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[MADAME NOIRE] Ruth Carter, Costume Designer For ‘The Butler,’ Tells Stories With Fashion

When you watch a film, many things stand out: the actors, the writing, the quality of its direction. But, we often overlook what really makes a film feel real. The little details like what the characters wear and what their homes look like allow us to get lost in the story without our realizing it. Now, if it were done wrong, then we would have something to say.

For all the glamour of Hollywood, it’s the smaller, thankless jobs that give the industry it’s magic. Ruth Carter, a two-time Academy Award nominee for costume design, is one of those tireless workers. Her gift of storytelling through fashion has helped take classic films like Malcolm X and Amistad to new heights.

Her latest project is Lee Daniel’s The Butler. On the cusp of the film’s release, we caught up with Ms. Carter to find out how a self-proclaimed 80s “anti-fashion” girl, has flourished in Hollywood for 20-plus years.

MadameNoire: What is the source of your love of fashion?

Ruth Carter (RC): I was very much an ’80s girl.  So, everything: “Material Girl” Madonna, Whitney Houston, big mismatched earrings, flat pointed-toe scrunched boots (in white), ankle tight Girbaud jeans, shoulder pads in tee shirts, (tucked in and belted). I wore (on bad hair days) the Eddie Murphy style brimless leather hat and, on good days, my hair cut was “feathered.”  I rocked red tights with fishnet hose over top and a grey acid washed mini skirt with a horizontal black and white stripe bodysuit and lots of buttons. My favorite jacket was a military style vintage “eton” jacket with gold buttons. And I LOVED anything vintage!  What more can I tell you?  All your readers that know the ’80s will totally “get it.”  But, what’s also fitting is, I considered myself the “anti-fashion”.  Ironically, I guess that created my love of fashion, even if it was by default.

MN: How did you get into costume design?

RC: I tried out for a play and didn’t make it. The professor who was directing the play, “Moliere’s Would-Be Gentleman,” asked me if I would like to do the costumes for it.  And that started it all!

MN: What was your favorite film to work on? 

RC: I have lots of favorites. There is no ultimate answer. It depends on, my circumstances, my experience, all kinds of variables at the moment.  But, I loved Malcolm X because I experienced the best elements of design and filmmaking all together at once.  Sparkle was amazing because I got to explore and produce the great genre of the 1960s. The costumes of Amistad were enormously rewarding challenges and add to it the opportunity to work with the great Steven Spielberg. The film about Tina Turner’s life story, What’s Love Got to do With It?” was an incredible experience, in hindsight. Making that film was hard, but it was magical to see it on the big screen.

MN: What’s the budget for costumes for a film like The Butler? How many costumes did you have to produce?

RC: I had about $300K (not enough) in my budget for The Butler. We produced too many costumes to count. Thousands I would say. We rented, purchased and manufactured many, many pieces. The formal tuxedo tailcoats for the butlers were custom made at Western Costume Company in Hollywood.

MN: What was your process for The Butler? How did you juggle designing for so many characters and fashion periods?

RC: I have experience with multiple periods in one film project. Starting with Malcolm X. I approached it the same way, each period is like its own little movie.  One step at a time.  Also, the facility that we used was sectioned off into various periods. There were areas designated for different things.  Women’s wardrobe was located in a separate side of the building. People reported to the wardrobe department everyday for fittings and the men were given haircuts.  The principle actors had another side of the building with a separate entrance. There area had lots of photographic research that they could sit down and look at.

MN: How do you go about encouraging your creativity?

RC: Art makes me happy and soothes my soul. I paint to release creative energy when I am not on a project. I feel like my whole life is in the pursuit of a creative outlet in big and small ways. When I am on a film, that’s the big way. And I keep research around me.  I love research when it comes to costume fashion. It motivates you to look deeper into the details.

MN: What obstacles did you overcome to reach your level of success?

RC: I started very young.  I was 25 when I designed my first movie. So, the obstacles that most people think about — racial bias, gender bias etc. — were not in the immediate scope of my climb.  And since I have never done anything else but costume design, the obstacles were in learning the craft. How to get the most knowledge in accomplishing each project?  How to manage a staff?  How to get the best design for the actors?  How to communicate the story through the costumes in a great way?  I think when I received my first nomination for Malcolm X in ’93 it overcame a few obstacles I hadn’t yet thought about.

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