Ruth Carter: Giving period fashions ‘Sparkle’

Tika Sumpter (l), Carmen Ejogo and Jordin Sparks wear costumes by Oscar-nominee Ruth Carter in "Sparkle." / Photo: TriStar

Ruth Carter

By // Kendra Cusic

Many of us remember the moving storyline of 1976’s Sparkle, but the original film also left a legacy of glamor and scene-stealing fashions. This year’s remake of the iconic movie — set during the Motown era — doesn’t deviate from that formula when it comes to making the film a feast for the eyes. Costume Designer Ruth Carter, a two-time Oscar nominee for her work on Malcolm X and Amistad, served as the style architect for this highly-anticipated movie. Carter tells what it was like to create a visual “spectacle” for the picture. She also shares her experiences working with the legendary Whitney Houston in her last big-screen role.

How did you get involved with the project?

I was on a pilot with Kiefer Sutherland called Touch. It was a really big project, and then the producers called me to bring ideas over for Sparkle. I interviewed with Salim Akil, the director; Mara Akil, the writer, and Peter Nelson, the producer, over at Sony Studios. They gave me the script, I read it and put together some ideas. 

Did the producers have an idea of how they wanted the characters to look or was that left up to you?

When the writer writes the script they usually have a vision for it. Mara knew that the vision for this would be multifaceted and high-glamour. Also, (producer) Debra Martin Chase had a very strong vision about Sparkle. In the original version, people remember the clothes; they remember the dresses; the stage costumes, so they were very sure it was necessary to pay homage to the original Sparkle by creating an outstanding fashion spectacle.

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How did you begin your research?

After I looked at the original Sparkle I realized it was a different time. The original Sparkle was based during the early 1950s and our’s is based in the ’60s. I knew I wasn’t re-creating Dreamgirls because Dreamgirls was based in the early 1960s. I was lucky because the later ’60s became an explosion in fashion and innovation. You could make dresses out of paper! I looked at a lot of real vintage from the period. I have a few go-to places in Los Angeles that have the best collections of vintage designer clothing. With that knowledge I was able to think of ideas for stage costumes. My research ranged from fashion magazines of today, my personal private fashion library, to my friends who are collectors, to the Internet.

How much feedback did the actors give about their character’s wardrobe?

They are in front of the camera and not me but that doesn’t make them the expert because it’s my job to create the image. I create big boards and on my boards for each character there are several images from research to illustrations. On Sparkle, I created a kind of world for them. What I was creating was an experience, and in that  world we had racks and racks of vintage clothing. I had a huge fitting room that was lit up like a fashion salon. They could stand there in front of a huge three-way mirror and look at themselves, then we could discuss from the resources in the room the characters that they are playing. The boards are there to keep us motivated and inspired. I consider my fittings an experience. … in you are getting away from who you are and transforming into the person you are playing. They step into their character in the fitting and we have a lot of fun.

It sounds like you had such a great time with this movie.

If you’re not having fun and it becomes too serious, especially on a show like this, then you’re doing the wrong job. Tika Sumpter and I, for most of her fittings, we laughed and laughed and laughed. We had that much fun. She walks into clothes so beautifully and you really get to see how clothes are suppose to be worn. Once we hone-in on the character and what we think the character would select, then we know right away what colors are going to work best and what doesn’t work.

How was designing for Whitney Houston? Did she give any insight on her look for the film?

She let me take the reigns on her costumes because she had come back to acting after being away. She was really into it and focused — and she wanted to do a great job. Mainly she wanted to be a part of the ensemble a part of the team. She would say “Ms. Ruth you’re the expert and I’m going to leave it up to you,” she would look at me during her fitting and put on her dress and turn to me and say “OK is this it?” And I’d say, OK, and she’d go right out there and work the set. It was really an honor to be accepted in such a gracious way from a woman who has been a fashion icon herself. I couldn’t ask for a greater compliment from her in that she trusted me and we also had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs.//