The much anticipated film “Black Panther” is set to open in theaters on Feb. 16. While audiences are waiting to see its villains and superheroes battle it out, its African setting has given costume designer Ruth Carter a challenge of her own — balancing futuristic fashion with traditional African cultural influences.
Here, Carter talks about creating footwear that allows the characters to remain nimble on their feet while embracing the film’s roots in Africa.
FN: Since the mythical African kingdom of Wakanda is traditionally a barefoot culture, how do you incorporate footwear?
RC: “Production designer Hannah Beachler [created] a surface of clay soil you see in Africa that’s been oxidized red. We imagined if you’re walking around [on it], it’s OK to wear your business suit and no shoes. But, not everyone’s barefoot. We thought about a split-toe shoe like Vibram’s FiveFingers or Clarks Trigenic Evo. They form to the foot, are comfortable and not as Americanized as a lace-up cap-toe shoe. We [also] used a lot of sandals.”
FN: Were the shoes designed entirely by you, or did you adapt existing styles?
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RC: “The Panther split-toe shoe was designed from scratch, as well as the Dora Milaje team’s boots. Western Costume Co. has a cobbler that made shoes for the main characters. It’s quite expensive to do. [Otherwise], we modified shoes. Online, we found Japanese canvas boots with a split toe we could build on. The movie was action packed, so comfort and safety were key. Director Ryan Coogler was adamant about women not wearing heels. Once [they] got the battle costume on and feet were planted firmly on the ground, it made sense. We did cheat and put a little wedge inside since people who do martial arts need to be able to pivot on the ball of their foot.”
FN: What was the overall influence for the costumes?
RC: “It’s an Afro-futuristic model. Sometimes you can take the everyday and infuse African ideals like color, texture and beading. So, you might see someone in a sport coat, but it’s bright green.”
FN: How visible is the footwear in the film?
RC: “You’re not looking at it as a shoe in the film, you’re looking at it as a complete costume. You can’t have one without the other. If the costume is successful, the shoe is successful.”
FN: What character was the most fun to design for?
RC: “The one that I was the most passionate about was the Dora Milaje [team]. I knew they were a fan favorite and people had high expectations for their outcome. I wanted to make sure when we saw them they represented the film as a whole — African culture and the pride in Wakanda as a royal fighting force of the highest rank.”
FN: What was the movie you most enjoyed working on in your career?
RC: “The ones I like are not always the ones that are blockbusters. It was “Sparkle,” about the ’60s female singing group. I got to do the Diana Ross and the Supremes kind of theme. I [made] a lot of couture dresses and worked with some of the best dressmakers.”
FN: Who is among your favorite all-time costume designers?
RC: “Adrian [Adolph Greenberg]. He was a fashion designer and costume designer. His suits are timeless. The beauty he produced will live on forever. If [only] I can be so lucky.”
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