While working on “Dolemite Is My Name,” the new film starring Eddie Murphy that comes to Netflix today, costume designer Ruth E. Carter looked back at her own coming-of-age in the Seventies.
Any costume designer will tell you: There’s some amount of research involved in all the projects they take on for television shows or movies — especially if they’re period pieces. But for Carter, most of the work began inside the walls of her own mind.
“I like to say that I remember,” Carter says. It’s 8 a.m. in Atlanta, Ga., where she’s been on the lot for her next project, “Coming 2 America” (also starring Murphy), for the past two hours already. “Because I do remember it.”
The costume designer known for her work on “Do the Right Thing” and “Black Panther,” (which led to her historic Oscars win as the first black woman to take home the best costume design award), recalls in colorful detail her teenage years growing up as a, in her words, “very daring, kind of fast” kid in Springfield, Mass.
“I had five brothers and two sisters who were all older than me. So right at home, I could see my brothers and sisters playing out the Seventies as young adults,” she says. “My sister had the best high-waist jeans, flared jeans and really cool T-shirts with sayings on it. Her afro was always really perfect, I saw her work at it.”
Carter’s mom, a single mother, worked hard to put the family in a lower-middle class neighborhood. There, Carter saw guys getting their hair curled and rolled up by their sisters or their girlfriends, wearing tailored clothing, patchwork denim, the Gumby shoes with soft, rubber soles. Girls wore six-inch platform shoes and sandals with HotPants.
She witnessed men wearing shirts with wide, ribbed waistbands, polyester prints — all of the sayings of the day on T-shirts with rainbows and flowers: “Let It All Hang Out,” “Five on the Black Hand Side” and “Power to the People.”
“All of that went right into retail,” Carter adds. “It went from protests where, in the Sixties, you were crocheting your own red, black and green hat or printing your own T-shirt. In the Seventies, those kinds of creative ideas traveled to mainstream fashion.”
She saw “Dolemite” — the story of performer Rudy Ray Moore, who took on the eccentric alter ego of a pimp named Dolemite — as an opportunity to capture the Seventies. Carter says it was a time when style was larger-than-life.
“I lived through this era, I dressed in this era myself, and so did [Murphy],” she said, noting that she and the actor are only a year apart in age, and both hail from the East Coast. “In that way, it became a very personal project for me and for him.”
But Carter knew there was a fine line she and her crew had to be careful not to cross — the one leading to the land of caricature. She was aware of Seventies connotations in modern pop culture: big, floppy afro wigs meant to lampoon, kooky bell-bottom jeans ready for a Halloween party. Carter decided these looks had no place on set.
“I told my crew at the onset of our journey that I did not want anyone to dress extras or anybody they were responsible for in a way that would make you laugh,” she explains.
Once Carter took on the project, there was lots of work to do and very little time to do it. One of her first tasks was sketching some illustrations of Dolemite to show Murphy, which then set her on a track of being authentic when it came to designing the looks for Rudy Ray Moore. Murphy would check out her tear sheets, mood boards and depictions of the performer.
“You can hear the rhythm and rhyme when you look at some of those clothes, and it was exciting to re-create them and figure them out so that [Murphy] could wear them in the same way that Rudy Ray Moore did.”
To supplement her personal memories of the age, Carter did research. She looked through old issues of Ebony, Jet and Essence magazines, plentiful in her mother’s basement and in her own collection. She tapped the publications’ archives online, and watched movies from the era. The images created a full, realistic picture that would translate to “Dolemite.”
“It was important to me that this not be a flat version of the Seventies. I wanted it to have depth,” Carter explains. “I wanted to feel that sense of those environments, that atmosphere that I remember being so cool and being so rich with neighborhood culture.”
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