Black Panther is one of the most highly anticipated films of 2018—not just for its adaptation of the popular comic, but also for its fashion. Since the first teaser trailer was released last June, people have been raving about, and drawing inspiration from, the costumes in the movie’s world of Wakanda. “What are you wearing to the Black Panther premiere?” became a prominent topic of discussion across social media. Black Twitter led the charge, posting memes and sharing outfit ideas with the hashtag #BlackPantherSoLit.
This chatter wasn’t so much about cosplay—or dressing up as characters like the titular Marvel hero himself, T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the antagonist Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), or the special-forces operatives Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira). Many Black Panther enthusiasts seemed to want to dress like everyday Wakandans: to delight in this fictional African nation and transform their local theaters with brightly colored mixed-print ensembles, a playful call-and-response to the larger-than-life black characters on the big screen.
It’s perhaps a testament to Black Panther’s costume designer, Ruth Carter, that a two-minute trailer had this effect on viewers. With 30 years of movie experience and two Oscar nominations for her work (on Malcolm X and Amistad), Carter understood the role clothing would play in shaping the film’s world. “Wakandans are serious about fashion,” Carter told me of the inhabitants of Black Panther’s tech-forward, eco-conscious, never-before-colonized country. Her vision for Wakandan dress draws from traditional and contemporary African fashion. Sartorial cues help viewers understand the social geography of a fictional place—its political ideologies, cultural norms, etiquette. It’s easier to convey these unspoken elements when a film is set in a space and time the audience already has some reference for. For example, American viewers can read the message of a certain dress or hairstyle in, say, 1960s Alabama, which worked in Carter’s favor when she was designing the costumes for Selma.