John Paul Morabito "For Félix (Magenta Like The Ecstasy Of Dancing With Sorrow)" (detail)

SDA Book Club: “The Art of Ruth E. Carter” reviewed by Vivien Zepf

The Art of Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture, from Do the right Thing to Black Panther by Ruth E. Carter

It seems to me that the debate of form versus function might be an eternal struggle for a costume designer. One might love the look of a costume, but will it work? A costume is most often born of the designer’s diligent research and imagination, but it is imperative that it also serve the director’s vision and the story arc. It must support the individual character’s storyline and enhance the overall visual narrative. A costume must be authentic so an audience believes what they are seeing, even in a fantasy world. A good costume must be true and original.

How is it possible to navigate this creative quagmire?

In her memoir The Art of Ruth E. Carter, Carter tells some of what it’s taken for her to thrive for 40+ years in the push-pull environment of costume design. Carter had hoped to make a career as a stage actress, but was redirected into costume design when she didn’t receive a part in a collegiate play. It was a life-changing event. Costumes became her story-telling language. A few years later a chance meeting with Spike Lee would propel Carter to begin designing costumes for film.

Throughout her book, Carter shares memories of some her collaborations with directors and actors, many of whom she’s worked with more than once. (Angela Bassett = six times!) You’ll gain insight into how Carter critically analyzes scripts to flesh out the details that will transform a wardrobe into an extension of a character, whether that be the designs for a Bed-Stuy t-shirt in Do The Right Thing or embroidered family tapestry designs on royal garments for Coming to America 2. Her expansive research for films such as Amistad and Malcolm X helped present authentic and immersive representation of time, place and society. Readers will discover how the two Black Panther films, each of which earned Carter an Oscar, challenged her to develop believable costumes that seamlessly fused imagined advanced technologies with cultural designs. With each project, Carter is dedicated to her craft and all its possibilities to express African culture and diaspora, contemporary Black experience in America, and Afrofuturism. Carter is rightfully proud of her success, but also humble as she relates her experiences to readers.

Costume design is a visual craft so it’s no surprise Carter’s book is a visual treat. It’s filled with full page illustrations and photographs to help readers understand the scope of Carter’s work. I wish there had been the opportunity for more detail pictures so readers could closely examine some of the fabrics, beadwork and designs Carter described. Alas, I realize that’s probably an unrealistic ask.

“Simply trust the journey”, Carter writes when discussing the path to being an artist. Yes, Carter has had luck in her career, but she is also a tenacious “student of people.. storytelling and history-telling”. She works hard. Garments are familiar to each of us, so the challenge for a costume designer is to create joy, vision, imagination and authenticity. Through her book, we witness how magnificently Ruth E. Carter is up for that challenge, again and again.

–Vivien Zepf

***Please note that there seems to be a printing error on page 56 for any copies purchased through Amazon. We recommend buying from your local bookstore to ensure your copy is free of errors. (Edit made on 3/1/2024 after article was already published) 

  • Publisher: Chronicle Books (buy it here)
  • Date: May 2023
  • ISBN: 978-1797203065

If you’ve read this book, leave a comment and let us know what you think!

Do you have a recommendation for a recent fiber-related book you think should be included in SDA’s Book Club? Email SDA’s Managing Editor, Lauren Sinner, to let her know!

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