Dressing Wakanda

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Dressing Wakanda
In an undated image provided by Ruth E. Carter, the Dutch designer Iris van Herpen made Shuri’s neckpiece in her atelier for the movie “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” The Oscar-winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter decoded her five favorite outfits from the movie. (Ruth E. Carter via The New York Times)

by Vanessa Friedman

NEW YORK, NY.- The immersive Afrofuturist vision that defined the 2018 film “Black Panther” — the one that connected African history to utopian technology, the one that seeped out onto red carpets, inspired hundreds of Halloween outfits and put a spotlight on the importance of costume design as a vehicle for centering overlooked aesthetic legacies in the pop culture conversation — is back in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” at an even more expansive, emotional scale.

That vision now encompasses Mayan and Aztec history, adding the heritage of two great civilizations to the world it has already imagined. Once again, it channels them through clothes via the story of the Talokan people, who live under the sea and are the dramatic foil to the Wakandans of the first film. What each group wears plays a crucial role in crafting their story and characters. In the image-making, every detail matters.

To understand just how much, Ruth E. Carter, whose work on the first film made her the first Black woman to win an Academy Award for best costume design, agreed to Zoom from her temporary office in Atlanta, where she is working on costumes for “Blade,” based on the Marvel Comics superhero, to explain the details behind what she thought were the most meaningful pieces in “Wakanda Forever.”

Given that Carter designed “hundreds of character pieces” for the film, working with ateliers and artists in Los Angeles, Paris, India and New Zealand, not to mention brands including Adidas and Iris van Herpen, the choice was not exactly an easy one.

Queen Ramonda, in purple dress and crown

“She wears this to a U.N. meeting in Geneva, and I wanted you to recognize right away that this is the queen, but because of T’Challa’s death, she is now both the queen and the king. The purple dress represents the color of the royal family — color impacts the audience and story enormously — and she has a 3D printed crown and collar.

“The crown is the same style she wore in the first film, which was also 3D printed to reflect the fact that Wakandans are technologically advanced enough to create wearable art, and modeled on the isicholo, a Zulu married woman’s hat. The collar has additional gemstones that were added by jeweler Douriean Fletcher. So it’s a combination of computer-generated designs by artist Julia Koerner and handwork. The dress has a series of Wakandan hieroglyphs going down the center and sides and converge at the neckpiece, so she almost becomes a totem. That is her stature now. It probably took four to six months to make.”

Namor, head of the Talokan, in battle dress

“For the Mayan elements, we went through archaeology, architecture, artifacts and paintings. We were getting into the very specific elements that would be the historical anchor of the film, which was postclassical Mayan.

“This is Namor’s fighting look. He is also known as Kukulkan, the ‘feathered serpent god,’ as the feathered serpent is a deity represented in a lot of Mayan artistry. So he is wearing a circular collar with a two-headed serpent with the mouths opened to a pearl, which represents the water. And he is also wearing pearls and conch shells around his neck to represent the water. His green earring — it’s called an ear flare — also represents jade, and the water.

“The collar was made by the Weta workshop in New Zealand. It had to withstand being in water because we shot in a 20-foot tank. It was first sketched, then carved in clay, then molded, and the mold was filled with a synthetic sort of silicon. That was then hand-painted to resemble the actual material: jade or pearls or leather.”

Nakia, in her submersible suit

“This is the suit Nakia wears when she returns to Wakanda to rescue Shuri from the underwater world. I really love the South African body painters who represent their tribe and their culture with elaborate body paint. So that’s where this started. The idea was taken from the culture of the Suri, Mursi and Surma tribes of Africa, which were the basis of the river tribe, Nakia’s tribe.

“This suit was conceived in white, then an artist and I sat down with a sketch and he painted different tribal line work all over the suit. After it was dried, it was taken apart, and we scanned it back into the computer. As a member of the river tribe, Nakia wore exclusively green in the first movie, to reflect the grass and foliage and water, and this brought her back to that — though we added a sort of bioluminescent paint to the front for the scenes where she would go into the depths of the ocean.”

Shuri, T’Challa’s sister, in the underwater world

“This is the dress and neckpiece Shuri wears after she is captured by the Talokan. They give her a ceremonial dress to wear to go see Namor, who tells her of his origin. The Mayans used a lot of sheer fabric, so the dress is sheer to reflect that culture. They also invented rubber, so there was a nice list of places I could go to come up with the material for the key players. The neckpiece is made up of clay beads to represent jade and pink, to represent the Spondylus shell, and pearls, to represent the water. It’s inspired by Mayan vases that depicted rulers and people of nobility.

“The neckpiece was made by Iris van Herpen, the Dutch designer, handmade in her atelier. I’ve always admired her vision and her ability to translate underwater movement and fashion, though her clothing is made to be seen on land, not underwater.”

M’Baku, head of the Jabari tribe, in armor

“The Jabari choose wood as the substance for their armor, but because the film requires a lot of stunting, you can’t use hard substances. A piece that was actually made of wood would be very heavy, so we worked with artists who sculpted the breastplate out of clay, then cast and painted it to look like wood. There is a large belt that represents M’Baku’s status as the ruler, with ropes and a raffia skirt based on the Dogon tribe of Mali, and a leather sheath underneath it.

“In the comics, decades ago, M’Baku was the silverback gorilla. He wore a big gorilla head, and you could see his face protruding from the mouth — but we decided to create the gorilla face on the chest of his armor with cowrie shells that represent royalty. M’Baku also has monkey fur arm coverings, but the policy with Disney is that you don’t use real fur. It was a long process of trying to find a fur that could go in the water and come out looking passable and not like synthetic fiber.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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