Ruth E. Carter, one of Hollywood’s top African American costume designers, is currently on display at the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPop) in Seattle. Her life and work have profoundly affected pop culture, but it’s been three decades since she designed costumes for the screen. Carter’s work is often exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, but she’s in Seattle this time. The exhibit features many of Carter’s most iconic designs from 1985 to the present day. They include the iconic “Motown” suit from Detroit Rock City, a re-imagined Dorothy dress from The Wiz, a purple sequined gown designed for Cher in “Mermaids,” Daphne Guinness’s famous orange bathing suit and the denim overalls worn by Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. Carter’s costumes and designs are featured in dozens of films and TV shows. Many are blockbuster movies that have been inducted into the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. But it was while working on the film Detroit Rock City that Carter was faced with a historic moment.
“There was a lot of conversation about this is the first time we’re going to have an African-American costume designer working for a studio. My grandmother and mother had told me stories about how things were when they worked in the industry in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, but I never thought I would be there doing that.” Carter says she was always drawn to design from an early age. She studied fashion design at Meharry Medical College in Nashville and then earned a degree in costume design from the Otis College of Art and Design. Paramount Studios selected her to work on the film Detroit Rock City, directed by Michael Bay. It starred Shannon Tweed, known for her role as tomboy Sidney Cohen on “General Hospital.” Carter didn’t know it then, but Detroit Rock City would be her big break.