'Black Panther' Oscars: Costume Designer Explains Dora Milaje Armor
Ruth E. Carter is up for an Oscar. The 58-year-old costume designer for Marvel’s Afrofuturist adventure film Black Panther (also nominated for Best Picture, the first superhero movie ever up for the award) may win her first Academy Award on February 24, when the 91st ceremony takes place in L.A.
It’s a well-deserved nomination, not only because the clothing of Wakanda is objectively stunning, but because the costumes of Black Panther, in particular those worn by Wakanda’s warrior women (the Dora Milaje) illustrate in plain sight the themes of Afrofuturism, a subgenre of science-fiction that encompasses African Diaspora culture with technology.
“In black filmmaking, we have been tapping on it, never really creating an aesthetic or story that was all about it,” Carter tells Inverse. “We’ve been dealing with this subject in small ways. This [movie] is the first time we’ve put it together in one defining way.”
Carter’s previous film credits are mostly made up of more realistic dramas and comedies like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Lee Daniel’s The Butler, and Ava DuVernay’s Selma. (She had one detour into sci-fi, costuming the roguish heroes of Joss Whedon’s space western Serenity.)
But Black Panther was her first ever superhero production. While outfitting the film’s protagonist and sometime Avenger was its own challenge (including some surprising cues from DC’s Superman), it was the costumes of the Dora Milaje that involved intense research into African tribal wear and adaptation into a superhero universe.
In Black Panther, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) comes home to Wakanda, a technologically advanced African nation withdrawn from the outside world. T’Challa, who ascends to the throne as king, is guarded by elite warrior women known as the Dora Milaje, a concept introduced in the comics by writer Christopher Priest in 1998.
“I felt there’s a story behind the Dora Milaje costume,” says Carter, who describes them as the “highest ranking force” in the Wakandan military.
“If you’re training to be a Dora Milaje, it’s like training for the Olympics,” she says. “If you are granted entry into the Dora Milaje, you have special craftspeople who craft your suit for you, designed for your body and your movement.”
Carter took inspiration directly from existing African tribal cultures, in particular the Ndebele of South Africa whose women wear brass and copper rings that symbolize bond and faithfulness to their husbands. Carter. Then, director Ryan Coogler, gave the Dora Milaje’s Ndebele rings a tactical purpose.
“Ryan wanted them to feel like armor,” Carter says.
The Dora Milaje were outfitted with what Carter called a “harness” that “wraps around the body and pays homage to the feminine form.” This harness wraps around cleavage and under bust, tight around the waist, and “drapes to the back.” This harness was crafted, Carter says, in the same manner South African leather makers craft belts.
“When I worked on [the miniseries] Roots, we had South Africans who made these beautiful leather pieces for us. I showed them to our craftspeople who were making the Dora Milaje so they could make it in the same manner, with the stitching and hand tooling look. You see that in the picture.”
Another source of inspiration for Carter came from the Turkana, Masai, and Himba people, all of whom emphasize the color red.
“When you look at the Turkana or the Masai, you see them wearing this beautiful red that’s vibrant,” she says, “So I bumped up the red so that if you see ten Dora Milaje together, it felt like twenty, because of that imposing color coming at you. This fiery red.”
Carter also added rings around the Dora Milaje, based on how the Himba adorned their leather drapes with ringlets and studs.
“Their backdrapes are made like the Himba women drapes,” she says. “I put rings around it, and you can hear the Dora Milaje. You can hear them coming before you see them. You hear their jingle of their approach.”
Finally, Carter remembers the moment her work all came together for Black Panther. On the day of shooting T’Challa’s ascension to the throne, involving a duel at the waterfall in front of the tribes of Wakanda, Carter was called by her assistants to step back from the set. She had been so caught up in the weeds making sure every piece of cloth and leather were in place, she never took a moment to take stock. She finally did.
“Ruth, stand back here,” someone told her. In front of a large parking lot converted into a waterfall arena, hundreds of extras were organized by their Wakandan tribes and colors, all of them costumed by Carter.
“It was organized, colorful, and magnificent,” she recalls, “because everyone was in their cultural dress for this scene. When I stood back and looked at it, they said, ‘Look, you did this.’”
Black Panther is available on Blu-ray and DVD now. The 91st Academy Awards will take place on February 24.