Oscar Winner Ruth E. Carter Reveals How to Make Sure You’re Wearing Your Costumes (+ They Aren’t Wearing You)

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Photo Source: François Duhamel

With “Dolemite Is My Name,” Oscar-winning “Black Panther” costume designer Ruth E. Carter was given more than just the opportunity to dress Eddie Murphy; she was given a “second chance” to nail ’70s style, helping her actors delve deeper into their portrayals along the way. Here, Carter speaks with Backstage about how to make sure you’re wearing your costume—and not the other way around.

How would you describe the role of a costume designer?
A costume designer is a storyteller. Our wearable art is supporting the actors as they embark on characterizing their roles in plays and in film. We shepherd the actors to their final result, [which] is portraying the best characters that support a script. We help support the story and we support the actors by creating garments, designs that tell a story, that give composition to the play or the film as a whole. The costume also takes you on a journey. That’s different from a stylist, who buys clothes off of a rack and creates a personality. This is telling a story, and in the end, we’re supportive of the script.

Can you delve into the tangible ways you actually work with actors?
Part of it is supporting the actor in the fitting room. It’s a transformation process. It’s an exploration sometimes, and it’s a collaboration between the costume designer and the actor. When we first meet, we both have this mystery in our hands, like, “How will this unfold?” It’s exciting to hear their ideas. It’s exciting to ask the questions and talk about the story and what excites us both. I usually bring a lot of tools to the first fitting, meaning a lot of garments that we are beginning to create for the actor. Usually, there’s not a lot of time, so even the consultation is a big fitting and it’s about two hours long. Within those two hours, when we find the right character piece—it could just be one piece, it could be a color, it could be the type of drape or flow of a garment—then we know the direction.

READ: How to Become a Costume Designer

How much of your job is making sure the actor feels comfortable in the costume?
You can’t stack a lot of things on some people, because the garment begins to wear them. They don’t embody the garment and the character. There is that balancing act within that transformation process; once we get to set or the garment is ready to perform, I enjoy that the actor doesn’t need me anymore. I’m there to support it, to answer questions from anyone else, but usually, the actor feels good and is being embraced by the rest of the cast and crew and they’re ready to perform. I’m just watching the composition at that point, making sure that we’re all together. That’s the journey that I really love. I wanted to be an actor, so I feel like I understand how the garment has to feel right as well as look right.

How did you first become interested in costumes?
I played around with sewing as a kid, so there was that element that kind of lived in me. I wanted to act, so theater and drama were things I was interested in, as well. When I got to school, they needed someone to do costumes for a play that I did, and I felt very comfortable with the idea. Once I started getting into it, I realized that I had something that appealed to the artistic side of me that wanted to draw and create. I also loved the idea of telling stories—especially African American stories. In school, I was reading a lot of black theater, studying black theater: “The Sty of the Blind Pig” and Molière and Shakespeare. The stories are fascinating, and being close to those stories through costume design was my journey.

You’ve worked extensively in film and theater. Was there anything unique about “Dolemite Is My Name” compared to other projects you’ve costumed?
I was able to dive in and really design the look of this picture in the way that I remember the ’70s as a young teenager and remember the trends. I’ve done “Black Dynamite” and other high comedies, but this one was unique in that I was painting a picture of a realistic ’70s that would really bring people back into the spirit and the creativity of the era. It also laid the framework for Rudy Ray Moore and Dolemite’s look; that was very unique to me, that I could underplay the ’70s in that I didn’t want everybody to be a big character. I wanted them to be very realistic in the background, and then I could take Dolemite and make him bigger and broader and give him his platform. It was like a second chance to get the ’70s right.

Is working on a film so grounded in reality different from a more fictional project?
Yes and no. Even the fictional has a part of it that they want people to believe. It’s made up, but it’s something that you could believe really does exist. There’s a balancing act there in terms of not being too painterly, not being too broad across the board. You do have to give room for other things to shine, so there’s a balance between reality and above reality, even on fictional films.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue costume design?
Get into theater. It’s easier to work in the theater, and it gives you a great foundation for characterization, breaking down a script, and understanding the actors. It gives you the story from beginning to end every night. You see the arc. You see how the clothes transition from the stage to the audience and you see immediately how it affects the audience. You can hear the reaction. In film, I can’t hear people laughing at “Dolemite” anymore unless I go see it [in theaters] again. It’s a great training ground. That’s how I learned. It’s not the glamor of Hollywood, where you have the stars, but I think it’s actually a pure view of the art of costume design.

Do you and an actor ever disagree in the developmental phase? How do you navigate that?
Yeah, that happens. But for me, it needs to happen before it’s time to perform, because it gets too intense and emotional and the actors do not like for it to be a surprise during that time. Like I said, during that consultation phase, there’s a whole rack in the room of “nos,” and we find out what those are in a time and place where we can both accept that it’s not right. That’s part of the beauty of a fitting: You learn so much. Once you learn what the nos are, you go toward the yeses. Some actors are opinionated and want two or three options in their room, because the first one they may not like. I always have a Plan B in my head, just in case. On the day, maybe the hair color changes and now they’re a redhead and all of those pastels I had planned don’t work. I hope that doesn’t happen, but it has happened to me in the past; an actress showed up and all of a sudden she had this Lucille Ball red hair, and nobody had told me, so the whole closet did not work. That was a fright, believe me.

Red hair isn’t exactly subtle.
No. That would have been some good information to have!

This story originally appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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