Seattle Museum of Pop Culture exhibit is ‘full circle moment’ for legendary costume designer
By Aaron Allen, The Seattle Medium
Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture (MoPop) is currently featuring one of Hollywood’s foremost African-American costume designers, Ruth E. Carter.
While the average moviegoer can be engulfed in the acting and special effects of a feature film, it’s usually the costumes that help tie it all together. Looking at the work of Carter – who has designed pieces for Black Panther, Malcom X, Selma and movie legends like Oprah Winfrey, Denzell Washington, Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett – it’s amazing to see the intricacies that go into his designs. which seamlessly integrate the productions of which it has been a part.
Carter, who describes her work as “Afrofuturism,” won an Academy Award for Achievement in Costume Design for Black Panther and made history as the first African American to win in that category.
“Afrofuturism can be described as African culture and diaspora using technology,” says Carter. “And intertwine it with imagination, self-expression and entrepreneurship.”
Over a career spanning more than thirty years in film, theater and television, Carter has worked with some of Hollywood’s most renowned directors, including Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, the late John Singleton, Ava DuVernay and Ryan Cooglar. His resume includes early films like “Do The Right Thing”, “School Daze” and “Malcolm X”.
“My first opportunity was with Spike Lee’s ‘School Daze’,” Carter recalled. “I was doing theater and theater at the time wasn’t very big in LA. I was introduced to Spike, and he wasn’t the Spike Lee that we know back then, he had just come out of film school and finished “She’s Gotta Have It” and he taught me how to get film experience.
“He called me months later and I started ‘School Daze’ with him and that was the start of the journey,” Carter explains.
Currently touring nationally, Carter hopes to expand her exposure beyond the United States.
“Hopefully this exhibition will become a world tour,” says Carter. “I would love to see it in Nigeria or London, but right now it’s national. It’s been to three other museums and Seattle is its fourth stop and then heading to Chicago.”
Although Carter is the person in the foreground, she admits that costume design is a team effort and she attributes much of her success to all the people who work behind the scenes to bring her visions to life. .
“I have a great team,” Carter says. “Seamstresses, cutters, tailors, a lot of things are outsourced, a lot of things are made from molds, special costumes are made, there’s a lot of work that goes under the costumes, harnesses that hold the costume to the body, I know how to sew, but that didn’t get me into telling stories, I love telling the story of people and their lives, I’m good at imagining them.
Carter also has a stellar roster of period films, historical films like “Amistad” directed by Steven Spielberg and the latest version of “Roots”. Carter’s designs are attributed to her due diligence, research, and need to be authentic. Authenticity fuels Carter’s work, bringing the time period of a film such as “Amistad” to life.
“[Developing costumes for a historical movie] is a slow, patient process that cannot be rushed,” says Carter. “Reading about a period, talking to historians, studying how the mind thought and the body moved, and learning innovative or ancient design techniques all improve the costume.”
Having his exhibition presented in Seattle was not by chance. For Carter, Seattle was a stop that needed to be on the agenda, as she had been to the city before and fell in love with the museum while there.
“I was here, I mean, in the early 90s,” Carter says. “I was doing a show here in Seattle and my hotel was near MoPop and I could hear the Jimi Hendrix guitar songs coming from the museum and I was like wow MoPop has an amazing museum it was more than the Space Needle it was MoPop.
“For my exposure, landing here for me is like a looping moment,” Carter added. “Actually, some of my artistry pales in comparison to other exhibits in this museum, but because I’m here, it’s a landing spot I’ve earned, and it’s something I am proud. It’s an honor to bring these gifts here for Seattle to enjoy and see up close.