Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design

Opening at the NCMA on April 1, a special exhibition celebrating the imagination of costume designer Ruth E. Carter showcases the artist’s passion for creating original, magical garments that have defined generations. Carter won Academy Awards for Black Panther and, this weekend, for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. She has made history as the first African American to win in the Costume Design category and the first Black woman to win more than one Oscar. “Marvel may have created the first Black superhero,” she has said, “but through costume design, we made him an African king.”


The movies Ruth E. Carter has designed costumes for span centuries, and her body of work boasts a narrative that collectively tells the story of African Americans. It’s a journey that can be traced from the generational chronicle of Roots to the 19th-century slave revolt in Amistad, from the Civil Rights era depicted in Malcolm X and Selma to the meditations of The Butler. Her costumes reflect the cultural impact of the Motown sound in Sparkle, the experience of fighting the power in 1980s Brooklyn in Do the Right Thing, and the struggles of a superhero coming to terms with his kingdom’s legacy in Black Panther. Overall, Carter’s impact as an artist lies in her ability to bridge generations of viewers through her sartorial translations of race, politics, and culture for the big screen.

Ruth E. Carter, Costume for Shuri in Black Panther (2018); Photo: Courtesy of Colin Gray and SCAD FASH Museum
Ruth E. Carter; Photo: Courtesy of Colin Gray and SCAD FASH Museum

Through her deep understanding of character, combined with her nuanced use of color and texture, Carter has helped style the Afrofuturism movement for over 40 years. Afrofuturism is a cultural aesthetic that combines science fiction, history, and fantasy to explore the Black experience and connect those from the African diaspora with their lost ancestry. The philosophy is also a global reclamation of power, especially as it pertains to heritage, where marginalized communities engage narratives either against or without oppressive cultural and political structures.

“Creativity is the ability to be daring … to be self-expressive and to be fearless.”

—Ruth E. Carter

Ruth E. Carter, Costume for Semmi in Coming 2 America (2021); Photo: Courtesy of Colin Gray and SCAD FASH Museum
Ruth E. Carter, Costumes for Black Panther (2018); Photo: Courtesy of Colin Gray and SCAD FASH Museum

Carter defines Afrofuturism for herself as “using technology and intertwining it with imagination, self-expression, and an entrepreneurial spirit, promoting a philosophy for Black Americans, Africans, and Indigenous people to believe and create without the limiting construct of slavery and colonialism.” Inspired by African masquerade and ceremonial wear, Carter fuses traditional and contemporary by incorporating technology to deliver fashion and function. This has cemented her as one of the preeminent voices and experts on Black aesthetics. 

Ruth E. Carter, Costumes for Black Panther (2018); Photo: Courtesy of Colin Gray and SCAD FASH Museum
Picture of Maya Brooks
Maya Brooks is assistant curator of contemporary art at the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art.

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