thought everybody knew, but of course they didn’t.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

I’m still making art. I’m painting. I paint a lot in my off time. I draw. I take classes. I love to take classes on art. I love to go to museums and look at other art that I feel like I could do if I could just stop at the costumes for a second — I could actually do something in the arts that’s also about visual art. If I’m not making art, I’m probably taking a yoga class or walking my dog. I have a Havanese — a really smart terrier breed. His name is Coqui, like the Puerto Rican frog. He runs the show, for sure.   

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Who’s on your ‘to-dress’ wish list?

Oh God, Riz Ahmed. Riz is an amazing actor. I can see his thought process in everything that he does, including his costumes. So I’m excited that I could one day dress him as a character. In terms of females, Keke Palmer [and] Julia Garner.     

What’s your personal style?

It depends. When I’m just casual, I’m usually just in sweats and a sweatshirt. I’m usually looking for stuff that’s comfortable to wear to work, because it’s a very physical job. I can’t even wear heeled boots to work. If I wear that, it’s like people are always asking me where I’m going. And I’m, like, here. I have to be in black Nikes and a James Perse T-shirt. When I’m dressing up, I like the style of [fashion designer] Rick Owens — I like the androgyny, but I don’t mind sexy. I love to create my own style. I did a lot of that during the awards season — made up things that I felt like I would like to wear, because when you’re full-figured it’s hard to find things that are unique. I’ve been modifying a lot of stuff that I already have and turning it into new stuff. I have fun doing that.

When you hit 60, did you make any changes to your lifestyle?

I’m definitely more active. There’s been a time when I went from film to film to film and didn’t give myself enough [time to exercise]. I’ve always been a person who loves to ride bikes, but I didn’t make that one hour every day a part of my life, and that’s the change. The change is I have prioritized it in a way that it’s not just recreation, that it’s actually survival. You know, the breathing and the endorphins that are created when you do get out in the air, and you do get a little physical, helps you creatively. I kind of knew that, but I didn’t have it in practice. Now I have it at practice. The other thing that I wasn’t doing enough of [is sleeping]. Just four hours of sleep at night was creating too much cortisol, and I was finding it very difficult to focus and concentrate, and I realized that I was not getting enough.

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After winning two Oscars, what’s next on your list of goals?

It's not the Oscars that make it the pinnacle. It’s actually [that] the experiences and the Oscars kind of sweeten the pie. So winning two Oscars for Black Panther and then Wakanda Forever sweetened the pie, but if I could continue to create in this way, in this manner, with these kinds of opportunities … those are the next steps for me. Just to continue to get these amazing opportunities that allow me to be an artist and grow and share with the world.


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