She has garnered two Academy Award nominations, “Best Costume Design,” for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1993) and Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1998), was nominated for a 1998 Golden Satellite “Outstanding Costume Design” Award, and earned a “Career Achievement Award” at the 2002 American Black Film Festival. Her name is Ruth E. Carter and she has won unparalleled notice as one of a handful of African-American costume designers working in Hollywood.
Born the youngest of 8 children, in her in Springfield, Massachusetts hometown, Ms. Carter was surrounded by siblings who excelled in the arts. Older brothers Robert and Roy were gifted fine artists who no doubt left a distinctive impression on their little sister. Yet, she was the single child in the household who would ultimately pursue art professionally. Good thing for moviegoers that she did.
Ms. Carter’s extensive list of credits include such popular films as Sparkle (2012), Four Brothers (2005), Daddy Day Care (2003), I Spy (2002), Dr. Doolittle 2 (2001), Bamboozled (2000), Shaft (2000), Love & Basketball (2000), Summer of Sam (1999), B*A*P*S (1997), Rosewood (1997), Money Train (1995), Clockers (1995), What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), Jungle Fever (1991), The Five Heartbeats (1991), Mo’ Better Blues (1990) and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, opening August 16, 2013.
She has also designed costumes for numerous television projects. These include the series Being Mary Jane, Shark, and Thief and the pilots for The Chicago Code, Touch and Miami Medical.
I had the occasion to reconnect with Ms. Carter recently and she courteously granted an interview. I think you will see why, so many years ago, I found her then as much a stellar human being, as the meteoric Hollywood talent she has become.
Though Ms. Carter had nurtured an interest in the theatrical arts long before enrolling at Hampton University, she at once appeased both her mother’s desire for her to become a teacher, as well as her own creative passions, by assuming a Special Education major.
She was interested in teaching people with visual and hearing impairments and found herself intrigued by the idea of starting a theatre program for the deaf.
Either way, it was clear that she would attend Hampton. “I have aunts, uncles, and cousins, that are all a part of the Hampton University family,” Ms. Carter said. “Hampton University is a legacy for our family.”
Yet, her Special Education major didn’t endure. “The yearning to be in theatre overrode the desire to teach,” she said, “and in my sophomore year, I changed my major to Theater Arts.”
“At that point,” Ms. Carter added, “I wanted to be an actress. I remember auditioning and going up against the other theater majors. Since I’d done a little acting in high school, I thought I was good.” Yet, she found it difficult to be cast in HU productions. One day, a professor who was producing Moliere’s The Would-Be Gentleman, asked if she would consider costuming the production. She agreed. It was a most fortuitous decision.
Ms. Carter was eventually cast in numerous Hampton University productions, but also designed the costumes for the majority of the plays staged during her last 3 years at HU. These included works like Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, Philip Hayes Dean’s Sty of the Blind Pig and The Women, by Claire Boothe Luce. For her senior thesis project, she designed costumes for Terpsichorean, Hampton University’s touring Dance Company.
“The surprise behind all of this,” Ms. Carter said, “is there was no Costume Design emphasis within the Theatre Arts department. So I made up my own curriculum, by designing these productions.”
After her graduation from HU, Ms. Carter had every conviction of her career pursuits. “I realized that being an actress was a tough road to travel,” she said. “So I made a conscious decision to pursue costume design.” Yet, she also recognized that her projects at the university had afforded her only a “hands on” level of training. So she sought the best internships available in the field.
“I actually found a very good one in my hometown at Stage West. I was an intern there for one season. And while there, the ladies of the costume department recommended that I also intern at the Santa Fe (New Mexico) Opera. So, I applied and was accepted. I interned at the Opera in 1985.”
Eventually, she progressed beyond her valuable intern experience and landed a position in 1986 at the famed Los Angeles Theater Center. Her internship at the Santa Fe Opera had paid off. She was hired at LATC because of her SOF experience. Some twelve months later, fortune would smile on Ms. Carter again. She summarized it best.
“I was there only one year before I met Spike Lee.” Her life would change forever. She would eventually receive the Oscar nomination for Malcolm X and distinguished herself as a gifted costume designer on an impressive list of Lee’s “Joints.”
Lee had come to see A Night of Dancing, a choreographed piece staged by Robi Reed, another Hampton University alumnus and a good friend of Ms. Carter. “Robi and I were still good friends from Hampton. We all hung out afterwards and I was introduced to Spike. He had just finished She’s Gotta Have It. It hadn’t yet been entered into the Cannes Film Festival. So he was an unknown. I have since designed 11 of his films.”
On her success, Ms. Carter said, “You have to be a people person, to have the passion.” She added, “Technically, it’s an artistic medium, so knowing how the elements of design work are imperative to your success: composition, color balance, colors theory, clothing history, sociology, psychology, and costume construction. Not that you have to be an expert at all of this. But you need to have a good foundation with this knowledge, in order to achieve your goals. Its more than just designing interesting clothes, it’s working with actors and directors. I find that I am implementing style.”
She is very thorough in achieving that end and has cultivated a definitive process, one nurtured by a depth of experience. “I first read the script in great detail,” she said, “and really get into the story. I make note of all kinds of things, what each character might wear, what colors do I see, are any of the characters like people I know, where will I research this story, what elements do I not know enough about, and where do I go to get the information. That’s where I start.” Having cultivated such a beginning as a matter of routine has launched her on journeys to locales that are the substance of dreams.
She has traveled to Egypt to finish filming on Lee’s Malcolm X and traveled “all over the world” obtaining clothing for Spielberg’s Amistad project.
Yet, she has found a singular enthusiasm working on Lee Daniels’ The Butler, a long-anticipated film set for a national release today, quite rewarding. Ms. Carter said, “I have never had a better experience with a director and on such an important subject.”
Featuring a stellar cast that includes Forest Whitaker, as “Cecil Gaines,” Oprah Winfrey, as “Gloria Gaines,” David Oyelowo, as “Louis Gaines,” and a host of other notables, such as Terrance Howard, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lenny Kravitz, Mariah Carey, Robin Williams, John Cusack, Vanessa Redgrave, and Alan Rickman, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is the story of an African-American butler and his family, during his service in the White House to eight presidents, over a span of thirty years. In previews and early releases, the film has already garnered critical acclaim for engaging portrayals by a gifted cast, and of course Ms. Carter’s costumes.
Ms. Carter’s journey has indeed been a remarkable one. She fully realizes and appreciates that she has been blessed. Comparatively, working African-American costume designers in Hollywood remain somewhat of a rarity.
“We don’t come across each other often,” she said, “but we try to make sure we see each other and say hello whether it’s at the Awards or not. I’ve had dinner with Francine Tanchuck, Sharen Davis and Michelle Cole, all together. We made a commitment to keep a cohesive friendship and mutual respect, mainly because, even as competitors, we can support each other.”
And what tips and guidance, indeed what pearls of wisdom, would she impart to aspiring, young African-American costume designers? Her answer rings with as much clarity and radiance as an exquisite cultured pearl choker, adorning one of her creations. “Young designers should never give up on their dream. Design something, even if you have to sit at home! Read a play and put your concepts together. You can always grow!”
And grow she has, from the gorgeous young woman I’ve always known as “Ruth E.” to a Costume Designer of remarkable note, one whose meteoric accomplishments should ever have her simply, but affectionately known as “Miss Carter.”
Carter can be followed on Twitter: onsetwardrobe; Facebook: Ruth Costume Design; Blog: BeingMaryJaneCollection Instagram: ruthecarter.