Ruth E. Carter on School Daze

Interview by Darnell-Jamal Lisby

In 1987, film director Spike Lee convinced 27-year-old Ruth E. Carter to design costumes for his second film, School Daze, beginning their acclaimed collaboration of more than 30 years. School Daze transports audiences into the realms of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), depicting variations of Black contemporary experience never before seen in movies.

Willi Smith for _School Daze_, Homecoming Court Costumes, 1987

Lee encouraged Carter to integrate fashion by prominent African American designers, and Willi Smith was recruited to outfit the film’s extravagant homecoming court. Now an Academy Award−winning costume designer, Carter reflects on this formative experience, and how Smith’s collaborative spirit echoed across her life and career.

Darnell-Jamal Lisby:

To begin, how did you come to be the costume designer for School Daze?

Ruth E. Carter:

I was living in Los Angeles and was a part of the theater community there. Spike Lee came to LA and we were hanging out—we were all very young. This was in the late eighties and Spike was telling me how to get more film experience, though I was not really interested in filmmaking. I wanted to be a theater designer. Shortly after that Spike called and asked if I wanted to do School Daze. I couldn’t say no.


Do you know how Willi Smith got involved in the project?


Spike was always very conscious of including designers of color in his projects, and he knew of Willi Smith. Spike gave me his address and phone number and told me to make an appointment and talk to him about designing some pieces, which I did. He was a seasoned pro and I was beginning my first project, so I was kind of intimidated, but he was super friendly and really lovely to me. I remember it was winter and he looked at my coat—and I don’t know what he thought—but he gave me one of his long ones. It was full length, cotton, gray, kind of heathered, and had a black collar. At the time I worried that he thought my coat wasn’t warm enough, but the one he gave me wasn’t warm either! But really, he just gave me a gift. I loved it so much and wore it anyway, layering underneath it to make it work in any weather.

He was very busy but was happy to collaborate on School Daze. We decided that he should design for the homecoming queens and their courts, and he submitted sketches. The gowns were beautiful velvet and tulle—so great!


What was the conversation like getting Willi Smith to understand HBCU culture and your vision for the film’s aesthetic?


We shared our information with him, about what we were doing in our film to highlight the social aspects of Black college life, which I don’t believe he came from. Our conversations were about how all that looked. Toukie Smith, his sister, was very much in the fashion and New York society. She was dating Robert De Niro at the time. I believe Willi was designing for her, and she displayed his fashions on the red carpet. I represented Spike, who was a young filmmaker treading into new territory, showing Black excellence and Black beauty on screen. We had a dynamic that was very similar. Willi was groundbreaking in terms of his voice and his sister Toukie was a very curvaceous, beautiful woman who challenged mainstream body-type ideals at the time. Plus, New Yorkers support each other. They know how hard the trek can be . . .


I’m curious to know more about your own process working on the film.


Well, I came from an art background with my family. I didn’t study art. I pretty much worked in costume design on my own in college. It was not really a specific field of study, so I kind of created it myself. Because I am a self-starter, my process on School Daze was doing sketches and having those sketches produced, then having moodboards—they were just kind of inspirational photographs from magazines. I had gone to an HBCU so I knew what that looked like. There was a moment of gathering the things that I needed for sororities and designing the sorority T-shirts and fraternity T-shirts and sweatshirts. I was knee-deep in college paraphernalia and was creating our own versions. It was a daunting task. I remember going to all the stores on 14th Street in Manhattan and just buying them out, shoes and tank tops and skirts—a little bit like Fashion Nova online today, but it was 14th Street then.


Were you given a fair amount of creative freedom?


Oh, it’s always collaborative. Spike is interested in seeing what your ideas are and he wants to help you. He’s written these characters, so he gives you insights into what he imagines. There’s a big part for me to project my artistic voice, but it still has to be approved. You have to share your ideas and show what you’re doing. Spike went to Morehouse. I went to Hampton. I was familiar with Spelman and I had friends at Spelman. So we were of the same mindset.


I would also like to know about the process of bringing in a commercial fashion designer like Willi Smith to participate in costuming a film. How does that work?


Well, it’s another world. I’ve been approached many times by producers to involve their favorite designer in the process. Fashion and costume designers go about it very differently. For starts, their timelines are very different. In fashion the things they’re currently showing usually haven’t even been produced. Overall, fashion is about a development of a personality in the world, usually based around a real person that is a celebrity or a muse. Costume design is creating the psychology of the fictional character and the person behind the clothes. When fashion designers give you something, they don’t expect you to, like, dirty it up. They don’t expect you to make it look oversized or rumpled. But with costuming, the clothes are part of telling a story. That story could be that the actors slept in their car. So it’s often really hard to incorporate commercial design because we’re working with different goals in mind.

Willi was generous. He knew he was donating these pieces to the production.


A lot of 20th-century costume design, especially in early Hollywood, looked to Paris couture as a source of inspiration. What has been your relationship with the fashion industry in your own work?


Back in those days, Willi Smith and Patrick Kelly were my introduction to African American designers in the fashion industry. Also, we were working with people on other films, like Sabato Russo, the Italian designer out of New York who designed a lot of things for me for Mo’ Better Blues [1990]. Just having that connection to New York and the fashion industry every time I did a Spike Lee film was something that I liked. He always wanted the style of his films to be elevated by high-end fashion and couture anytime we could. And it was my job to select the things that would create a character, using the realm of fashion in a very modern and contemporary way to tell a story through color, composition, and style.

Now I’ve begun to look online to see what designers are coming up with, not only just the top designers, but all designers. I believe it was in Mo’ Better Blues when we took a look at the innovation that someone like Alexander McQueen or Balenciaga created. I was very much inspired by it, but a lot of times, you just can’t take something from Gareth Pugh or Rick Owens and apply it directly because it would overwhelm the scene. I feel like the studios fantasize that some designer is going to come in and give them lots of money and clothing. This happened when Armani bought the license for Shaft [2000]. The licensing deal through the attorneys took forever, and we were basically given carte blanche in the store whenever Samuel Jackson needed a turtleneck, or another character needed a coat or something. Even though that was spectacularly fun to do, I still had to select things that were very Shaft-like and in keeping with the idea of the character and the story arc, as well as create the Shaft coat in case the Armani coat didn’t come through in time. We selected a laser-cut leather jacket that they were producing at the time, and it ended up that Jackson wore my Shaft coat, which was full-length and less shiny.

Fashion does merge itself into the costume industry and we have to find its place. Most of the time, it is difficult for a lot of costume designers to accept the fashion industry because doing one character doesn’t necessarily speak to the whole complete story.


Have you seen the relationship with fashion and the costume design worlds evolve?


The fashion and costume design worlds don’t intersect naturally. It’s a relationship that is often forced by other agendas. In rare cases, the two parties are mutually excited about collaboration. When Arianne Phillips was chosen to be costume designer for Tom Ford’s film Nocturnal Animals [2016], he told her, “I can never do what you do.” And this is Tom Ford recognizing that there is a great difference in creating characters and designing garments. So that is very rare. I don’t think fashion designers consider themselves as costume designers. We are inspired by each other; we want that relationship to work, but it’s usually a very short-term engagement.


I know that you research extensively before you produce costumes for any film. How do you balance historical accuracy with creating a character?


If I’m trying to create a character based on research, I’m like Ralph Lauren or anyone who is inspired by beautiful 1930s cotton or the Great Gatsby look. Part of it is not trying to correct history. I think when things look more authentic, they are more appealing. And when things look like they are derivative, it depends on all of the elements that are being presented. Is the drape loosely inspired by the period? Is the color palette dead-on? Are the navies and the whites combined in the same way they were in the photograph that’s inspiring you? There is a strict balance that I’m always trying to achieve.


Smith was often conflicted about being seen as a “Black designer.” He told Essence in 1986, “It took me a while to accept that responsibility because I wanted to be left alone—let me do my work and stop looking at me. But finally, I said to myself, ‘Willi, it is up to you, because of all the designers from the sixties, you are the one who was really there and you are the one who is still here.’ And to me, that goes beyond the fact that I have some talent, because a lot of people have talent. I feel good, I feel good.” How has race played a role in your career?


I understand what Willi was trying to do by not wanting to be considered a Black designer, but when the outside looks in, they see a Black designer and there’s nothing anyone can do to change that. At some point he had to embrace it and realize that it’s okay to be Black. And the other part is that we can’t change racism. We can only create models for ourselves or our community in hopes that they will have a larger impact.

Hollywood is no different. Hollywood was built on racism. I can see where maybe someone like Willi was not getting opportunities, or his shows weren’t invited to some of the venues that other designers were, but there comes a point where it does boil down to how good you are. If you keep striving to be better, then someone will take notice.

I think the numbers really play a factor in how successful my films are and will determine how many people notice. I always said that winning the Oscar was a bit of a popularity contest: the more popular the film, the more people see it, the more votes you’re probably going to get in the end. A film like Black Panther [2018] couldn’t have been a better platform for me to show my design, my capabilities, my artistry, to the largest possible audience. It was the perfect storm. Willi’s designs could be see by the masses and be embraced and stand beside some of the highest-ranking fashion designers, and I desire the same thing for myself. He just died way too soon, before he could realize the full extent of his greatness.

Traveling through your career as an African American, you will have the door shut in your face, or you won’t even get to the door or invited to the door—never mind opening it—you won’t even know about the door. You have to make amends with that. You have to not label yourself—but everything you touch has to be at the highest level, and be what you want for it. That’s how I pursued my career. I get it, we can’t change who we are. We can’t really change overnight how the world is. But it’s a journey.


Black and white fashion illustration of figure in fitted gown and long gloves

Willi Smith for School Daze, Homecoming Court Costumes Illustration, 1987

Grayscale image of three actresses in homecoming court gowns on set of School Daze film

Willi Smith for School Daze, Homecoming Court Costumes, 1987

A film like Black Panther [2018] couldn’t have been a better platform for me to show my design, my capabilities, my artistry, to the largest possible audience. It was the perfect storm.

Ruth E. Carter

Ruth E. Carter is an Academy Award–winning costume designer whose work has been featured in films such as School DazeDo the Right ThingSelma, and Marvel’s Black Panther. Trailblazing the way for many young costume designers of color, her work has been acclaimed by organizations such as Essence and the Costume Designers Guild.

Darnell-Jamal Lisby

Darnell-Jamal Lisby is a fashion historian and project curatorial assistant at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. His contributions to various publications and curatorial efforts explore the art historical context surrounding Blackness and the history of fashion.