In the late 1980s, a theatre student and a young filmmaker collaborated for the first time, on his second film. 25 years later, (theatre student-cum-costume designer) Ruth E. Carter and Spike Lee are Academy Award nominees and Hollywood icons—and they still work together (most recently on Lee’s remake of the controversial Korean masterpiece Oldboy).
In addition to Lee, Carter has worked with legends like Steven Spielberg and has dressed bankable leading men from Denzel Washington to Josh Brolin. During her 30+ film career, Carter has racked up two Oscar nominations and received the American Black Film Festival Career Achievement Award in 2002. Last year, her work was featured in two of the most-anticipated film releases: the aforementioned Oldboy and Lee Daniels’ The Butler.
Ms. Carter discusses how a passion turned into a career, fashion in the film business and her inspired journey to the heights of Hollywood.
Q: What’s your favorite period in the history of fashion?
Ruth E. Carter: I love many aspects of fashion history. There’s something magical about [each] period.
When did you first realize that you’d “made it” in Hollywood?
When I was nominated for an Oscar, for my work on Malcolm X. I was working on Tina Turner’s life story [at the time].
What was it like to work on Whitney Houston’s final film?
It was a shock when [she passed away]. I felt loss for a long time, but I feel the blessing now. [Sparkle is] very important to me.
Did the iconic models of the 1960s, like Twiggy and Donyale Luna, influence your work forSparkle?
I didn’t know about Donyale Luna until I started research for Sparkle. When I found her, she became my muse. I based Carmen Ejogo’s look, and some of the performance outfits, on images of her.
What was your most challenging on-the-job experience
The final days of shooting [Amistad] were very arduous and emotional. [There were] 1,500 extras. [It was shot] in Puerto Rico and all of the female extras were topless, very few spoke English, we were shooting in a national historical museum—so we had filming restrictions—and the weather was extremely hot and humid.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler has the ultimate dream cast. What was it like to work with such big stars?
The director always has a “dream cast”, but [usually] not all of the stars can commit. Lee got everyone he wanted! [I had] to look past “Oprah” and focus on the character being dressed.
What direction were you given by Lee Daniels, in terms of the costumes?
“Truth, authenticity, always.” I enjoyed working with Lee Daniels immensely. I’m very excited and a little nervous to see [the film].
Was it difficult to create costumes for so many decades?
I’ve done that before a few times (laughs). I treat each decade as its own mini-movie: eight decades, eight mini-movies.
Has anyone ever asked you to deliver the insane or nearly impossible?
All the time. But, that’s my job.
Is there any period, style-wise, that particularly makes you smile?
The 80s! The shoulder pads, the asymmetrical haircuts. That was my time! I look at pictures and wonder “what was I thinking?”
What are your favorite films and TV shows?
The Godfather, The Color Purple and Once Upon a Time in America. The Lawrence Welk Show had amazing wardrobes!
What are the items of clothing that every woman should have in her closet?
A t-shirt, a pair of skinny jeans or a [skinny] skirt, a little white blazer and a pair of heels. With that combination, you can’t go wrong. You can dress for uptown or downtown.
What would your fans be surprised to discover about you?
I love to paint. I’m no master, but I’ve always been an artist.