Listen

'Black Panther' Costume Designer Draws On 'The Sacred Geometry Of Africa'

Feb 16, 2018

Black Panther is the latest offering from Marvel and Disney — if you don't already know the story, here's quick synopsis: It's about T'Challa, the superhero Black Panther and the king of Wakanda, an isolated, technologically advanced African country that sits upon a rich deposit of the metal vibranium, the strongest substance in the Marvel world.

When you see the movie, you'll notice quickly how Wakanda looks like the future: It's full of details like healing tables and hovercraft, all powered by vibranium. But if you look at the costumes, you can see that that Wakanda's Afro-futurism is grounded in the past.

Designer Ruth Carter — whose previous films include Selma, Malcolm X and Roots — pulled colors, shapes, jewelry, and textures from tribes all over Africa. She says she wanted to tell a story "of brilliance, royalty, intrigue — you name it. I feel that you can tell a story through clothing."

One detail Carter particularly likes is in the Black Panther suit worn by Chadwick Boseman, who plays T'Challa. The suit was created by Marvel character designer Ryan Meinerding, but the fabric has a triangular surface pattern that's all Carter.

"That triangle is the sacred geometry of Africa," Carter says. "I call that pattern the 'Okavango' pattern. I felt that it made his suit have this character that would, in the wide shots, make him this superhero but in the close-up, you see this beautiful pattern that is consistent with a lot of the art of Africa and would turn him into this African king."

Carter's costumes needed to evoke an African country that had never been colonized, one that looked toward the future but was based on a real past. So she found inspiration from African art and craft, and indigenous tribal wear from all over the continent. Then she and her team worked to create group drawings of the various groups in Wakanda.

"And we did them as they were centuries ago," she says. "Then, it was a process of deciding how we go from there in the past, to where Wakanda would be in the future." For Carter and her team, that meant using the same color palette, the same headdresses or beadwork but with more modern sillhouettes. The Dora Milaje, for example, are Wakanda's elite team of female warriors, and they wear bright red military uniforms, a leather harness and beaded tabard, and metal neck rings and armor. It's a striking look that Carter created "based on some of the beloved practices of many indiginous tribes" like the Maasai of Kenya, the Ndebele of South Africa, the Himba people of Namibia.

The bright red color comes from those tribes in Kenya. The Dora Milaje's leather harnesses were crafted in the way of South African leathersmiths — woven together with a big heavy stitch. Their tabards feature intricate beading, a nod to the beadwork found throughout Africa. Even their tights are patterned with the same triangular pattern you can see on the Black Panther suit.

"I really wanted this to have a feeling that if you were an aspiring Dora Milaje and you were granted permission to be a member, you would be presented with this beautiful honor and this beautiful uniform that was exclusively yours and handsmade by craftsmen."

But where Carter stayed closer to traditional tribal wear for the Dora Milaje, an institution in Wakanda, Carter looked further into the future with another character, Shuri. She's T'Challa's younger sister and the resident tech genius — her lab is a science fiction dream and she creates and builds all of Wakanda's technology, including the Black Panther suit. For Shuri, Carter was guided by one scene in the film: Representatives from each tribe have gathered for the King's Challenge — anyone wishing to take the throne must challenge T'Challa to a fight. Shuri wears a traditional costume, including a corset inspired by the Dinka people, and she shouts at one point, "Can we get a move on? This corset is uncomfortable.

"So she told us right away that that's not where she comes from, that's not where she wants to be mentally," Carter says. From there on out, Shuri dresses in clothes with modern sillhouettes and fabrics — Carter chose youthful, vibrant colors overlaid with mesh fabrics or bold outlines. But Carter says the shape of her clothing still holds meaning.

"Her first dress is a white dress and we created the front of it to be this cylindrical round shape — and I was trying to connect shapes within Wakanda so you see them repeat. It's the language of Wakanda."

Carter knows a lot about the world of Wakanda now, but when she was first asked to interview for Black Panther, she thought it was a simple superhero film. "I knew about him as a superhero, but I didn't know that he lived in a secret place called Wakanda — I knew he was from Africa, but I didn't know that they weren't colonized and they had all different types of tribes within their little hidden country."

Carter says the more she understood about Black Panther and the people of Wakanda, she began to get scared. "This is [a character] that's gone back fifty years and I'm going to be given the task to create this world on camera for the fans!"

But she got over her fear and set about creating a rich tapestry of color and texture. She says her experience on the film underscored how costume design is art. "I learned that I was an artist, that I could communicate and tell stories through this wonderful medium of adornment. The adornment of Africa has always been a part of their beauty from scarification to beadwork to woodwork, and I fell in love with it even more."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Over the last few months, weeks, days, hours, you might have heard of a certain movie that is in theaters this weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK PANTHER")

FOREST WHITAKER: (As Zuri) I give to you the Black Panther.

MCEVERS: "Black Panther" is the latest offering from Marvel and Disney. If you don't already know the story, a quick synopsis - it's about T'Challa, the Black Panther and king of Wakanda. Wakanda is a technologically advanced African country. It sits upon a rich deposit of the metal vibranium, the strongest substance in the Marvel world. Now, when you see the movie - and a lot of you will - you'll notice quickly how Wakanda looks like the future with healing tables and hovercraft all powered by vibranium.

If you look at the costumes, you can see a future that is grounded in the past. Designer Ruth E. Carter pulled colors, shapes, jewelry and textures from tribes all over Africa. And she wants you to take notice, starting with the Black Panther suit.

RUTH E CARTER: I put a tiny triangular surface pattern all over the suit to give him texture. But that triangle is the sacred geometry of Africa. I call that pattern the Okavango pattern.

MCEVERS: The concept for the suit came from Marvel's character designer, Ryan Meinerding. The details are all Ruth Carter and her team.

CARTER: I felt that it made his suit have this character that would in the wide shot make him this superhero, but in the close-up you'd see this beautiful pattern that would turn him into this African king.

MCEVERS: There is a lot of thought behind every costume in this movie, like the ones for the Dora Milaje, the highest-ranking fighting force in Wakanda. They are all women.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK PANTHER")

DANAI GURIRA: (As Okoye) Wakanda forever.

CARTER: When you look at the costume you see a military uniform, a military uniform that's not crafted for a man. It's crafted for a woman. It is bright red. And its color is inspired by the Maasai tribe or the Turkana tribe that wear this really beautiful, vibrant red. There's also a little gold and a little orange in their costume that represents the vibranium that is laced within the fibers of the costume to make it strong. There's a leather - brown leather harness that wraps the body of the Dora Milaje in a beautiful way that honors the female form.

There's a tabard that runs down the front of their costume that's beaded in the tradition of Africa throughout the continent as especially within the Turkana and the Maasai tribe because I really wanted this to have a feeling that if you were a aspiring Dora Milaje, if you were training and you were granted the position to be a member, that you would be presented with this honor and this beautiful uniform.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: And then there are costumes that Ruth Carter and her team created to define a character like Shuri, tech genius and T'Challa's younger sister.

CARTER: Shuri is this Tony Stark of Wakanda. She designs the suit.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK PANTHER")

LETITIA WRIGHT: (As Shuri) I have some new tech to show you. It is lighter, it absorbs energy, and it's got some swag.

CHADWICK BOSEMAN: (As T'Challa) Very nice.

CARTER: When we first meet Letitia Wright, who plays Shuri, she's wearing a traditional costume. And she shouts up to the rest of the community and she's like, can we get a move on? This stuff is uncomfortable. So she told us right away that that's not where she comes from. We meet Shuri in her lab. And one of the biggest things was, how do we not put lab coats on people? It just seems like so cliche and so done. And I thought, let's just make her clothes. And we used fabrics that were kind of forward-looking - you know, a little bit of mesh and overlays. I tried to find colors that were youthful.

She didn't need to wear a lab coat. So her first dress is a white strapless dress. And we created the front of it to be this cylindrical round shape. And again, I was trying to connect shapes within Wakanda. So you see them repeat. So the bust area around the front of her white dress is just a round semicircle, and it's overlaid with a mesh white fabric that we ruffled along the back. And the ruffle wasn't a perfect ruffle. It was just kind of a ruffling of mesh fabric that just seemed different and really kind of OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG GORANSSON SONG, "UNITED NATIONS/END TITLES")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Vocalizing).

CARTER: I learned from my experience on the "Black Panther" more than ever that costume design is art. I could communicate and tell stories through this wonderful medium of adornment. The adornment of Africa has always been a part of their beauty from scarification to bead work to woodwork. You know, I fell in love with it even more.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG GORANSSON SONG, "UNITED NATIONS/END TITLES")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing in foreign language).

MCEVERS: That was Ruth Carter, costume designer for "Black Panther." If you want to see what some of those costumes look like, head over to npr.org/allthingsconsidered.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUDWIG GORANSSON SONG, "UNITED NATIONS/END TITLES")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing in foreign language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.