Redefining the Hero: The Warrior Women of “Black Panther” and the Symbolic Approach to Costume Design

Posted on July 09, 2018


What ties this trilogy of posts together is not just the concept of female heroism, but the idea that all of these films (Wonder Woman, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars: The Last Jedi) use costume design to define the fictional cultures surrounding the main characters. Wonder Woman established an entire history, aesthetic and culture based on a 75-year-old costume. The Star Wars sequels established a character by pulling from the 40-year-old fictional (galaxy wide) culture she lives in. But Black Panther established the fictional culture of Wakanda by paying tribute to real African nations and cultures. It’s the only film in this series that dealt with real-world aesthetics, techniques and cultures in the present day. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter did an astonishing job of looking at cultures from all over the continent and pulling from them to create the style of Wakanda. She has been very forthcoming about her process and the references she’s making, which is why it would be not just silly for us to attempt to examine it from that perspective, but also kind of wrong. Anything we would have to say about the various cultures and styles she appropriated for this project would only be a matter of us repeating her own words back to you because we can’t claim even the slightest bit of expertise in these matters. If you want to hear more from her about her work and where she got her inspiration and ideas, we strongly suggest you check out this, this and this article, and especially this video, which illuminates her inspirations and process in her own words. After years of breaking down the meanings behind costume design and being commonly met with the “You’re overthinking this” responses typical of online feedback, it’s been a joy for us to see the culture catch up to the idea that costume design is an important art that works on multiple levels, establishes character motifs, and tells a story alongside the main story of the script. We’re going to take our usual semiotic approach here; looking at the symbolism and motifs and sussing out what we think it says about the characters.

Incidentally, we try and avoid the word “heroine” in our writing. We think it’s fine as a word to refer to female protagonists in most forms of fiction, but when you’re specifically dealing with heroic or superheroic fiction, there tends to be a slightly demeaning quality to the term. These women are heroes, as much as Superman, James Bond or Luke Skywalker. Part of what makes this trio of women so interesting is how they each symbolize a specific kind of heroic archetype: the soldier, the spy, and the scientist. And each of them has a different, but equally as powerful relationship with the title hero; as right-hand woman, love interest, and sister. These dual roles are reflected symbolically in their clothing.

 

The Soldier

If you pay attention to the script of Black Panther, the Dora Milaje are given only a bare-bones explanation. Director Ryan Coogler has an astonishing visual sense and understands that, in film, you can often relay a ton of information to the viewer without saying a word. Such is the case with Okoye and her role. Despite the unusual attire, there is simply no question that she’s a soldier and that this is a uniform.

Before we get into the specifics of Okoye’s costume, we need to see it in context with the rest of the Dora Milaje, in order to see how hers is different and what that says about her.

 

The Dora shave their heads and some of them tattoo their scalps, almost certainly based on rank, given the elaborateness of Okoye’s. In a film (and a culture) that glorifies black and African hairstyles, this is particularly notable and is one of the main points of their look that defines them as members of the military. While the film makes it clear that members of the Dora are allowed to pursue romantic lives, the shaved heads and tattoos nonetheless give them an ascetic quality that speaks of a life of discipline and restraint.

 

Note how Okoye’s status is denoted by the use of gold in her armor, rather than the silver all the other Dora wear. Note how the neck rings and arm rings, both of which are taken from various styles of African jewelry, function as armor, protecting their ability to wield a spear as well as their own necks. It’s interesting to note how the Amazons of Wonder Woman and Rey from Star Wars also wore distinguishing arm braces. Speaking of the Amazons, it’s also notable just how covered these women are. You could argue that the Amazons spent most of their time practicing for battles that rarely happened, which is why they could afford to wear armor that left parts of them exposed, while the Dora (in a probable desire to avoid any “naked tribal women” motifs) are entirely covered, except for their distinctive shaved heads and their hands. Wonder Woman depicted their warriors as large masses of women in fanciful armor whereas Black Panther depicts them as small, cohesive, highly disciplined units dressed identically and completely covered up.

Note the other ways Okoye is distinguished from her spear sisters: the leather panel protecting her stomach and vital organs and the half-skirt are orange and brown, which may be references to her membership in the Border Tribe.

When she gets the opportunity to take her uniform off, she nonetheless remains true to its aesthetic, like a born soldier would.

All three of the characters in this post get distinctive tribal costumes for the ritual combat scene and celebration. Note how even here, Okoye is set apart from the other Dora with this beaded breastplate in red and gold. There’s never any question that she’s both a leader and someone who has the ear of the king.

But when you get her away from the Wakandan motifs and the styles that define her, she does NOT enjoy it:

Even in standard western-style formal wear, Okoye remains not only a Dora Milaje, but a general. The gown is red, of course, but it’s the jewelry – the stacked bracelets and neck rings –  that truly denotes her status and mimics her uniform. Note the metallic strands woven through her gown, which are almost certainly Vibranium. Note how her gown has such a strong textural quality, mimicking her Dora uniform without being obvious about it. She is undercover, after all.

Note the difference in her affect when she’s trying to, for lack of a better term, “pass” as merely a lady companion to a powerful man. Note how radically it changes when she rips her wig off. We want to point this out to highlight the differences between her and Nakia (who is shot throughout the film in a standard ingenue style, with glamour lighting and open facial expressions) and how each of them are forced to mimic the other during this story, to their great discomfort.

 

Even in casual-wear, she remains ever the general of the Dora Milaje, right down to the red and gold color scheme, stacked rings, and textural qualities.

By the way, we should note that we were somewhat surprised when it came time to take the screencaps for this post. In our mind’s eye, we remembered this film as a stunning display of costume design. Which it is, of course, but director Coogler made the choice to only rarely depict the entirety of a costume, top to bottom. For the women, he preferred to keep most of their shots in mid-closeup, which is why there are so few shots of the bottom halves of these looks. This is almost certainly due to his desire to shoot the intricate details rather than pulling back, as well as the desire to highlight and accurately shoot a range of black skin tones and hair styles.

 

The Spy

There are several costume motifs established in Nakia’s initial scenes. Sisterhood with other women is an important component of Nakia’s character. She tends to bridge the space between Okoye and Shuri, existing at the halfway point between serving a king and loving him. This idea of sisterhood is established in the opening scenes, where she is indistinguishable (as a spy would be) from the women she’s rescuing. The second motif is her color scheme. She will wear green throughout the film. It’s the single dominant color in all her costumes (except for the one time when her sisterhood motif overwhelms all the others – put a pin in that).

When Nakia is situated in a scene with T’Challa and Okoye (as she is throughout the film), each costumed consistently in black and red, the trio make up the colors of the Pan-African flag. The red of the flag symbolizes the shed blood of the African peoples, which makes it appropriate for an army of warriors who fight to protect their land and continent. The green of the flag represents the verdant richness and abundant natural resources of the continent. Nakia couldn’t be said to represent wealth, but she does argue for Wakanda to share what they have with the people of the African diaspora as well as the other nations of the continent. If Okoye represents the warrior spirit, then Nakia could be said to represent the more nurturing, life-affirming spirit. The green motif also refers to her membership in the River Tribe, the members of which are all depicted wearing green.

The third motif is her use of modern African-inspired prints throughout the film. All but one of her costumes have a vibrant print or pattern to them, which may not seem so notable in a film bursting with as many prints as this one, but as you’ll see, she stands apart from the other two women featured here in that regard.

The fourth motif is the exposed shoulder, which will also recur in almost all of her costumes and gives her a subtly sexy undertone without being obvious about it.

 

As we said, we would be somewhat negligent if we tried to claim an expertise on all the cultural references Carter pulled from to make these costumes. Instead, we’ll point out that her River Tribe status is denoted not just by the green of her tribal costume, but by the use of shells to adorn it. Also, take note of the green-and-gold chevron pattern, which will repeat itself at a significant point in the story. Note how the rings she holds while she’s dancing will be repeated in the ring blades she uses during the final battle.

 

 

Here’s a good example of how Nakia’s prints still manage to stand out, even in a scene bursting with color and pattern. There’s a vibrancy to the types of prints she favors that make her the focal point in all her scenes and underline her status as the woman T’Challa loves to distraction. Note also how delicate her jewelry tends to be. This in a film practically bursting at the scenes with eye-poppingly elaborate and large metal pieces and jewelry pieces. Again, this plays into her role as a somewhat gentle, romantic figure to T’Challa, but it also underlines her status as a spy by making her seem unassuming in comparison to the Dora with their massive metal accessories.

 

 

Pure Bond Girl realness with African design undertones. Note how the high collar and detached sleeves of her gown mimic the stacked neck rings and arm coverings of Okoye (sisterhood). Note the exposed shoulders and the near lack of jewelry. Nakia is beautiful but unassuming, in the manner of a woman used to going under cover.

 

This is one of the rare instances when she isn’t wearing a print of any kind and the only jewelry she has is the Vibranium ball bracelet that most Wakandans seem to wear and a tiny pair of circles on her ears. Note how her outfit is almost exactly the same style as Okoye’s in these scenes. Again, there’s that sense of sisterhood and the willingness on her part to bend or reshape her role as needed. Note the line of circles embroidered into the neckline, which mimic the shell embellishments she wears as well as the tribal makeup she sports at various times. Circular motifs are common but not overdone in her clothing and tend to remind us of the ring blades she uses in battle.

 

 

The gold chevron pattern of her tribal costume re-appears here, in the leather costume she wears when T’Challa is deposed by Killmonger. Since she wears this to challenge Okoye’s allegiances, it has a slightly more martial, uniform-like tone to it than her other costumes. There’s little of the softly romantic spy in this look. This is boldly declarative, militaristic, and vaguely aggressive, unlike most of the rest of her looks. Although nothing can compare to the hard left turn she takes when it’s time to enter the fray:

 

Sisterhood.

The very fact of her hair sets her apart from the Dora, however, as does her use of the ring blades, the shape of which could be considered more akin to the feminine than the phallus-like spears of the Dora. Again, this underlines her status as a love interest and nurturer, even as she’s kicking ass in the middle of a battle scene. It also tends to underline her discomfort with this role. “I’m not a Dora!” she insists when Shuri tells her to put the armor on, indicating a distaste for warfare and the soldier’s life. But as we said, the film positions her as a sister to Okoye, one willing to forego her own preferences in order to stand in solidarity. From the Muslim women she rescued to the Wakandan women she fought aside, Nakia is a spy who can alter her appearance at will, based on what the situation requires of her.

 

 

And finally, the most softly romantic of her looks for the scene in which she and T’Challa finally kiss. It’s interesting to note the sudden blooming of jewelry on her ear, in contrast to all of the tiny, demure earrings she tends to sport. It’s always nice to end a film with the characters displaying some sort of growth or change that’s reflected in their costume design. We tend to see her earring here as a visual representation of her willingness to bend a little when it comes to T’Challa as well as her acceptance of their romance, both of which she spent the film arguing against or putting off. Note the tiny circle in her necklace, continuing that motif and reminding you of her weapon of choice.

 

The Scientist

We’re going to present Shuri’s costumes slightly out of order because, unlike the other two women in this post, she doesn’t strictly adhere to one style, motif or color story through the film. This is indicative of her status as a teenage girl who clearly loves fashion and hairstyle changes. Nakia’s hair changes only slightly in the film and of course Okoye doesn’t have any, so it became Shuri’s job in the film to highlight as many stunning hairstyles as they could fit into two hours.

The symbol on her shirt is an Adinkra one that means “purpose.” Of the three heroes featured in this post, Shuri is the only one whose purpose and role never gets questioned or confused. She is completely unconflicted from the beginning of the story right through the end. Note how the beige elements of her costume tie her to her mother while the black calls to her brother. Note how, of the three women in this post, she’s more likely to wear western-inspired styles, as a teenage girl might naturally be. And while we don’t want to sound like we’re stripping her hairstyle of its cultural importance, we can’t help seeing it as a partial reference to another heroic princess who tended to wear a lot of white, Princess Leia.

As for that tendency to wear white:

It’s always restricted to her scenes in the lab, where it tends to serve as a high-fashion Wakandan take on a lab coat. Her costumes in the lab also tend to be either sheer or mesh, which plays into a sort of overall tech/medical/science aesthetic, since she’s one of those adventure film scientists who appear to be an expert on virtually anything that comes under the heading of science. In typical teenage princess style (if there is such a thing) her lab wear is anything but dull or workmanlike. Brilliant she may be, but she’s still a girl who loves fashion.

We should also note that the kinds of hairstyles she routinely sports and switches up (almost literally from day to day) speak of a somewhat privileged life where she can have people do that for her constantly. Teenager, scientist, princess. It’s all there in her costumes.

 

Just as Okoye’s and Nakia’s tribal costumes reflected motifs found in their other costumes, so does Shuri’s. Note how she’s practically overwhelmed with jewelry here, denoting her status as a high-ranking member of the royal family. Note how she sports the jawbone of what must surely be a panther (albeit a young one, based on the size). Note the high neck, geometric lines, and brown, blue and orange color scheme. Put a pin in all that.

 

This is a total out-of-left-field look that doesn’t owe anything to any of her other costumes. It stands apart from them and at first, we couldn’t really say why except it looks so ridiculously gorgeous on film. The only real symbolism of this look is in the colors, which call back to her brother and to Okoye’s uniform, allowing that pan-African flag symbolism to continue, even as the group is somewhat fractured by Okoye’s reluctant and short-lived allegiance to Killmonger. She wears this look when she vows to her brother that she will fight alongside him for Wakanda, which ties nicely into the black (panther) and red (Dora) color scheme.

 

Scroll back up and look at her tribal costume from earlier in the film. All of the motifs, from the high neckline to geometric lines to the panther heads to the blue, brown and orange color scheme are replicated here. Each of the tribal costumes held significance for the women wearing them and each of their motifs were repeated later in the film, usually when the women were called to arms. There’s something underlying that; some sense that the traditional, old-school, tribal-inspired aspects of their culture are what they brought with them when it came time to fight to keep it from tearing itself apart.

 

And finally, note how she returns to western-inspired schoolgirl styles complete with killer kicks and the colors of the pan-African flag represented; perfect for a scene in which her brother informs her that she’ll be heading up an outreach program for African-American kids. A symbol of Wakanda’s newfound commitment to the world outside its borders and the people of the African diaspora they’ve ignored up until now.

 

[Photo Credit: Disney Movies via Tom and Lorenzo]

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