The creators of Black Panther had their work cut out for them. They were tasked with fully realizing the culture of Wakanda, the hyperfuturistic but hidden East African nation from which the Black Panther, real name T’Challa, hails. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken us to other worlds before, but in Black Panther, Wakanda is the driving force that defines the motivations of each character in the film. It needed to be more than a movie set. It needed to be a real place.
One of the most illuminating ways to show how culture exists is to show how people dress. Clothing is political and symbolic; it communicates everything from attitude to ideals, from where a group of people have been to where they’re going. In bringing Wakanda to life, nailing down how the nation’s people dressed was of the utmost importance.
So, of course Black Panther’s director Ryan Coogler called on Ruth E. Carter to design the costumes for his characters. During her 30-year-long career, she’s dressed Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, the tribesmen in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, Mookie in Do the Right Thing, Denzel in Malcolm X, and most of the characters in Spike Lee’s films. “I was really stressed out at my interview [with Ryan],” Carter tells me over the phone. “But I finally looked up and he was sitting there, and he said, “I went to see Malcolm X with my dad when I was a little kid, and I’m so honored that you are here sitting in front of me right now.” I was like, “Wow, I need to relax. This guy really wants me to be here in this room; I belong here.”
Carter, Coogler, and several other creatives on Marvel’s team thus set out to create the wardrobe of Black Panther. T’Challa’s look, including his suit and his everyday clothes, were a priority, but Carter also paid particular attention to the movie’s villain, Erik Killmonger (played by Michael B. Jordan). Born to a family that was exiled to America from Wakanda, Killmonger is one of the most layered villains in MCU history. He’s complicated, conflicted, angry, hurt — and, because of his upbringing, he’s the only character in the movie who’s an outsider in his homeland. The contrast between T’Challa and Killmonger is obvious just from watching a Black Panther trailer: T’Challa in regal patterned coats, Killmonger in an outfit you could probably buy on Grailed.
I spoke with Carter to discuss her approach to creating Killmonger’s look, as well as the influences she drew on to craft the garb of the Wakandan people, and Black Panther’s suit.
What did you and Ryan Coogler first talk about when coming up with the costumes for Black Panther?
What Ryan said was that, yeah, this is an Afrofuturistic movement, but we want to create something different. It’s gotta be fantastic, it’s gotta be colorful, it’s gotta be unique.
I’m curious what influences you were drawing from, and how you adapted those influences to create something new.
It’s a difficult position to be in because you need to be influenced by images that exist to create something unique, but you don’t want to go so far that it becomes sci-fi. A lot of times you think of something that’s futuristic, and you want to bring in lots of silver, and all of a sudden you’re using the same models that they did in the ’60s. I kept in mind that I was doing something different, so I infused African culture into the design process. Not only is the Wakandan language running throughout Black Panther’s suit, there’s also an Okavango triangular, ancient, sacred geometry from Africa all over it. And the Dora Milaje, not only are they this badass fighting force of women that Anthony Francisco originally conceived, they also have Masai beading and South African leatherwork and hand-tooled jewelry armor.
I noticed the language on Black Panther’s suit.
The people over there at Marvel developed a Wakandan language. After the development of the language, I printed it on the Lesotho blankets that the border tribe wears as shields. And we painted it silver on Black Panther’s suit so it would have the effect of Vibranium.
Does it say anything specific?
I know people are going to try to figure out what it says. That came up in conversation and in meetings, but we just chose the shapes that would fit the channel that the language runs through, as opposed to really trying to get the word “blessed” in there, for example.
Can we dive into Erik Killmonger? He’s such a visually interesting character. How did you pick out the floor-length black cardigan he wears in Wakanda?
I took Michael B. Jordan shopping. I didn’t do that with anybody else because everything on everybody else had to look like it was from Wakanda, and Killmonger had to be this unique guy from America. I went to the store ahead of him and I pulled out things that I wanted to try on him, and that sweater was one of them. That sweater, actually, I dyed it black. It was another color, but we made it black because he needed to have something that would sort of make him unique from Wakanda; [he is] this badass arriving in there with a little duffel bag. I needed to be able to believe that he was wearing something that he carried with him to Wakanda that wasn’t making too much of a statement. And it still could give him the power and the look of this dude who comes in and takes over.
You mentioned it, but there’s a clear sense that Killmonger is from two very different places at once.
He needed to have a vibe of a regular African American guy. I think Ryan Coogler felt like, this guy could afford anything. He’s unapologetic. He’ll spend $2,500 dollars on a pair of Christian Dior combat boots. I couldn’t really find Erik Killmonger until I went into this very forward, unique designer store. And when we were in there, Michael B. was trying on things, he was trying on shapes that he had never worn before. They were different, but they were in line with the guy who wants to be in drop-crotch pants and combat boots, and who’s got tons of money to spend on it. That’s the guy who Killmonger is. That’s him.
That leads into my next question about Killmonger’s denim shearling jacket. That look feels immediately iconic to me.
It’s a piece of American pie, that look. It says so much about this guy who is a part of this American fabric and this American fray. That jacket, I think it cost like four or five thousand dollars. I couldn’t believe the cost of that jacket. It’s beautiful shearling, it’s lined throughout. The outside of the denim is super soft and beautiful. It has the right hang. It has the right size. It speaks to pop culture, it speaks to American culture.
What were Ryan and Michael B.’s reactions to it?
Ryan loved it from the start. I have several pictures of Michael B. Jordan, he loved it too; it was a done deal from the start. The drop-crotch pants were also a done deal from the start. [The look] just puts him right there in the fray with what’s in vogue right now.
What about the tinted glasses?
The glasses. The glasses were brought in by props, and Michael tried on a whole [bunch] … and Ryan thought those glasses were amazing. I never thought a wire-rimmed eyeglass would bring someone so much joy, but every time he looked at Michael B. Jordan in those glasses, he would just crack up. He just loved the look, he loved the image. Some things to me are straight ahead, and that look is so straight ahead and so real that it just made Killmonger like a normal guy. I thought Michael, when he walks into this scene, was supposed to be this lofty anthropologist who knew so much about art and culture. I thought he should have on this anthropology kind of a guy look. Maybe he was a buttoned-up shirt kind of a guy, little conservative, maybe a blazer. And Ryan said, “No, this guy’s unapologetic, he’s gonna be who he wants to be and he’s gonna have the knowledge behind the words. We don’t want to play him in any kind of a stereotype. We want him to be who he is.”
In that way, even though he’s the villain, Killmonger is sort of the stand-in for us, the audience.
He really could be this guy from Oakland or New York or this guy from Boston. And that’s kind of who Ryan Coogler is in a way. Ryan Coogler could be a guy in the film. I think he would be Erik Killmonger.
This interview has been edited and condensed.