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Fashion

Black In Fashion Spotlight: Ruth E. Carter’s History-Making Costume Design Career

She's the mastermind behind the costuming of Black Hollywood’s most acclaimed films.

From university films to a decades-long career spanning over 60 film and TV contributions, Ruth E. Carter is the costume designer flawlessly encapsulating the Black experience on screen. Discover the journey of Carter's work, from early Spike Lee films to a 2018 box-office hit.

With initial thoughts of becoming an actor, Carter attended Hampton University where she was hired to costume design for university films and plays, unknowingly the beginning of a career that would grow to shape and become cemented in Black cinema for years to come.

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Carter's creativity transcends the big screen. Her work remains as a point of reference for Black fashion, Black stories, and continues to be recreated by fans today.

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In the early stages of Carter's career, she crossed paths with then up-and-coming director Spike Lee, the two becoming something of a dynamic duo as Carter went on to costume design for 14 of his films.

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Carter's big break was Spike Lee's School Daze (1988), for which she captured the vibrant reality of students at historically Black colleges and universities. She even worked with pioneering Black designer Willi Smith to construct the outfits for the film's homecoming scene.

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Other iconic Spike Lee films that Carter has had a hand in include Mo' Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991) and Malcolm X (1992).

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Despite a lengthy career spanning over three decades, Carter's contribution to Hollywood went widely unrecognized for quite some time — a prime example of the realities faced by many Black creators across the industry.

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Carter received Academy Award nominations for Malcom X and Steven Spielberg's Amistad (1997), but it wasn's until the 2018 release of Black Panther, the Black-casted superhero film depicting the fictional tribe of Wakanda, that Carter won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design.

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Carter became not only the first African-American to win in the Academy Awards' Best Costume Design category, but she became the puzzle piece that would propel Marvel to its first Academy Award of all time.

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Black Panther's historical work wouldn't have been the same without Carter's extravagant costuming. Inspired by African tribes, Carter took a research trip to southern Africa and obtained permission from the country Lesotho to weave its traditional designs into the film.

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Carter continues to cement her name in costuming and film, visually telling the historical and contemporary stories of Black reality through clothes. Her legacy is likely far from complete, with her work slated to grace screens again in Craig Brewer’s 2021 Coming 2 America.

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