Ruth E. Carter's Oscar-worthy costumes celebrate 'pimp style' in Dolemite Is My Name
For Black Panther's Ruth E. Carter — one of the greatest living costume designers (with a new Oscar freshly tucked into her sewing kit) — costume design isn't just about telling a story. For her, boarding longtime friend and collaborator Eddie Murphy's long-gestating passion project Dolemite Is My Name (a biopic about iconic comedian and filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore's rise to prominence with black audiences in the 1970s) meant proudly amplifying an underrepresented moment in black history.
Ahead, the legendary artist tells EW how she worked with Murphy to bring his daring vision to life via fabulous vintage acquisitions and jaw-dropping custom suits, jackets, gowns, and more — all of which deserve to land Carter in the Oscar race for the second consecutive year.
After having worked together on numerous projects in the past (Daddy Day Care, I Spy), Carter joined Dolemite virtually because of Murphy's involvement alone.
"I don’t know if I would have done it with anybody else. I think that the shorthand that’s developed over the years allows him to not worry and to just think about how he wants to play the role," she recalls of committing herself to an arduous six-week preparation in anticipation of Murphy's 75 outfit changes (among approximately 150 total costumes for principal actors). "One suit takes a tailor six weeks to make, if you’re doing it properly, and we had six weeks to put the whole film together. We were racing the whole time. We shot it over 10 weeks, so every day we established something new, and I had fittings with people right on set in the dressing room."
During preparation, Carter knew she wanted to counteract stereotypical presentations of black culture in the 1970s to create the film's authentic, lived-in vibe that "didn't make a mockery" of the era through the film's background characters and environments as a contrast to Moore's eccentric style.
"I hadn’t seen a really good '70s film addressing black culture in a very long time, so it was important to me that I addressed some of the problems from the past. Somehow the '70s got pushed into a laughable corner with big bell bottoms, afros, and Elton John glasses," she observes. "[What I created] is what I remember seeing in my neighborhood, and I wanted to bring that into this movie so that when we see Dolemite and his antics, we could take that over the top and he would stand out, whereas everybody else [on the street] felt more real. It feels like we’re doing it right, like we’re addressing part of black culture and black history in areas that have been ignored."
Carter began her search for the film's costumes — around 40 percent of which she says were completely constructed, versus 60 percent acquired from vintage shops — in photographs, particularly those from collections documenting production on Moore's 1975 blaxploitation hit Dolemite, the making of which the film chronicles. But, before Dolemite became a hit, Moore cut his teeth as a traveling comic, performing for urban audiences around the country as the titular character — a larger-than-life "urban dandy," as Carter calls it, whose story was largely told through his clothes.
"When he passed away, I don’t know if there was an interest in all of those wonderful outfits he created, so we did the research and went through all of his movies," explains Carter. "I looked at candid photos [from production] and people looked normal in these photographs, but then you saw Rudy Ray Moore, he had a very stagey look. [In the] '70s vibe where the stage performer actually worse a costume. For Rudy, his costume was pimp-style, so he has a rose on his lapel or the lapels are trimmed with glitter, or there’s a combination of textures, colors, accessories, and hats."
In one scene, the word "pimp" pops up to describe Moore's eye-popping, colorful style, and while Carter acknowledges that Moore's sexualized persona fits the bill, the word has a different cultural connotation in the context of his world.
"When you hear 'pimp,' it’s a strange word that describes this guy with a stable of women and an over-the-top look, and that certainly is part of it, but his styling is more like an urban dandy," the designer says. "[They] get to break the rule and don’t have to follow any standard style from a menswear catalog," including hats, walking sticks, canes, and hats to top it all off.
Having grown up in the '70s with five brothers who browsed urban catalogs showcasing the dandiest fashions, Carter distinctly remembers the era she recreated for the film, the road to which wasn't an easy stroll down memory lane.
"You need double-knit polyester, Qiana knit — that’s not a fabric you can just go to Jo Ann’s and then there it is in every color! We found a fabric store that had this in stock, but it was the stuff that nobody bought, so we had lime green gingham. What do you do with that?" she remembers with a laugh, adding that she also consulted looks by music acts like B.T. Express and Earth, Wind & Fire for inspiration. "I had to overdye the polyester so the texture would be there. When you see him in that pink hat with the cranberry suit, that’s a double knit fabric we overdyed. When you see the green coat Eddie puts on when he first creates this character, that’s a fabric we overdyed. We had to massage and work with the fabric until we had the right tone."
When it came to the film's most prominent female character, Moore's right-hand woman and performative collaborator, Lady Reed, Carter wanted to embrace actress Da'Vine Joy Randolph's curves the same way the real Reed did.
"Lady Reed was 100 percent made by us. When you see her, you see someone who has it all. She wears a men’s homburg hat in a female style," Carter remembers. "That inspired me to make sure Da’Vine wasn’t just wearing caftans because she’s a big woman; Lady Reed was a big woman, and she had everything. You could tell it was all custom made. Nothing looked sloppy, and everything fit."