On a cold and dreary Wednesday afternoon, Terrence Gipson and Patrice White decided to visit the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
The friends checked out a 1970s-inspired yellow jumpsuit on display, complete with zebra print and goldfish-filled shoes made famous in the Keenen Ivory Wayans Blaxploitation film, “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka.”
Next, Gipson and White admired the long, flowing dress Angela Bassett’s character Queen Ramonda wore in “Black Panther” and the casual jean jacket Michael B. Jordan’s character wore the villain, Killmonger.
“I’ve wanted to come to the exhibit for a while,” Gipson said. “I’m a Michael B. Jordan fan.”
These were just three of the many costumes on display at the Detroit museum’s latest exhibit, “Ruth E. Carter: Afrofuturism in Costume Design.” The exhibit opened last month, and features more than 60 pieces from films the Oscar-winning costume designer has worked on over the years, from Spike Lee joints “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X,” to the civil rights drama “Selma,” the Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming 2 America,” and Marvel’s “Black Panther” movies.
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Carter won an Academy Award in 2019 for best costume design for “Black Panther,” becoming the first Black woman to win an Oscar in that category. She won the honor again earlier this year for the film’s sequel, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
The exhibit is on display at the Wright Museum until March 31. Tickets are $30 for adults, $20 for seniors ages 62 and older, and $15 for children ages 5 to 17.
Coined by writer and critic Mark Dery in 1993, afrofuturism incorporates science-fiction, technology, and futuristic elements into literature, music and the visual arts to imagine a brighter future for Black people. And according to a quote from Carter displayed in the museum, she has similar thoughts on the genre, using clothing as a way to express how the culture is moving into the future.
White, who was visiting Detroit from Alabama, said she loved the afrofuturist elements of Carter’s costumes, particularly in the period pieces like “Selma” and “Amistad,” the historical drama about the slave ship that set sail from Cuba to America in the 1800s.
“It’s the fashion sense she brought from back then into today,” she said.
West side resident Gipson said the exhibit made him feel empowered.
“She can recreate a piece of history through her clothes,” he said.
The art of telling Black stories through costume
The idea of an exhibit displaying Carter’s costumes throughout her career came from the designer herself, she said in a video that’s part of the show.
“What a good way to embark on this journey of education and giving back by displaying costumes throughout my career,” she said. “Really great moments that I could put together and teach kids about film cinema and costume design and the connection between ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Amistad.’ It really started to tell a beautiful story.”
The traveling exhibit kicked off in 2020 in museums in Atlanta, Roanoke, Seattle and Raleigh. Its temporary stay in Detroit marks the first time the exhibit is presented in an African American museum, said Jennifer Evans, exhibitions manager for the Wright.
“Many of her films deal with Black history and African African American culture and events and so, it’s just really great for a Black audience to see it,” she told BridgeDetroit.
Evans worked with a team of installers to place the costumes on the mannequins for the show. But the seemingly simple task was a little more complicated, she said, as Carter had specific instructions about how the mannequins were dressed and positioned.
“We went through with all of the accessories and details of each costume…we also had a guide book to help us place the mannequins’ arms and their hands so that they were telling the kind of story Ms. Carter wanted the mannequins to tell based on either what their character was like in the film or what kind of position they might have held,” Evans said.
For the “Black Panther pieces,” Evans said Marvel sent out a team of installers to display the costumes.
“They have a very specific way that they want their costumes handled and so I think they just found it’s easier to have their own staff,” Evans said.
For the afrofuturism aspect of the exhibit, Evans believes Carter sees the genre as a way to reimagine Black life in the future, including the historical periods she visits in many of her films.
“She does that through the research that she does and the ways in which she reimagined events, like the revolt on Amistad. She reimagined it for a 90s audience,” she said. “For every one of her films, she does this process of doing a deep dive into the historic content and then reimagining it for a contemporary audience. How are they viewing the costumes? How are they going to learn about the characters and how are they going to learn about the story through the costumes alone?”
Evans said the exhibit has been getting a good reception since its opening. She didn’t have attendance figures, but said families visit the museum after school and on the weekends.
“It’s very exciting. The costumes are a lot of fun to see in person,” she said. “And being able to celebrate someone like Ruth Carter, who’s worked for decades in the industry and now is getting a lot of accolades for many years of hard work is also exciting. It feels like a culmination, even though her career isn’t over and she’s still doing really cool projects.”
Alton and Kelva Harris were admiring Queen Ramonda’s dress during their visit to the museum. The two now live in Homer, Louisiana, but Alton resided in Detroit for more than 30 years. Besides “Black Panther,” Alton and Kelva enjoyed the costumes from “Coming 2 America” and “Do the Right Thing.”
“She’s very talented,” Kelva said of Carter. “I wish I could just take pictures of everything.”