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How Diverse Costume Design Has an Impact Both On and Off the Screen

I spent a recent birthday enjoying one of the most beloved of British traditions: afternoon tea. My family around me, we guzzled down rounds of tea and Viennese coffee, held tiny sandwiches between our fingers and ate miniature scones, and then another, and another.

Meanwhile, at a table on the other side of the room, a large group of African women in their traditional choir dress sat together and began to drum on the table, their voices joining in soon after. This meeting of two very different cultural pastimes was a sight for the eyes.

Even today, in a country that claims to be a multicultural one, sights like the one described above are treated to mocking and derogatory comments from those outside of the culture. So how do we begin to challenge this?

Behind the scenes

The answer could be found on our screens, both large and small. More so than ever in our newly isolated worlds, with 4.6 million of British households signing up to streaming services since the beginning of restrictions in March, we are turning to fictional worlds to replace the one outside our doors and this viewing has an impact on us, whether we realise it or not.

According to Deborah Nadoolman Landis, founding director of the Study of Costume Design at UCLA, costumes convey a number of things about a character, such as their personality, their challenges, and overall emotional arc. These all come together to form the most important thing – the belief the audience has that every person in a story has a life before the movie begins. 

As diversity in the film and television industry rightly begins to change the stories that are told on our screens, it stands to reason that diversity also needs to come into play behind the scenes, including in costume design, an area that often goes unacknowledged.

If we are to believe, through the subtleties of costume, that a black character has a life before the movie begins, it follows that black costume designers would have more of an insight into the nuances of using clothing as a means to reflect the experience of black men and women. But this isn’t necessarily what happens.

And this problem can be seen elsewhere, across other industries, such as in the case of Annie Leibovitz’s recent Vogue cover featuring gymnast Simone Biles which received criticism for its poor understanding of light when photographing subjects with darker skin, and in the longstanding fight to get major cosmetics companies to cater to a broader range of skin tones.

These incidents speak to a wider problem and culture of neglect, enabled by the lack of POC and BAME representation in key roles across industries. 

Bringing diversity to the table

In 2019, for her work on the groundbreaking film Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter, a mainstay in the film industry for over 30 years, won the Oscar for Costume Design. This was the first time in the history of the awards – which is to say, in the history of film – a black woman had received such an honour.

Being the first can be a lonely thing, as Carter has said in an interview with the Guardian, “Being a trailblazer means you sit in a room of people who don’t look like you. You have to be there and represent, to represent the future”.

Black Panther depicts the fictional African country of Wakanda and its denizens, with one of the main talking points upon the film’s release being its costume design for its detailed, passionate, and diverse approach to the clothing of the country’s citizens.

Carter and a team of over 100 individuals researched, designed, and sourced each of the character’s costumes from across Africa in a show of celebration and respect for the continent’s rich history of dress.

Take the Dora Milaje, for example, the all-female royal guard, and their neck rings, a nod to the Southern African Ndebele tribe, or the elder statesman resplendent in a green suit and lip plate, worn most prominently by women but also by men to indicate status within their tribe, or Queen Ramonda’s crown, based on the flared hats of the Zulu, which was 3D printed and took months to perfect.

Beyond the screen

Costuming on this scale, in a film that reached tens of millions of viewers as well as raking in over a billion dollars at the global box office, helps bring traditional dress – the neck ring, the lip plate, or even the uniforms of an African choir group singing at afternoon tea – out of the realms of the National Geographic documentary, a space that educates us on other cultures whilst also alienating us from those same cultures, and into the world we live in today.

Whilst it might not always be on the same level of epic, futuristic fictional countries like Wakanda, what people wear on screen, and how that clothing comes to be, is important. Like the characters themselves, what they wear holds up a mirror to our own lives.

We are influenced by what we see, and this creates a ripple effect that continues outside of the film industry, into the clothes we see being sold in high street shops, and eventually into our own wardrobes.

One of the first things we notice about someone is what they’re wearing. As more POC and BAME representation makes its way both on screen and behind the scenes, a normalisation of cultures other than our own begins to form, and those who are different are met not with derision but understanding, and we’re all the richer for it.


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