With Oscar nominations recently announced, I’ve been thinking a lot about the movies that amazed me last year. While reflecting, one movie in particular has been on the forefront of my consciousness. Marvel’s Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, was a bonafide cultural phenomenon. Coogler managed to take the form of the movie he was given and Trojan Horse themes of identity and the ramifications of isolationism. During my latest viewing, I really focused in on how the art of the costume design helped tell that story in a real way.
Ruth E. Carter has been designing costumes for heroes well before she got the job on Black Panther. Her credits include the costume design on films like Malcolm X, Selma, and Roots. Black Panther created a different challenge though. She would have to imagine a world that imperialism hadn’t touched. A world where the fashion could be influence by the likes of Issey Miyake and Stella McCartney but with the very important distinction of those designees being folded into African lore and tradition.
Key characters in this tale have arcs that are told not only through their actions but also through the clothes they wear. We can start this exploration through T’Challa himself. At the outset of the film, he’s assured of what the world is and his place in it despite the loss of his father. He wears a panther suit that isn’t too much of an upgrade from his father’s armor. For his first meeting with the council, he dons traditional robes and sandals that his sister comments that the elders would love—well right after she aptly comments “what are thooooose!” When contrasted with his sister’s inventiveness in marrying tradition with technology, he seems frozen in place.
Carter’s deft touch and love for these characters can be found in the details of the costumes. T’Challa’s new panther suit features a triangular pattern that needs to the sacred geometry of the African continent. The same pattern can be found in the tights of his Dora Milaje. This subtle inclusion in both costumes lets any eagle-eyed movie goer know that there is a connection between the two roles.
The Dora Milaje costumes utilize the red colors of the various Kenyan tribes beautifully. The bead work on them are an expression of how prevalent viewings that artform is throughout the continent. Repeated viewings have revealed the talisman on each uniform. Carter has spoken of how she thought of them as something passed down from one generation of Dora Milaje to the next.
And then there’s Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger. I loved Carter’s decision to have his fashion influences as scattershot and unrefined as his ideas on how Wakanda should interact with the outside world. You only need to look at his version of the panther armor to really understand him. Featuring fold on the suit when the rest of it is made up of the rarest and most powerful metal on Earth not only nods to his Oakland roots, it also shows how he completely misses the very things that make Wakanda a special place.
All of this and we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface on what a masterful job was done with these costumes. When combined with themes not usually explored in the super hero genre and an amazing soundtrack, the clothing of Black Panther should be a winner for Best Costumes at the Oscars this year.