Winning Essay by Kasja H., Iowa State University

The fashion industry is not easy to break into. Gaining footing in the Hollywood branch of the industry is even harder. And for women of color, every step of progress is an uphill battle against an industry and a society that has never been kind to them. Ruth E. Carter, however, has taken every battle head-on and has turned herself into one of the most respected names in costume design in Hollywood. If anyone is a force of creativity and strength, it’s her.

Carter started her career in Hollywood over three decades ago and has had her work featured in over 40 films. She has received three Oscar nominations for her work and just recently won Best Costume Design for her work on Black Panther. Her other notable works include Amistad (Oscar-nominated), Do the Right Thing, Malcolm X (Oscar-nominated), Selma, and ROOTS (Emmy-nominated). She is known for her research and dedication to authentic costume design, especially period pieces. This trait in her work was highly discussed following the release of Black Panther. Carter’s designs revolved around the idea of Afrofuturism directly inspired by the tribes and traditional dress of Africa. This not only started conversations about the history of African people, but also the beauty of their culture and what could have occurred had they not been colonized.

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a presentation at Iowa State University by Carter and meet her after the discussion panel that followed. Throughout the course of the presentation, she led the audience through her design process and how she came up with the different costumes for the characters in Black Panther. Carter definitely lives up to her reputation as a researcher. We were shown visuals from one historical inspiration after another and how they directly tied into the dress of the people of Wakanda. She’s truly an inspiring person to listen to and her passion for the craft is palpable through her words.

Personally, I find Carter to be a huge inspiration because she shows that hard work done well will get you far in the fashion industry. This is an important demonstration for me because I am currently studying apparel design at my university and am hoping to pursue a career in the fashion industry. Her research-based design process is also similar to my own, and it is refreshing to see someone who operates so similarly to me achieve so much success in the industry. When I spoke with her after her presentation, she was more than willing to dispense advice for how to navigate the world of fashion. I was able to walk away from that interaction feeling more inspired and motivated to succeed in my studies and work my way into the field. I also have a poster from that night signed by her, and I have it hanging in my work space as a reminder that no obstacle is permanent and to just keep doing what I believe in.


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