It was her third nomination in a career that began when Spike Lee hired her for his second feature, 1988’s “School Daze.” To date, Carter has 66 credits spanning television and film.
Is it any wonder that her life and career are now the focus of a museum exhibit? “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design” opens on Dec. 17 at SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta.
Variety caught up with Carter, 60, to talk about her childhood sewing machine, studying costume design and the first time she was nominated for an Oscar.
In your wildest dreams, did you ever think you’d get your own museum exhibition?
No. It’s another dream. I’m checking the box on the bucket list. [Laughs] When they came to get my sewing machine from my mom, my mother’s home caregiver took a photo of it on a dolly being rolled down the driveway. I looked at it and was like, “You’re famous.” It was surreal to see it, and it brought back memories that I have drawing on it when the console was closed and it became a desk.
What was one of the first things your designed?
I made a patchwork blazer by cutting up a lot of my jeans. But when I finished it, I was like, “I’m not wearing that thing.” My neighbor Tommy, who was a small man, was like, “I’ll wear it, Ruth.” He wore that thing all the time.
When did you first say, “I want to be a costume designer”?
I actually didn’t know what a costume designer was until I was a sophomore [at Hampton University]. I was auditioning for a play that I didn’t get, and the director said, “You can try doing costumes if you want.” I went to the library to look up what a costume designer was. I was a theater major, but we didn’t have anyone teaching costume design. I had to make up my own curriculum.
When did you realize it could be a career?
When I started getting accolades for what I was doing at school. We did “A Raisin in the Sun,” “The Sty of the Blind Pig” and all these classics. I made a lot of the clothes myself for “Raisin in the Sun,” and a lot of the hems didn’t get finished. [Laughs] I may have been cutting those little strings off as they walked onto the stage, but it worked.
I guess you could have stapled them. My father used to do that to hem my jeans.
My husband does that today. I say to him, “Do you want me to hem those. I can properly hem those.” But he’s like, “Nope.” He doesn’t want me to touch them.
What was your first job you got a paycheck for?
I was working in theater at the Los Angeles Theater Center. It was pretty low. I was like, “How many hours did I work and how much did they give me?” It translated it to like $2 an hour. I don’t want to speak despairingly of LATC, but that’s how theater is. Half your time you’re volunteering and you don’t even realize it.
Tell me about hearing you were nominated for an Oscar the first time?
That was for “Malcolm X.” And when we started “Malcolm X,” he called me and said that we were going to do a story based on Alex Haley’s book. He said, “Don’t think about an Oscar Don’t think about that. Just do good work.” Fast forward. I got a call at about five in the morning and it was the sound mixer and he said, “You did it.” And I said, “Did what?” He said, “You got nominated.” I was working “What’s Love Got to Do With It” at the time so when I got to the set, I saw the producer Doug Chapin. I said, “Doug, come here. I got something to tell you but don’t tell anyone.” I got my day started in base camp and got Angela Bassett dressed and when I walked onto the set, everybody started clapping.”
Did you ever think you should save things because they might be in a museum exhibit one day?
[Laughs] I’m just a theater girl so when you’re done with something, it doesn’t mean that you get rid of it. You store it because you could use it again. It was really hard at the beginning because I would store things at 40 Acres and we’d come back because he did a film every year. I’d say, “Where’s that box of men’s underwear?” And they’d tell me that Spike told them to throw it out. I would be like, “That was going to save my budget!”
When is Singer going to release a Ruth E. Carter sewing machine?
Oh, that’s a good idea! Wait till they see the sewing machine in the exhibition.
You could also have a stapler named after your husband.
[Laughs]. I love that! Maybe one day.