Black Panther is a fashion film as much as it is a superhero film. The Ryan Coogler-directed blockbuster—which won three Academy Awards and grossed over a billion dollars—inspired hoards of moviegoers to dress up as the film’s characters (or simply don Africana-inspired garb) and attend screenings across the world, striking the Wakanda warrior pose. Tutorials on how to recreate Shuri’s chalk-white warrior facial paintings, inspired by the real-life Karo and Suri tribes, populated the internet. A Black Panther-inspired fashion presentation featuring original designs by LaQuan Smith, Cushnie et Ochs and Chromat even took place during NYFW autumn 2018.
Responsible for the distinctive, battle-ready afrofuturist fashion on display in that first film is costume designer Ruth E Carter. Her oft-referenced work landed her the 2019 Academy Award for Costume Design, and she became the first Black person to win in the category. (The win also felt like a capstone for Carter, who has worked on a bevy of “Black Hollywood” classics for three-decades, including B*A*P*S and Do The Right Thing.) When the sequel was announced, many wondered, “Could lightning in a bottle be captured twice?”
Judging by the viral photos of the sequel’s jewellery-laden villain, Namor, spreading across social media this week (sparking enough thirst to fill the Atlantic), the answer is yes. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever has expanded the universe’s world from Africa to Mesoamerica. When asked how her creative process on the costumes in Wakanda Forever differed from the first film, Carter is straight to the point. “I was Ruth Carter then, and I’m Ruth Carter now,” she answers. “My process of what actually gets me to my understanding of what we’re doing doesn’t change. I have to do the groundwork, I have to have a process that works for me. That’s research first and foremost.”
But some practical tinkers and adjustments were necessary for the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe entry. A chief portion of the film centres around a hidden, underwater kingdom with ties to pre-colonised Mesoamerican civilisations. In other words, a lot of water was involved on set. “We had to remake everything to be submerged in water. So everyone’s wearing a bathing suit basically,” Carter says.
Below, Carter breaks down the process of making some of the key outfits and costumes in Wakanda Forever and their deeper connections to the vast, anti-imperialist narrative at the film’s centre. Carter, who is now at work on the upcoming Blade reboot, highlights not only overlooked thematic elements embedded into her costumes but also the personal touch that goes into making a big-budget Marvel film, dispelling some misguided notions about how the CGI sausage gets made. “Sometimes people just believe that Marvel does a magic thing,” she says. “That there’s some guy behind a curtain and he’s just pulling levers and shit.”
Warning: spoilers ahead
Shuri’s funeral look
“There are [some] comics that have Shuri as the main storyline and she is seen with these large tusk-style earrings. That inspired me to bring them here. Because they’re just so big. And I found that this whole scene is very heavy for her. The size of those earrings represented the weight of the scene, the weight of her emotions, the weight of the responsibility on her shoulders. So they were a storytelling tool for me.
The hooded cape she wears, we made it extra-large to really cover her face. And I saw one of the runway shows… I think it was Versace where they were in Rome. I was just in awe of the sheer fabrics and how the light moved through them and these beautiful tonal prints. I was determined to do the same effect with the fabrics [here] and let the light really shine through and have an effect. Most of the time you can’t put a hat or hood up [on a character] because it creates a shadow. But in this case it created a luminosity that I was just mesmerised by. There’s a print on it that’s something that we made up to represent the heart-shaped herb. So there’s four hearts connected.”
“That’s Namor’s cousin, Namora, and she’s a leader and she’s a warrior woman. This was honouring the lionfish. Her headpiece is made to resemble lionfish fins. Now, a lionfish is only about the size of your hands. So these elements we loved because they’re larger than any lionfish would have grown. It represents how they were able to fashion their adornments not by killing any fish but creating the look [themselves]. We talked to marine biologists and we asked them, ‘What’s at the bottom of the ocean?’ They said, fish bones, spongy-like substances, coral. So bones were a big thing. Because they’re lots of bones down there.”
The new Black Panther costume
Carter and director Ryan Coogler played a significant part in helping to design the new Black Panther costume worn by Shuri. “There’s a 2D drawing that’s [first] done by Marvel,” Carter says. Then the film’s team decided to add in gold accents to the initial concept. “I think it’s part of the Wakandan language. We wanted their brilliant armour to feel like jewellery.”
“The process of making this suit is that we do an exact vacuform [moulding] of Shuri’s [played by Letitia Wright] body. She stands in a chamber, gets thrust in, and we make a mannequin. From that mannequin we decide, ‘How do we enhance her muscles?’ So we maybe add a little more shoulders, we might enhance her pectorals, we may give her a little more of that dynamic shape. Not too much because we don’t want to make a cartoon. We just want to show that she has earned superhuman strength from the heart-shaped herb. And the dots… I don’t know why no one prior to the opening of the film saw the dots [in the trailer] and figured out that it was Shuri.”
Namor, played by Tenoch Huerta, is the film’s chief antagonist. A mutant son, he has the ability to breathe underwater and on land. The villain is actually one of the oldest Marvel characters – first introduced in a 1939 edition of Marvel Comics #1, where he was originally called Sub-Mariner. Coogler, Carter and the rest of the film’s team adapted the character to stem from a pre-colonised, Mesoamerican background. “The earrings are from the Mesoamerican Mayan culture – and the Aztecs wore them too – and they’re called ear flares,” Carter says. “Every Tenochtitlan wears them. The necklace that’s around his neck has the two-headed feathered serpent. There are other elements around the necklace that represent water—like conch shells and pearls.”
Shuri and Okoye try to blend in at college
In this scene, characters Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) are in the middle of a top-secret mission on a prestigious college campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, attempting to blend in. “They’re both wearing Adidas,” Carter says. “Shuri is in a purple tracksuit that we designed with Adidas and their SEED program (which stands for School for Experiential Education in Design). Adidas started this program for Black and brown girls who want to learn about the next level of sports, so we all worked together on Shuri’s tech shoes – in this outfit she’s wearing their 4D tennis shoe.
“The Louis Vuitton sunglasses were Gurira’s own personal pair,” Carter says. “But as she rehearsed in them, Ryan was like, ‘Ruth what do you think of those sunglasses?’ I was like, they are so good, because Shuri looks at her like, ‘Are you saying to me that you’re wearing something undercover?’ They’re very American to me.”
Wakanda’s memorial For T’Challa
This crowd scene takes place as Wakanda pays tribute to T’Challa, played by the late Chadwick Boseman, who starred in the first film and passed away before filming started on the sequel. The scene is purposely filled with characters wearing street-friendly and thoroughly contemporary garb (note the Birkenstock-esque sandals on one dancer). Carter was intentional about presenting a modern vision of Wakanda: “Africa is not one monolithic place. People are modern. People don’t live in the bush, they go out to the cities, they live in the cities. How can we say that Wakanda is a forward-thinking modern country with vibranium and technology, and more advanced than anyone, and be surprised that someone is in something that’s modern? Wakanda Forever is not a period piece.”
This story was originally published in British Vogue.