A Hollywood Star Sparkles Brightly in Ruth E. Carter’s Designs
At the intersection of Black History Month and Black Women’s History Month, a star that has shone brightly over the course of four decades in Hollywood received an honor that cemented her legacy in Tinseltown. On Feb. 25, the legendary costume designer Ruth E. Carter received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in recognition of her work that has included a portfolio of projects such as “School Daze,” “Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever,” “Malcolm X,” “Amistad,” “Lee Daniel's The Butler,” “Being Mary Jane,” “Selma,” and “Dolemite Is My Name.”
Carter’s costuming on 2018’s “Black Panther” led to the artist receiving the Academy Award in costume design in 2019. This achievement marked a first for not only Carter, who had been previously nominated over the course of her career, but it was also the first time an African American costume designer won the award in the costume-design category.
“Marvel may have created the first Black superhero, but through costume design, we turned him into an African king. It’s been my life’s honor to create costumes. Thank you to the Academy. Thank you for honoring African royalty and the empowered way women can look and lead onscreen. Thank you to my crews around the world who helped bring Wakanda to life,” Carter said during her Oscar acceptance speech in 2019. “My career is built with passion to tell stories that allow us to know ourselves better. This is for my 97-year-old mother watching in Massachusetts. Mom, thank you for teaching me about people and their stories. You are the original superhero.”
Prior to moving to Los Angeles in 1986, Carter worked in her hometown of Springfield, Mass., in addition to interning with the Santa Fe Opera. She is also a graduate of historically Black institution Hampton University in Hampton, Va., a school that Carter celebrated during an H&M collaboration in early 2020, as the retailer committed to creating a scholarship to benefit the school. The collection relied on design elements including '90s streetwear, oversized sweaters, sweatpants, T-shirts and bucket hats in colors of the Black Liberation flag in red, black and green.
“When I was working on the many Spike Lee films, I got the nickname, ‘Ruthless’ by other key crew who would say, ‘Hey Ruthless!’ I like to think it's because I worked so hard behind the scenes designing looks and running the streets of New York to gather materials and get hundreds of actors in costume, helping the actors connect to characters through fashion,” Carter said at the time of the collection’s release. “This collection was created in that spirit and it serves to empower anyone with an inner creative who is passionate about nurturing their voice and determined to share their story—their art. It is to inspire a new generation, who need to project a personal expression of inclusion and who want to do it authentically in a way that vibes with their creative self, so I want to encourage them to trust their voice.”
Carter’s Hollywood story began when she drove to Los Angles in her 1985 Volkswagen Rabbit. Eventually, she would work with heavyweights including Eddie Murphy, Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay, Gabrielle Union, Steven Spielberg, and the late John Singleton.
“Ruth Carter is a genius. Of all the movies I've done over the years, I've never had a wardrobe designer whose clothes actually influence how you play your character, how you walk or how you stand. She really is instrumental in bringing your characters to life. There is no one like her,” said Murphy, who spoke during the Walk of Fame ceremony, which was hosted virtually. “There is always a sense of comfort when you walk on a Ruth Carter set because you know you're going to be the best.”
During Carter’s Walk of Fame ceremony, Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, President and Chief Executive Officer Rana Ghadban shared with the audience the profound influence of the designer’s work. In addition to hosting the event that bestowed the site’s 2,694th star upon Carter—the second costume designer to receive the honor—Ghadban also declared Feb. 25 as Ruth E. Carter Day in Hollywood.
“Today, we are honoring an extraordinary woman who is revered in the motion-picture industry as one of the most sought-after film costume designers of all time," explained Ghadban. “Ruth wows audiences and dazzles critics alike with costumes inspired by traditional African tribalwear merged with a contemporary look delivering fashion and function, incorporating technology and creating such authenticity, ownership and empowerment for the characters and viewers, cementing her as one of the preeminent voices and experts on Afrofuturism.”
After working with Carter on multiple projects, Winfrey had become familiar with the designer’s work and the characteristics that make her craft extraordinary. For Winfrey, the most striking aspects of Carter’s creations are the mindfulness regarding the depiction of the Black experience and her vision for greatness that she is able to relay through garments.
“Her passion for clothes, for clothing, and costumes and design were matched by her intention in creating a nuanced portrayal of a Black family through the decades,” said Winfrey, who worked with Carter on multiple projects. “What I first observed on [the set of] ‘The Butler’ and then again on ‘Selma’ was a woman who was deeply intentional about creating clothing to represent the culture and journey of African Americans.”
Upon accepting her award from the Hollywood Walk of Fame, which preceded the March 5 premiere of her next project “Coming 2 America,” Carter was grateful to those who love her work and are inspired by her designs. Carter also offered sage words for those artists who are following her footsteps.
“To all my fans who enjoy my movies and see themselves so much so you show up dressed in costume it's my desire to continue to inspire you,” Carter said. “Most of all, I dedicate this star to all the young aspiring filmmakers…Every moment, every sacrifice, every effort was hard work inspired by my passion. It's my hope that anyone who sacrifices, who beats these streets of Hollywood carrying their dreams in heavy garment bags full of costumes, desiring to be the best like I did that when you gaze upon my star, feel my energy, feel the power of your own unique story to realize your dreams, so you too can reach your star. Wakanda forever.”