New York, United States: Black Panther is one of the most highly anticipated films of 2018 – not just for its adaptation of the popular comic, but because of the buzz it has created into the fashion industry.
Since the first look of the film was launched last June, people have been rambling about it, as well as drawing inspiration from, the costumes in the movie’s world Wakanda. Black Panther has left a high impact throughout the fashion industry, such that it was next to impossible for the designers to not gossip about it during New York Fashion Week. Instead, there was a specially designed show organized during the event that showcased the costumes and carried the theme from the fictional town of Wakanda, from the film.The Black Panther movie house collaborated with numerous fashion designers and renowned fashion houses to celebrate the pan-African styles featured in the movie.
Not just the buzzing happened between designers in the fashion weeks, “What are you wearing at the Black Panther premiere?” became the most prominent topic of discussion across social media. #BlackPantherSoLit went trending for hours and days on Twitter, where people shared various memes and costume ideas.]
The chit-chat wasn’t about just dressing up like the Marvel hero himself, T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the antagonist Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), or the special-forces operatives Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira). Many Black Panther enthusiasts seemed to want to dress like everyday Wakandans: to delight in this fictional African nation and transform their local theaters with brightly colored mixed-print ensembles, a playful call-and-response to the larger-than-life black characters on the big screen.
It’s perhaps a testament to Black Panther’s costume designer, Ruth Carter, that a two-minute trailer had this effect on viewers. With 30 years of movie experience and two Oscar nominations for her work (on Malcolm Xand Amistad), Carter understood the role clothing would play in shaping the film’s world. “Wakandans are serious about fashion,” Carter told me of the inhabitants of Black Panther’s tech-forward, eco-conscious, never-before-colonized country. Her vision for Wakandan dress draws from traditional and contemporary African fashion. Sartorial cues help viewers understand the social geography of a fictional place—its political ideologies, cultural norms, etiquette. It’s easier to convey these unspoken elements when a film is set in a space and time the audience already has some reference for. For example, American viewers can read the message of a certain dress or hairstyle in, say, 1960s Alabama, which worked in Carter’s favor when she was designing the costumes for Selma.
Of course, Carter couldn’t rely on this familiarity for Black Panther. “We didn’t really have … a visual model of people living in Wakanda,” she told me. “So it was kind of a fantasy or an imagined place for me. It was very intimidating. Creating a world is no joke.” The comic books alone couldn’t explain everything Carter needed to know. So to pull Black Panther off the page, she and her team relied on the Wakanda “bible” created by the director Ryan Coogler and the production designer Hannah Beachler. Carter said she kept four words on her vision board as she designed: Beautiful. Positive. Forward. Colorful. The costumes had to fit seamlessly into the film, telling a story of their own but not competing with or distracting from the plot. The result is a dramatic look that makes clear that Wakandans use clothing as an important form of self- and community expression, to honor their ancestors, and to maintain a progressive social order.
A team of more than 30 designers and buyers (six times the size of the modest team Carter helmed for Selma) scoured the globe—from New York to Nairobi to Mumbai—to find robes, headdresses, and intricate jewelry to deliver on Carter’s ambitious vision. The result is stunning sartorial storytelling that weaves the past and the present to imagine a future of fashion.