Fashion tips with Haili Z: Q & A with costume designer Ruth Carter

By Haili Z
Aug. 22, 2013 at 3:22 a.m.

Ruth Carter, costume designer for the movie "The Butler" creates a sketch for Oprah Winfrey's character.

Ruth Carter, costume designer for the movie "The Butler" creates a sketch for Oprah Winfrey's character.

Two-time Academy Award nominated costume designer Ruth Carter is recognized as one of the most sought-after designers for period-inspired films.

From her work in Spike Lee's "Malcolm X" to Steven Spielberg's "Amistad," Carter is now flexing her extraordinary, encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history in the star-studded film "Lee Daniels' The Butler," which premiered Aug. 16.

In the film, Carter transforms the stars into the most powerful political and social American leaders from the last half-century who made a huge impact in the civil rights movement and beyond.

Carter took time to chat about what it was like working on a film that has so many period pieces.

How was it working with an all-star cast? Oprah Winfrey? Forest Whitaker?

Well, the first thing I try to do is get their celebrity out of my head. Although I must admit, the caliber and number of celebrities on "The Butler" is daunting. And at first glance, it's a great thrill and an honor, but then it's time to do the work of fittings and creating a character. And that's serious business.

Did you get to look into any design archives from designers of this period? Or did you already have apparel/designs in mind of how you would convey these characters?

Some of the resources I used were vintage "Ebony" magazines and Butterick Catalogs (The McCall Pattern Company) for Oprah Winfrey; "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years"; Designer Oleg Cassini for Minka Kelly; "Entertaining at the White House with Nancy Reagan"; and vintage designer James Galanos, for Jane Fonda and a host of other resources for the rest of the cast.

What inspired the looks for you for this time period? Where did you pull inspiration from?

There are eight decades or time periods in "The Butler." I started with the broad focus to start and asked myself, "What was the one thing that stood out about each one of the decades in fashion?" For example, the '80s was the dresses with the big shoulder pads; the '60s was the simplicity of the shapes and the clean lines; the '70s was disco; the '50s was the full circle skirt; the '20s and '30s dealt with slavery and The Depression. I was focused on making that all look very real. This piece is a civil rights story. Although there are a few striking costume moments, I wasn't trying to draw too much attention to the clothes unless the script called for it.

What pieces were your favorite throughout the movie?

Oprah's orange dress and her black and white jumpsuit, Minka Kelly's cream coat and hat, Jane Fonda's red suit, the tuxedo tails, the freedom riders - I could literally name every thing as my favorite.

What colors and details did you focus on for the apparel of "The Butler"? Were there any main colors or details that you mainly focused on for each time period?

The color palette grew as the story progressed. The 1920s sharecroppers were muted and neutrals; the '30s and '40s introduced burgundy to the neutral palette. The 1950s introduced green, black and denim blue. The 1960s introduced orange and heavier, more saturated color. The 1970s introduced more primaries, and the fashion palette became more recognizable as a contemporary one from there.

What are your favorite accessories from each period in the movie?

The hats of all eras thrill me. People don't wear them anymore. So when you see an outfit completed by a hat (that's for men, too) it's thrilling, especially if it's a Cloche from the '20s or a "Peter Pan" from the '30s, a Homburg from the '50s or a Stingy Brim from the '60s. It's time stamping. Today, everybody just wants to wear a baseball cap.

When you pick up a movie from another time period does it happen to influence your own personal wardrobe?

Yes, I am a slave to fashion. I love to get into what's hot and current when I dress myself or somebody else. Usually, it's someone else because I'm constantly working on finding the best looks for actors. Right now, I think that "The Great Gatsby" has had some influence on contemporary dressing. I'm seeing more boyish haircuts and drop-waist sheath dresses. I can't wait to do that.

What designers were included in this production?

Jane Fonda wore Galanos and Bill Blass. I created many original pieces for Oprah Winfrey and Minka Kelly. We couldn't afford designer vintage pieces. Hugo Boss donated tuxedos, Roger Vivier shoes and Ferragamo as well.

You have major role models and fashion inspirations here, including Jackie O. and Gloria Gaines. How was this for you transforming these actresses into huge political powerhouses alongside men who were changing the world at this time?

There was pressure on me to perform at my best with regards to following the research to the letter. The actors trusted me, and I had plenty of research to share with them throughout the process. It was a joy to bring to life the icons of yesterday on the bodies of the icons today.

How do you start to develop inspiration once you are named the costume designer for the movie? How do you start to develop the key pieces of the movie?

I begin with understanding the intentions of the story. That helps me to zero in. Then I gather research for each individual character and analyze the time period with comparisons to the figure and the facial structure. It helps to be comfortable with computers because the massive amount of research is kept electronically and shared with my staff this way. Very little is printed out. I work with an illustrator to come up with the proper silhouettes and details of the clothing from time period to time period.

What is your favorite part of being a costume designer? You get to bring the movie to life through description of apparel; you bring the time period to life, the cast to life on screen, and without saying a single word, your description of that time period is brought to life. How does that feel?

My favorite part about costume designing is the artistry of the job. You meet with a director and a visionary to discuss ideas. You research the characters and figure out the components of their look through your own vision. You create a color palette for a film, television or stage medium and discuss it with the director of photography, who then lights your subjects. You collaborate with actors who are also talented and visionary and come together on a artistic direction within the confines of humanity and realism. The collaboration that you have had with all of these people plays an integral role in its final stage, where editing and music are combined to enhance your work. This whole process is very rewarding, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Haili Pue is the president of All Ze Details. Visit her website at



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