Ruth Carter has had an immensely impressive career as a costume designer. She started in the 1980’s working on films with Spike Lee such as School Daze and Do The Right Thing. Since then she has been nominated for 2 Oscars (Malcom X and Amistad). Other stellar films under her belt include: Sparkle, Lee Daniel’s The Butler and Selma. This month she received the Visionary Award at Essence Magazine’s 8th annual Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon. I was lucky enough to talk to Ruth this week about her work with Selma and Being Mary Jane. I was absolutely blown away by her portfolio and attention to detail. It was such a joy to interview her.
Ruth Carter stands with Ava Duvernay as she receives her Visionary Award
Mychal: You do a lot of period pieces, what is it like to be true to both a character and time period without compromising?
Ruth: It’s a big challenge. The second you compromise any piece of it, it makes a huge difference in the authenticity. For example, if you use a fabric (rayon) that wasn’t invented before the time period, it changes things dramatically. Or if colors weren’t prevalent in the time period, it changes things dramatically. It’s important you stick to the details of the time period. On the other side of the coin, it is hugely rewarding.
Mychal: Do you have a favorite period in fashion history?
Ruth: No real favorites. I find something really interesting about each period that is inspiring. I have done the 60’s tons of times and I’m still not sick of it. Each time I’ve done it, I’ve done something different. With Sparkle there’s pop culture and music, Selma was civil rights and the South. Within the period, you always have the geography, place in time, place you are in, where you are in America/the world. There’s all these things that go into the time period that make it special. I love the 20’s and loved The Great Gatsby. Katherine Martin did an amazing job.
Mychal: What is your process like for developing your characters in their time periods?
Ruth: I love research and books. I have a big library at home. I’m always looking at new books. I can’t pass up an art bookstore. They have really great coffee table books. The history of fashion, designers from the 40’s. I’m always collecting things. If I get a period piece, it allows me the opportunity to look back in my library and open up some of those books I’ve collected and implement inspiration I’ve gotten from them. That’s the first part of my process, to be inspired, what is going to inspire me. Sometimes, I’ll even go into a modern store, like Prada, and see what innovative things are happening. Surprisingly, modern fashion will be replicated or will be a repeat of what was done in [other] periods. I’ll walk through a store and be inspired by some of the cuts and lines done in modern fashion. I’ll try to be inspired by colors, the way that buttons are used, the trims and sparkles. DG [Dolce and Gabana] was doing great sharkskin suits with piping on the pockets. When I did my suits, I did some piping on the pockets and lapels and it really made a nice touch. I usually do that and get inspired. I take the script and break it down, I do all the technical stuff, I examine each character [then] I go on from there… the consultations with actors. I just have a lot of fun.
Mychal: The cast of Selma was so big, some characters were so historically significant and others were added in the story, did you put more effort into those significant characters?
Ruth: I found some research for everyone. That’s how it looks realistic. Everyone had a story. I had research all around the room, the world of the 60’s and civil rights was all around us. I did boards for each character. Each character’s board had ideas on the way they’d be dressed. We looked at the boards, we picked characters, ideas, costumes, we went through my racks of clothes and we tried to duplicate it.
Mychal: Did you get to meet Diane Nash?
Ruth: I did! I met her [recently], she is much older now. Oprah had a big event, where she invited all of the civil rights leaders and it was called Paved the Way. It was a big celebration in Santa Barbra. On Sunday, she had a gospel brunch. Diane Nash was there and I got to meet her. It was all overwhelming.
Mychal: Was Reverend James Lawson there?
Ruth: He was there. Jesse Jackson was there. John Lewis was there. So many of them were there.
Mychal: I studied Peace and Conflict under Revered James Lawson. It was amazing. He taught a special class that was only open to peace studied majors, black student union, and I got the honor to study under him for a whole semester. It was incredible.
Ruth: That’s incredible. I saw him come in the grocery store and thought, “I’m just going to let him just go get his groceries.”
Mychal: You weren’t going to take a selfie with him?
Ruth: I let him be. I let him be, but I was tempted.
Mychal: That’s amazing.
Ruth: Yeah, he’s a pretty special guy. He did a lot for peaceful protests and he taught a lot, he’s still teaching.
Mychal: How did you feel about Ava not being nominated for best director? Because when I saw Selma I thought she was a shoe in for best director.
Ruth: It’s such a mixed bag because I was following her on Twitter and on Facebook, I was following all her social media very closely. She was speaking at Harvard. She was invited all over the world. She was celebrated. The Oscars was the only place that didn’t celebrate her for directing such a great film. By the time the Oscars didn’t nominate her, I felt like we already won and I felt like something was wrong with Oscar. The world had celebrated her already. I felt like something was wrong with their system. I felt like the screeners, whether or not they had gone out in time or not, didn’t matter because the word of mouth was there. It was disappointing because she deserved it, but she had already gotten so much. I have never seen so many praises from so many different factions in my life. I think that must have felt phenomenal for her. By the time the Oscars came around, it was like hey, hey. But she deserved it.
Ava Duvernay at the Independent Spirit Awards February 2015
Mychal: You’re doing the show, Being Mary Jane currently. What is the difference between costuming for historical film versus doing a TV show?
Ruth: You still have the process of doing research and composition of color, putting all that together with characters in a scene. That part of the process in the same. You’re not constantly doing research and going back to check to make sure of things. A lot of that is just instinct. A lot of that is based on what a person is going through in a scene because you want to evoke some emotion from your audience. So if a person is going through a struggle in a scene, then you want the composition of colors as well as the other people to reflect what the person is going through. So that part of the process is really the same, whether it’s contemporary or period. But contemporary is much more accessible, so I can run out to department stores and have a bigger selection of things. It’s actually a little bit harder because the expectation is much higher. Everybody goes to the stores and buys clothes for themselves. People have stylists and have a lot of different ways in which they get clothes, so a lot of the expectation of what I’m going to present is much higher now because people dress themselves every day and a lot of people think they do a great job. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t.
Mychal: Do you have a favorite place to shop for Being Mary Jane?
Ruth: Tootsie, Neiman Marcus, Barneys, Beige in LA on Beverly Blvd. I love shopping on 3rd in the boutiques. I do a lot of shopping in LA. There’s places in Santa Monica. I like to window shop sometimes and find things by local designers. Especially for jewelry. But she’s pretty chic. She drives a Jaguar and has her own place.
Mychal: Do you have any advice for up and coming costumers in the business?
Ruth: You have to stay current. You have to strive for perfection. Unfortunately, it’s a competitive field and a lot of times we want to get our foot in the door. We’re not being 100% honest with ourselves. We look at our scenes and we see that it’s not quite right, so we have to strive for perfection. We need to be honest with ourselves and strive hard to get things done well. Unfortunately, the expectation is perfection and we’re in a business where we need things yesterday and everything done well. Tough advice.