Life’s been more hectic than usual these days for Academy Award-nominated costume designer Ruth E. Carter — and she owes that to Marvel Studios’ blockbuster “Black Panther.”
“I say all the time ‘Black Panther’ kind of shot me out of a cannon,” says Ms. Carter, the designer behind the film’s intricate Afro-futuristic garments. “I have been in demand.”
There’s a Netflix project with Eddie Murphy in the works and a 20-stop university lecture tour on the horizon, kicking off soon at Carnegie Mellon University. She appeared at Comic-Con International in July and will be doing an event at New York Fashion Week next month. All that buzz meant the time felt right to mount the first museum retrospective of her work.
“Heroes & Sheroes: The Art & Influence of Ruth E. Carter in Black Cinema” gets its world premiere Aug. 25 at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District, where it will be on view through Dec. 2. Patrons and press will get a first look on Aug. 24 during an opening celebration, and it will be unveiled to the public on Aug. 25. The exhibition is presented by Pittsburgh-based FashionAFRICANA in partnership with the Heinz History Center.
The exhibition will be a walk through Ms. Carter’s work from several films, including eight costumes from “Black Panther.” They will be joined by pieces she had stored away from Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” the “Roots” mini-series remake, Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” Brian Gibson’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” Salim Akil’s musical film “Sparkle,” Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” and two of the movies she worked on with Spike Lee, “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X.”
Together, she says these films not only represent milestones in her career about also in African-American history and in cinema.
“I feel like I’ve been dressing super heroes, heroes, my whole career,” she told the Post-Gazette when the exhibition was announced during a press conference in March. “I think Martin Luther King and Selma and the marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge were heroes and sheroes.”
She credits FashionAFRICANA founder Demeatria Boccella for being the catalyst for the project. Before “Black Panther” was released in theaters, she approached Ms. Carter with the idea of collaborating on some sort of fashion exhibit. Beyond “Black Panther,” she was familiar with Ms. Carter’s prestigious portfolio through her work as managing director for the Bill Nunn Theatre Outreach Project. The late Bill Nunn III, a Pittsburgh native and the project’s founder, was cast in a handful of Spike Lee’s films, perhaps most notably as Radio Raheem in “Do the Right Thing.” (Ms. Carter worked with an artist in Brooklyn to recreate the hand-painted shirt he wore in the film for the Pittsburgh exhibit.)
“My desire with FashionAFRICANA is to create a platform that recognizes world-class designers, directors, artists and models of the African diaspora,” says Ms. Boccella, who has produced events here in the past with works by Paris-based fashion photographer Mario Epanya and “Hamilton” costume designer Paul Tazewell. “I really wanted to seek out a black woman this time, and I have been following Ruth’s work for some time. I thought this would be such an extraordinary opportunity to celebrate her and her beautiful work.”
The exhibition is designed to be a glimpse into what it means to be a costume designer, a world that Ms. Carter has gravitated toward since a young age. A native of Springfield, Mass., she was one of eight siblings in a single-parent home where creativity was encouraged.
“As a high school kid, I loved to be in drama class and I was performing in school plays. I did all that kind of stuff,” she says.
She attended Hampton University in Virginia, at first to study special education. She continued to audition for plays, and when she didn’t make the cut for one of them she was asked to design the costumes for it instead. Eventually, she switched her major to speech and drama, but because the school didn’t have a formal costume design program then she largely developed her own curriculum. That meant, getting lots of books on the subject and “dreaming about it,” she says.
More than 30 years and 40-plus films later, spending hours poring over books or scrolling through articles online is an integral part of her process. For instance, she researched African tribes like the Maasai for inspiration for what inhabitants of the fictional nation of Wakanda wore in “Black Panther.”
These sorts of insights will be sprinkled throughout the exhibition at the Heinz History Center. To complement them, the Heroes & Sheroes educational program has been created to engage middle school-age students from across Pittsburgh.
“It’s important to me that the black community has access to see this body of work,” Ms. Boccella says. “We’re hoping to create community days for those who may not have the resources to buy a ticket to go to the museum will be able to obtain free passes.”
An e-fund campaign has been launched on the crowdfunding website Indiegogo to help underwrite those costs.
In addition to possibly inspiring the next generation of costume designers, Ms. Carter wants the exhibition to illuminate for anyone the important role that costumes have in cinematic storytelling — and she hopes Pittsburgh is only the beginning. Representatives from other cities will be visiting here to see it, with the goal of having it travel across the country.
“I want to communicate to the world and to the Pittsburgh community the messages behind some of the costumes,” Ms. Carter explains. “Through some of this research, I have learned that people put their hands in their pockets during the Selma march as sort of a non-violent posture. That slaves were only given one set of clothes for the whole year. I felt there was so much more behind what I did that couldn’t be included in the two hours [of a film] that we have to tell the story. Now, I can tell my own story.”
The opening gala begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday with a V.I.P. reception, followed by tours of the exhibition and a dance party. Tickets are $75 for general admission and $150 for V.I.P. access at showclix.com or by calling 1-888-718-4253.