Black Panther's nation of Wakanda may be fictional, but its style is rooted in real history. Not only did costumer Ruth E. Carter (Selma) need to outfit individual characters — including the Black Panther himself, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) — she also had to establish a cohesive look for an entire country, one that's both futuristic and steeped in ancient African tradition. To do so, the Oscar-nominated designer researched tribal fashion from every corner of the continent, studying patterns, colors, and silhouettes. "I wanted to bring that aesthetic to their costumes so that we knew when we saw them that they are from Africa."
Ahead of Black Panther's release on Feb. 16, Carter walks EW through some of the film's most notable looks, revealing how she draped and armored an entire futuristic nation.
Wakanda is rich in Vibranium, an otherwise rare metal that's impossibly strong and incredibly valuable. The abundance of Vibranium has had a huge effect on the country's prosperity, technological advancements, and culture, and Carter decided to use the metal in costumes for both practical and decorative reasons.
The biggest example of this is the Black Panther's suit, which is woven with the metal. It's lightweight, sleek, and bulletproof — and it makes Iron Man look like a tin can. (Something else made of Vibranium? Captain America's shield.)
Okoye (Danai Gurira) leads the Dora Milaje, Wakanda's elite female fighting force. Carter kept the deep red colors from the comics but added Vibranium necklaces and cuffs, modeled on the neck rings worn by Ndebele women. "The neck rings needed to have a hand-done feel," Carter says. "Most jewelry you see from Africa looks like someone hammered it and molded it by hand."
The Dora Milaje also wear elaborately beaded tabards and harnesses. "I imagine that these Dora Milaje train their daughters, and when she's ready to join the force, the mother who's retiring could take off her harness and hand it down," Carter says.
Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o) wears this glam green dress to infiltrate a casino with T'Challa. The textured fabric is inspired by African kente cloth; should trouble arise, it's also stretchy and practical for fighting.
"The green was part of the river tribe that she belonged to," Carter adds. "I was trying to come up with something that would allow her to blend in and be a part of this James Bond-feeling atmosphere, but also would still connect her to the idea that [she is] a princess from Africa."
As Wakanda's queen mother, Ramonda (Angela Bassett) deserves appropriately regal attire. The shoulder mantle is inspired by Victorian ruffs, while her headpiece gets its shape from traditional Zulu hats.
While some costumes have a more handmade look, Carter wanted a sleek, futuristic style for Ramonda. For the headpiece, she recruited a special 3-D printer in Belgium that had the technology to print a flexible, perfectly symmetrical hat. "I felt that there would be people who would make beautiful pieces for her, and they would be the most forward-thinking pieces in the whole universe — because she was the queen!" Carter says.
The shaman Zuri (Forest Whitaker) is a mentor for T'Challa, and to give him that sense of reverence, Carter based his look on ancient Nigerian chiefs, adding intricate pleating inspired by Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake.
Like the Dora Milaje, Zuri also wears a tabard — an element Carter wanted to repeat in different looks to keep the style consistent. "There were things that were similar in a lot of the costumes, which I felt like would be the language of Wakanda," Carter says. "Tabards were one of them, so if a person wore a tabard, it had a special meaning. His tabards were very mystical, and some of his tabards had bones on them or coins or metal pieces, as well as wood beads."
Carter is no stranger to costuming big, high-profile projects — she earned Oscar nominations for Malcolm X and Amistad — but joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe presented a new challenge. When she signed on to the film, director Ryan Coogler presented her with a book outlining Wakanda's history and geography, and he encouraged her to take risks and develop the country's style separately from the rest of the MCU.
"I understand a little bit about superheroes in the Marvel universe, but I had never done one," she says. "I was kind of glad in the end that I wasn't so influenced by all the other superhero films that you see, and I wasn't following with any kind of model."