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Costume Designers Ruth E. Carter and Sandy Powell on Misconceptions, New Tech and Ties

Ruth E. Carter made history when she became the first African-American to win the Academy Award for Outstanding Costume Design add this year for “Black Panther.” Recently, she’s reteamed with Eddie Murphy on Netflix’s “Dolemite Is My Name”  (they previously collaborated on “Daddy Day Care,” “I Spy” and “Dr. Dolittle 2”),  for which where she created more than over 75 costume changes for the star Murphy alone.

Similarly, on Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell produced over 102 changes for star Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman.” She teamed up with co-designer Christopher Peterson to tackle the mammoth task of costuming the epic.

Powell and Carter both got their start as costume designers in the ‘80s.  They met at the Paley Center to converse about their inspirations growing up, their start in the industry, working in the changing world of costume design, misconceptions about costume designers and pay inequity. Listen to the full audio of their compelling and fascinating insight into their world.

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What was it like being a 20-something working in costume design?
RUTH E. CARTER: I came up through Spike Lee in New York. I felt I had a solid way of doing things. When I came to Hollywood, everyone was trying to explain to me how this is done: I should never be on set. I should go home. There were all these ways that people had in their minds. It was hard for me to stand my ground. I was bicoastal. [Spike] was my foundation. He was opinionated, very clear and all about us learning together. Coming here, it was not that way at all. It was very much the Hollywood system, and there were a lot of things that I  didn’t agree with. That was my hurdle.

SANDY POWELL: I started out with Derek Jarman. There was hardly any money, but everybody mucked in and did everything. It really was fantastic — what I thought filmmaking was. It wasn’t until I moved on and started with other directors, I realized it wasn’t like that. Still, it was such brilliant grounding.

What did Hollywood mean to you? You lived here, so before you worked in the industry, what was your view of Hollywood? Was it something that didn’t have anything to do with you?

CARTER: It was this big ivory tower and stars in the sky. At the same time, because I was in independent film I met Robert Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans. They became my landing pad for Hollywood. They still had a very Hollywood direction in the way they did things. They didn’t mind me doing things my way, so it helped ease the pain of coming into this Hollywood framework. It really wasn’t a studio introduction, it was through independent film which made it easier.

The biggest misconception is that people think costume designers only work on gowns and dresses, but that’s not the case.

POWELL: If I think over it, I design more for men than women. It’s not gowns. That’s what people think we do.

CARTER: It’s harder doing people to make them look real.

POWELL: It’s just as big a skill. It’s what doesn’t get recognized — the people wearing ordinary clothes — because everyone is looking at the sparkly number.

CARTER: It’s hard to do that in every film — to find that sweet spot, to find balance, color and saturation. A lot of times, things are done so quickly that you don’t have much time to [color-correct] your work.

POWELL: The other thing is it’s digital, so you don’t actually know what’s going to happen to the color. You might have chosen a palette and have things look great; then you look at them and it’s completely changed.

CARTER: It’s the lighting. We had blue lighting in a scene on my last film, and it actually made the color disappear.

POWELL: Yes! That’s the worst thing when you end up with sludge color.

CARTER: Or gray.

POWELL: It’s so depressing. Don’t you wish we had more control over that? Don’t you wish we could go into post?

CARTER: It would make such a huge difference. I think there are things they don’t see.

On the subject of technology, how has the advancement of technology helped you?

CARTER: I’ve done 3D printing on “Black Panther,” I did it with the Isicholo and the shoulder mantel that Angela Bassett wore. That was exciting. Iris Van Herpen does all 3D printing with her fashion line and I was intrigued by it. I thought it was the perfect thing. If she is the Queen of this highly technological environment, she would have the perfect up to the minute, technologically beautiful crown. Her subjects would be making this. I went to a girl who studied architecture at UCLA. (She was the go-to girl for Iris Van Herpen). I contacted Julia Körner and she had that technology.

POWELL: I saw her talk in Austria. It was absolutely fascinating, but it was so above my head about how it gets done.

CARTER: Once they get the direction and the technology meets the art, to me, if you have a really good person like Julia, she actually does see the vision. A lot of times, things come out looking like toys or plastic.

POWELL: Would you use it for a different type of film? I can see it worked for that film.

CARTER: Yes. When you think of it like accessories. It’s an accessory. You could actually design something very modern or crude and have it 3D printed.You could use it if you needed a shape of some kind. I look at it as technology that helps you design beautiful accessories that are very lightweight. You can have multiples of them for a very low price, and it’s very exact. If you wanted to do jewelry, it’s great for that.  But, it’s expensive.

POWELL: My only bit of 3D printing was just to develop the glass slipper. We were trying to figure out how the faceting would work.

CARTER: It came out beautiful.

POWELL: It did. Swarovski didn’t even know if it was going to work or not. I had the idea and I hadn’t done anything on that scale before. We really didn’t know until the very last moment. To get to that point, we were working it out on paper. I knew the shape of the shoe that I wanted.


Scorsese is obsessed with ties, and “The Irishman” has so many.

POWELL: We had 6,500 extras, and they were all men. Bob had 102 changes. We’re talking so many.

CARTER: We had 75 changes for Eddie Murphy listed. Some things were repeated, but that’s how many times he changed.

What happens to all the costumes you create?

POWELL: I’ve started collecting.

CARTER: I have too. It’s in the contract.

POWELL: I’ve started taking one or two key pieces where I can. With Disney, you can’t have anything.

CARTER: You can’t. You can borrow it.

POWELL: What happens is they get sold off and given to rental companies.

CARTER: Never seen again. I have the zoot suits from “Malcolm X” and costumes from “Selma.” Every movie now, I try to put in writing that I can have them because you have to put everything in writing. You don’t want someone 40 years down the line saying, “Hey, how did you get that?”

POWELL: That happened to me recently. I took  something and stupidly put it in an exhibition where it said: “Loaned by.” They came down like a ton of hot bricks, and it was horrible. I said, “You can have it back.”  But what are they going to do with it? It’ll be stuck in a box somewhere.

How has costume design changed as an industry since you started?

POWELL: In the ’80s, it was pre-digital. We didn’t have mobile phones, and it still got done. I think it’s been mostly within the last 10 years that there’s been tremendous focus on promotion. I don’t even remember thinking about any of that in my early days. I did get nominations way back — but no one asked me to do interviews.

CARTER: That’s how “Malcolm X” was. It’s so funny. When I first got asked to do “Malcolm X,” Spike said, “Don’t think about an Oscar. Just do a  good job.”

POWELL: I think the industry has changed.

CARTER: It has changed for women’s roles. You feel it. You see it. I think the first female director I worked for was Betty Thomas, but I was well into my career. There weren’t many women like Ava DuVernay and Rachel  Morrison behind the lens.

POWELL: It’s changing a bit, but not fast enough. It’s the same for women’s roles, and that’s what bugs me more than anything. There are characters in films that could be female.

CARTER: If you just look at it a different way.

POWELL: If you just change the name. It’s not happening fast enough.

CARTER: I think as far as costume design, it’s slow too, but I think we are more diverse. When I started, there were two African Americans doing television. As far as movies, Francine Jamison-Tanchuck started professionally around the same time as I did. But now, you can’t even count. There are so many people coming in as designers in the industry.

POWELL: There’s also so much work now with streaming. It means there is more —

CARTER: More for everybody!

POWELL: It’s great on one hand. I didn’t work the last six months, but if I got a job in London, I couldn’t have crewed up without just getting someone fresh out of college. It’s great for a trainee job, but not for your No. 1 cutter,  assistant or supervisor to be just out of college.  It’ll be interesting to see where the industry goes in the next five years.

It’ll be interesting to see where the industry goes in the next five years

CARTER: I feel it needs to have a presence. I feel like Atlanta and Tyler Perry studios will be helpful. You get a lot of people that go from movie to movie to movie. They might do props on one movie and then they come to your department, that part of it and the industry’s outreach hasn’t really been strong, it’s just been plentiful. The services that you can get in a major city that you can get for the film industry in LA or New York are much different than when you go to Atlanta or New Orleans. There’s a lot of things that could happen that would help support our endeavors as costume designers. But it’s just not there.

POWELL: Do you think costume design is being recognized more now than it was? You know how it’s always been production design as more important than costume design? They get paid hugely, much more than we do, as if we’re not as important.

CARTER: That’s changing too. I think it’s also our own view. Costume designers have to elevate their mindset about not just being people who are behind the camera. We are artists. We are fashion people. We are storytellers. We are worthy to be praised. When I first came in, the costume designer had a reputation for being quirky. The one who was sewing a kimono with pajama bottoms or sewing a cap wit the costume shop lady.

POWELL: I think traditionally people think of costume designers as female. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think in the past, the reason we haven’t been taken as seriously is because we are female and the men build sets with big bits of wood.

CARTER: That’s why they get paid more.

POWELL: They do construction, and we do things with bits of cloth.

CARTER: That’s why we get paid less.

POWELL: And that’s wrong. I see there’s no difference. We have the same skill set, the same responsibility. We handle the same budget.

CARTER: We have more responsibility, actually.

POWELL: We have to deal with people. Bits of wood don’t answer back.

CARTER: We are psychologists, social workers and psychiatrists.

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