Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter Shares Glimpses at Her Legendary Career in Debut Book (Exclusive)

The Oscar-winning designer opens up to PEOPLE about her silver-screen stardom (behind the camera) and her new memoir, "The Art of Ruth E. Carter," out May 23

<p>Courtesy of Chronicle Books, Rodin Eckenroth/Getty </p>

Courtesy of Chronicle Books, Rodin Eckenroth/Getty

Costume designer Ruth E. Carter always envisioned herself in the the arts, and that passion came to fruition in her life – just not in a way she'd planned.

She began as an aspiring actress at Virginia’s Hampton University, where she majored in theater (after switching from studying special education, her family's line of work) and secured a couple of roles in her school’s plays. With one stint, she found herself unexpectedly thrust into the world of costume, and that’s where her renowned career in the business began.

Carter’s résumé features big-name films, from the Black Panther franchise to the cult classics like What’s Love Got to Do With It and Coming 2 America, but also includes working for and with stars including Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, Angela Bassett, Eddie Murphy, Samuel L. Jackson and the late Chadwick Boseman. And in March, she became the first Black woman to ever win two Oscars in the awards show's history.

Now, with more than 30 years in the industry under her stylish belt, Carter is ready to walk a new line of storytelling with her debut book, The Art of Ruth E. Carter: Costuming Black History and the Afrofuture from Do the Right Thing to Black Panther, out May 23. The tome serves as a time capsule of Hollywood magic and gives a glimpse inside her craft.

Recently, Carter opened up to PEOPLE about her writing process, reminisced over her marvelous experiences on set and remembered her favorites times with Boseman.

What inspired you to start the writing process?

I always loved writing. I've always been a storyteller. I could entertain my friends, my crew – anybody who was sitting down and having a snack with me got a story. There were so many experiences along my journey. I started with Spike Lee in the '80s and I did two movies, sometimes two and a half, every year for 12 years.

I had so many stories that I feel were very unique to my movie experience. I didn't want to forget the details because nothing was written down. And, what? I have 40 years in the business, so I was like, it's time to write everything down. It's time to share with the world.

What was the first step?

I just did a stream of consciousness. I was like, I'm going to tell the story about when I went to Egypt, or I'm going to tell the story about Malcolm X, or I'm going to tell the story about Amistad using the cargo list. So then I got immersed in the process where you have to think about just how the reader reads the story. That's what I learned, how to put the details into the writing.

Were there any moments that surprised you that came up in writing, like “Oh my gosh, I did do that”?  

Yes, I think so. I would say that I remember all my Amistad stories. We were in the middle of the Long Island Sound on a boat that had sailed from the Eastern Seaboard all the way to California that looked exactly like the Amistad boat. To get onto it, we had to get on a smaller boat that brought us over, and then an even smaller boat. Then there was a plank you had to jump over or fall in the ocean. I was on that boat, and Steven Spielberg sent a message over to me, "What does Djimon Hounsou look like [as Cinqué] when they travel the story back to Africa?"

So we had this final scene in the movie where he's standing at the bow and he said, "What is he wearing?" Djimon hadn't gotten dressed yet. I didn't travel on to that little boat with a whole bunch of research and it was too complicated to go back to the shore to get a sketch and bring it back. But, I had a little postcard of Cinqué on a boat and he had this beautiful white drape down his chest. So, I grabbed that and I ran over to Steven and I was like, "This."

There were a lot of illustrations in the book. Were those the originals that you had sketched up for each film, or did you have to hire someone to reimagine them?

The beginning, like School Daze, I was doing all my illustrations. Then, my brother showed me how to airbrush. So the School Daze ones are original, but Do the Right Thing, we brought in an illustrator to do that. So it's a combination.

When I was working for Spike Lee, I would do collages. I was really good at collaging. And he liked it, more of a creative experience with [thoughts like], “What's the feeling, what's the mood of the costumes?" I didn't have to do as many sketches. So after the films, I would try to catch up with the illustrator to do some of the more poignant ones.

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There was another section in your book you dedicate to all the different stars you've worked with, from Angela Bassett to Eddie Murphy. What was it like working with the same stars across different genres? What do those fittings look like?

Each time I felt like they had more and more confidence in my creativity because sometimes, when they're playing characters and they walk into the room, they're kind of like, "What's going on? I don't know what to expect."

When you have success with a character with that actor, and then they come back on another script and another character, you're excited to see each other. We go on the journey. They really want to get into the details. I've had actors say to me, "My first fitting always feels like my first rehearsal with the character." So, I love that and I love collaborating with them. I really want them to believe in their costumes and feel good. Some actors, they need to make sure they feel comfortable.

RELATED: Angela Bassett's Measurements 'Haven't Changed in Over 25 Years' Says Longtime Costume Designer

On the topic of collaboration, there's a beautiful section where you talk about meeting Chadwick Boseman for the first time, and you didn't know what direction it was going in. Why is it so important to create a bond with actors that way in the design process, and how do you do it?

When we first meet, it's weeks before they even step on the set. With Chadwick, I put on YouTube videos, in the fitting room, of the 1940s when he was playing [Thurgood] Marshall. Some of it was like dance videos of people doing the Lindy Hop, you can hear the music, or a movie that was done in the 1940s, just so he could hear and see and understand. I think that they really get into the details of their character.

I also have mood boards in the room, I may have a sketch. I really do create the environment that they can just look around and go, "Oh yeah, I like that. And what is that over there? I'd like to try that on."

Like a makeshift set.

Yes, exactly. That's a good way of putting it.

Do you have a favorite memory with Chadwick?  

Yes, I have so many great memories. One of the favorites is when I won the Oscar [for Best Costume for Black Panther in 2019] and he was sitting in the front row. I remember him standing up and cheering, and it just brought everything back to me, like when I first met him on Marshall.

We had a good experience on Marshall. We had a great experience on Black Panther. So, when he was standing and cheering, I felt like I formed a bond with this man and he is really genuinely happy for me because he saw how hard I work.

You are the first Black woman to win two Oscars. What was it like getting that accomplishment?

I was kind of shaking my head as I walked up onto the stage because I thought to myself, "I am the role model." I felt affirmed. The first time it was was a relay race, and I was the last one with the baton running through the tape. Spike [Lee] was in front of me and I was like, "Thank you, Spike for my start. I hope this makes you proud." I was giggly.

The second one, I said, "I'm affirmed. This is real." Not that I didn't feel like I was real, it just felt even more important.

RELATED: 'Black Panther: Wakanda Forever' Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter Makes History at 2023 Oscars

You also wrote about the orange sweater from School Daze that you had to frantically get back to on set. What are some other costumes or props that you have treasured? 

Well, I came out of theater, and theater people always save everything because they never know when they're going to need it again, right? Because the budgets are so low. I had worked so hard on some of these very unique costumes, I was like, "Who's going to be the keeper of the costumes?"

The zoot suits for Malcolm X are in my exhibition [currently traveling the U.S.]. They're real from the time. Oprah's jumpsuit that she wore with Forest Whitaker in The Butler, it's in my exhibition. Marvel allowed some of their costumes from the first Black Panther to be exhibited. The coat from Shaft, I had Sam Jackson sign it inside.

Do you wear any of them?

I'm not a big costume [person]. I turn my phone off on Halloween Eve because all my friends want me to help them with a Halloween costume. I also don't wear costumes because the pressure on me to have the best costume of everybody else is too much.

You mentioned technology and the evolution of that. What has that been like to you and your approach to costume design?

Well, the first time on Black Panther, I was like, "Why me?" I have never done as superhero film before. I know they work differently than regular costume design. I was super scared and intimidated. Once I started realizing that I had something to offer them, and in the process of learning how to make a super suit, the muscle sculpts and all of that, the question that kept returning was, "How do you want it to look?" And that's the basis for everything.

So I'm sitting next to the computer graphics person, and I got an architect, professor from UCLA to put in the algorithms in the computer to send to the printer for Queen Ramonda's crown. I didn't study computer technology like that, I didn't study architecture and 3D printing, so I need the experts to sit beside me.

When you are working on so many different decades that focus on Black culture, [from Black Panther to Coming 2 America], is there a central message that you want to get across? 

I think that the message that they all have is that we are culturally sound, that we are presenting history and our history did not start with slavery. There is a full circle in my films. If you think [about it], we came across on boats like the Amistad and it told the story of arriving in this country. We go through Rosewood, the 1920s, through Malcolm X all the way up to the '60s. You can actually string all of the decades together and then end up at Black Panther and see how we move all the way into the future. I think that there is a thread and through line of pride and history of the African diaspora.

What message do you hope readers take away from this book? 

That Ruth is funny and lighthearted – and at the same time serious about her stuff.

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