Ruth E. Carter is looking to inspire young artists with her work as a trailblazing costume designer. The longtime Spike Lee collaborator says she hopes her upcoming career achievement award and Oscar nomination for her Afro-futuristic wardrobes in “Black Panther” can “knock down” more doors so others like herself can walk through them. (Feb. 14)
Wakanda really is forever — at least in the fashion sense.
The premiere of “Black Panther” a year ago saw African-inspired clothing shops crowded with fans wanting to get their hands on the latest and most fashionable attire so they could show up and show out during the film’s screenings. While that has subsided, designers and shop owners say the interest in movie-inspired fashion is still very much alive.
Tanisha C. Ford, professor of Africana studies and history at the University of Delaware and author of the forthcoming “Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion,” says an African fashion wave has been building for a few years on social media. Black Panther is part of that bigger movement.
“’Black Panther’ simply crystallizes this broader fashion moment on film,” Ford says. “And I am glad it did. The black community is living through perilous times, where we encounter anti-black sentiments at every turn. It was important for us to see black folks in all their regal glory, who remind us of the joys and pleasures of styling out.”
Briget Anyaji, owner of African clothing store Bia Maranatha in Carson, Calif., has noticed more of an appreciation of African culture and a sense of pride since the film’s premiere. Before the movie’s success, people would mostly come in to her store looking for clothes to celebrate Black History Month — a once-a-year occurrence. Now, they’re coming in all the time, looking for bold, gorgeous statement garments and accessories like those the characters wore.
“They started realizing where they come from and that they shouldn’t be ashamed to associate themselves to Africa. They realized the beauty of what Africa has to offer,” Anyaji says. “They see the beauty when they put the clothes on; it makes them look good. I thank God that ‘Black Panther’ opened their eyes. They started appreciating what has been staring them in their face all the while.”
That appreciation was undoubtedly bolstered by Ruth E. Carter’s costume designs for the film.
Carter, a two-time Oscar nominee, said she was inspired to bring ancient African fashion to the big screen in a way that had never been done before. In a January interview with Forbes, Carter said she imagined Wakanda — the fictional African nation where “Black Panther” takes place — as a place never colonized by Europeans. So what would its fashion and culture look like?
“It was very important to me that this felt real. This is not a comedy. It is a superhero film, a fantasy, but it’s relatable. I wanted everything to feel real,” Carter told Forbes.
Designer Reuben Reuel appreciates the exposure “Black Panther” gave to African fashion and says he’s noticed people seeking out African attire because of it.
“It was just great to see more visibility of African fashion and style in the film,” says Reuel, whose Demestiks New York line of patterned dresses, kimonos and headwraps has been rocked by Gabourey Sidibe, Tamron Hall and Beyonce, among others.
This pride runs deeper than clothes, though.
“This movie was a bridging between who we are now in America and where we come from in Africa,” said “Black Panther” co-star Angela Bassett in a featurette, “Welcome to Wakanda.”
Ana Lombo Tomer, founder and designer for plus-size shop Maria Paulina in Atlanta, says she’s seen a steady stream of sales and continuing interest from people wanting to wear African print clothing regularly.
“I think African fashion is something that is constantly evolving and becoming something that’s a lot more high-end,” Tomer says.
Aggie Ngria, manager of Afro Centric Network in Atlanta, remembers her shop experiencing a massive rush of people in February from those wanting to dress up for Black Panther and those who wanted something for Black History Month. She describes it as a “rebirth” that fosters a sense of unity.
“It was a big wave. It was like a rebirth of culture, a rebirth of African tradition, it was a rebirth of awareness of who we are as a people,” says Ngria. “I saw the unity, the togetherness.”
Ngria is hoping that the wave doesn’t recede — that interest in African fashion will prove more than a trend tied to a movie. She wants the awareness of and fascination with African history and culture to continue burning bright.
The ignited interest in fashion doesn’t stop at clothing; it extends to hairstyles, too. Miko Branch, CEO of Miss Jessie’s hair products, sees this as a product of the film’s story line.
“The film had a major impact on hair styles not only because the movie was shot beautifully on beautiful actors, but the story line was very inspirational for many as the movie touched us in many different ways,” she says. “I am sure that the movie inspired people to emulate the beauty and royalty we saw on the screen, which is why I am seeing an influx of very close-cropped cuts.”
Branch says the success of the natural hair movement actually influenced “Black Panther” and paved the way to showcase women on the big screen with natural hair. “The ‘Black Panther’ movie just solidifies what many of us have discovered in the past two decades,” Branch says. “Black is beautiful.”
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