Fashion of the Wakanda World (Black Panther)
- 23 February, 2018
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The Oscar-nominated costume designer Ruth Carter on how she created the style of the film’s fictional wakanda world (Black Panther)
“Fashion of the Wakanda World (Black Panther)”- Black Panther is one of the most highly anticipated films of 2018—not just for its adaptation of the popular comic, but also for its fashion. Since the first teaser trailer was released last June, people have been raving about, and drawing inspiration from, the costumes in the movie’s world of Wakanda. “What are you wearing to the Black Panther premiere?” became a prominent topic of discussion across social media. Black Twitter led the charge, posting memes and sharing outfit ideas with the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLit.
This chatter wasn’t so much about cosplay—or dressing up as characters like the titular Marvel hero himself, T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the antagonist Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), or the special-forces operatives Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira). Many Black Pantherenthusiasts seemed to want to dress like everyday Wakandans: to delight in this fictional African nation and transform their local theaters with brightly colored mixed-print ensembles, a playful call-and-response to the larger-than-life black characters on the big screen. Fashion is really key to understanding the world of black panther
It’s perhaps a testament to Black Panther’s costume designer, Ruth Carter, that a two-minute trailer had this effect on viewers. With 30 years of movie experience and two Oscar nominations for her work (on Malcolm Xand Amistad), Carter understood the role clothing would play in shaping the film’s world. “Wakandans are serious about fashion,” Carter told me of the inhabitants of Black Panther’s tech-forward, eco-conscious, never-before-colonized country. Her vision for Wakandan dress draws from traditional and contemporary African fashion. Sartorial cues help viewers understand the social geography of a fictional place—its political ideologies, cultural norms, etiquette. It’s easier to convey these unspoken elements when a film is set in a space and time the audience already
has some reference for. For example, American viewers can read the message of a certain dress or hairstyle in, say, 1960s Alabama, which worked in Carter’s favor when she was designing the costumes for Selma.
Of course, Carter couldn’t rely on this familiarity for Black Panther. in this Black Panther era ,“We didn’t really have … a visual model of people living in Wakanda,” she told me. “So it was kind of a fantasy or an imagined place for me. It was very intimidating. Creating a world is no joke.” The comic books alone couldn’t explain everything Carter needed to know. So to pull Black Panther off the page, she and her team relied on the Wakanda “bible” created by the director Ryan Coogler and the production designer Hannah Beachler. Carter said she kept four words on her vision board as she designed: Beautiful. Positive. Forward. Colorful. The costumes had to fit seamlessly into the film, telling a story of their own but not competing with or distracting from the plot. The result is a dramatic look that makes clear that Wakandans use clothing as an important form of self- and community expression, to honor their ancestors, and to maintain a progressive social order.
African fashion has always been cosmopolitan, and Carter was careful not to depict it as frozen in the past. Contemporary designers across the continent are remixing tradition, creating innovative silhouettes and combining prints and textures. Carter and her team collaborated with several vanguard fashion houses to reflect the range of tailoring and textile production that animates the current African fashion scene. She was drawn to the impeccable Ghanaian-inspired tailoring of Ozwald Boateng, as well as Ikiré Jones’s florid textiles, which reimagine Nigerian culture through high Renaissance art. South Africa’s MaXhosa by Laduma, with its futuristic knitwear based on graphic Xhosa prints, and the peculiar silhouettes and color clashing of Duro Olowu—the Nigerian designer who dressed Michelle Obama—add an avant-garde edge. Together, the styles channel the dandified elegance of Congolese sapeurs and the transgressive spirit of the Afropunk festival to express the characters’ wide range of personalities.
A team of more than 30 designers and buyers (six times the size of the modest team Carter helmed for Selma) scoured the globe—from New York to Nairobi to Mumbai—to find robes, headdresses, and intricate jewelry to deliver on Carter’s ambitious vision. The result is stunning sartorial storytelling that weaves the past and the present to imagine a future of fashion.