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Do The Right Thing Spike Lee Ruth Carter
Do The Right Thing (1989)

Oscar-winning designer Ruth Carter’s most iconic costumes

Following Ruth Carter’s Oscar win, we look back at five of her best-dressed films – including Spike Lee’s School Daze and Black Panther

If you didn’t know who Ruth Carter was before this week, chances are you do now. At the 91st annual Academy Awards on Sunday, Hollywood’s elite stood to applaud the iconic costume designer who made history that evening when she became the first black woman to win an Oscar for Best Costume Design for her work on Black Panther. She accepted the award wearing a long regal gown, laced with blue metallic fabric and a dramatic off the shoulder floral train, paired with a beaded African-inspired statement necklace: in other words, exactly the sort of monarchical look you’d expect from the woman whose bold Afro-futuristic designs outfitted the mythical royal family of Wakanda.

Looking back through her work, it’s pretty clear that the Carter’s award was long overdue. Since 1988, when she landed her first gig as head costume designer for legendary director Spike Lee’s classic film School Daze, the designer has been an unstoppable force who, through fashion, has skilfully portrayed past, present, and futuristic visions of black American life.

Together with Lee, one of her long term collaborators, Carter has shown the world what a hot summer day in Brooklyn looks like in Do The Right Thing (1989) and the type of powder blue zoot suit Malcolm X wore as young Harlem street hustler (1992). Those 80s skirt suits and glittering gowns worn by Angela Bassett in her role as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It (1993)? You have Carter to thank for those, too.

“Since Spike Lee’s School Daze in 1988, Ruth Carter has been an unstoppable force who, through fashion, has skilfully portrayed past, present, and futuristic visions of black American life”

Although Carter is mostly known for her cinematic work, off-screen her style influence has inspired some of fashion’s most respected designers and kick-started several unforgettable trends. Before Carrie Bradshaw donned a nameplate necklace in Sex and the City, Radio Raheem wore the now iconic ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ nameplate rings in Do The Right Thing (as worn by Spike Lee to collect his own Oscar on Sunday), while Carter’s work in B*A*P*S helped bring the ‘Ghetto Fabolous’ trend of the 90s to the mainstream. This trend emphasised loud colours, unconventional shapes, and flashy fabrics, all of which inspired brands like Moschino and Versace’s chunky gold accessories and bold neon body-hugging looks.

Ruth’s legacy is defined by her skillful ability to take popular styles from the streets of Harlem and Brooklyn and translate them on screen in an authentic way. She’s made a career out of staying in tune with the streets and properly paying homage to black culture in a way that other stylists and designers haven’t been able to. For over 30 years she’s given us glam and she’s given us grunge, and now with an Oscar under her belt, she’s finally beginning to receive the credit she deserves.

In honour of her Oscar win, here we take a look at some of her most memorable costume design moments.

SCHOOL DAZE (1988)

The 1988 release of Spike Lee’s cult-classic college flick School Daze was a landmark moment that, for the first time, exposed global audiences to a dramatised version of 1980s Greek life at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). For her first gig as head costume designer, Carter – who graduated from an HBCU herself only a few years prior to the film’s release – used contrasting colours and styles to separate the dueling sorority and anti-sorority communities at the fictional Mission College.

During one of the most memorable moments of the film, actress Tisha Campbell, along with other members of the Gamma Ray sorority, and an opposing non-Greek group of female students wore sleek high-waisted cropped leggings, matching crop tops, and oversized sweaters for a memorable dance battle performance of the song “Good and Bad Hair”. Throughout the film male fraternity members of Gamma Phi Gamma wore fine black leather jackets, thin round eyeglasses, and letterman jackets to show their prestige on campus, while the male anti-Greek students wore kente cloth stoles, distressed denim jackets and baggy pants that were emblematic of the serious life of Pan-African student activists of the 80s.

DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)

Grammy Award-winning director Spike Lee struck gold two years in a row with the 1989 release of Do The Right Thing. On one of the hottest days of summer, Lee’s character Mookie takes viewers around Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn to show off the best and the worst of the sweltering neighborhood. Because of the temperature, Carter outfitted most of the youthful cast in the colourful casual tank tops, sports jerseys, and athletic shorts worn by many Brooklyn residents at the time.

Main character Mookie sported an all-white Jackie Robinson Dodger’s jersey, a nod to the once Brooklyn-based baseball team and MLB’s legendary first black player, with biker shorts and an African pendant medallion. One of the most memorable costume elements were Radio Raheem’s matching “Love” and “Hate” gold nameplate rings. The meaning behind the rings even received a proper explanation in the film and later symbolised the toxicity of white supremacy that was centred throughout the film.

WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT (1993)

Although this classic 90s film primarily focused on the tumultuous relationship and career of R&B legend Tina Turner and her former husband Ike Turner, the movie is just as glamorous as it is gloomy (and trust me, it’s gloomy). This time around, Carter recreated some of Turner’s most iconic performance looks from the 1970s and 1980s, including her signature black leather mini dress and her gold metallic fringe dress.

The designer got creative with the off-stage looks and incorporated classic styles of the period like cropped vests and the singer’s signature high-waisted mini skirts, which purposely showed off her famous legs. This was the second time, following her work on the film The Five Heartbeats (1991), that Carter displayed her knack for designing stage costumes for music-based films that elevated the original designs of the time.

B*A*P*S (1997)

When two Georgia-based waitresses – played by Halle Berry and Natalie Desselle – head to LA for a music video audition, a random act of luck lands the two ladies in the wealthy social circles of Beverly Hills, California. Arriving with minimal luggage, even less money, and little to no knowledge of the high society culture they’re about to enter, the patent leather orange body-hugging jumpsuit that Halle Berry dons at the beginning of the film stood in bold contrast to the luxe city looks other characters wore.

Carter dressed Berry and Desselle in extravagant and colourful looks that channelled the 'ghetto fabulous' styles entertainers like Mary J. Blige and Diddy had begun to popularise throughout this era. They wore chunky gold jewellery, clashing leopard print, neon two-piece looks, and gold plated caps over their teeth. As the film progresses, the women are treated to a proper Rodeo Drive shopping spree, with their resulting looks becoming more refined – although they maintain certain eccentric qualities by way of neon hues and metallic two-piece suits. And though it wasn’t well received by critics, the 1997 comedy is a must watch for the costumes alone.

BLACK PANTHER (2018)

Marvel’s 2018 film Black Panther did more than just smash major box office records. The high-grossing movie sparked an international celebration of the various African music, fashions, and beauty looks that were prominently displayed throughout the film. For Black Panther, Carter was tasked with incorporating multiple traditional African styles into the wardrobe of the fictional wealthy kingdom of Wakanda.

She pulled inspiration from the Ndebele people of Southern Africa for the gold stacked necklace rings that appeared on the female warriors’ and draped Angela Bassett in a printed traditional blanket indigenous to the Basotho people. For the royal family, she looked to traditional African monarchies who often wore hefty amounts of gold and beaded jewellery and exaggerated printed designs. The concept of Afro-futurism was also showcased in the film through the lens of young tech guru, Shuri, who designed a sleek Black Panther costume that protected the superhero and King of Wakanda from harm: a costume with such cultural impact it inspired thousands of filmgoers to dress up in African-inspired garb to see the movie in cinemas.