Ruth E. Carter Interview: ‘Yellowstone’ costume designer
Ruth E. Carter was planning a long break after wrapping production on “Black Panther,” for which she became the first African-American to win the Best Costume Design Oscar in February. But her hiatus was short-lived when Taylor Sheridan came calling with his new series, “Yellowstone,” and a new task: rejuvenate Western wear.
“My agent called me and said, ‘You have to talk to Taylor Sheridan,’” Carter recalled at Gold Derby’s Meet the BTL Experts: Costume Design panel, moderated by this author (watch above). “I was really tired after ‘Black Panther.’ I really did not want to get back to work, but I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk to him. So he called me at home [and] we had the best conversation for two hours. He was just telling me about how the West was different, how cowboys aren’t the same, how it’s not some old idea, how it’s a new idea, how they wear their clothes very hip-hop at times and they evoke a lot of modern fashion, which I found hard to believe at the time, but then it made sense. Just his commitment to storytelling, we had such a great conversation, I was inspired and I said, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’ I went from one month of finishing ‘Black Panther’ to starting a series, which I don’t recommend it!”
A former Emmy nominee for “Roots,” Carter started researching cowboy culture and Native American culture to bring to life the Paramount Network series, which chronicles the age-old power conflicts between ranchers, developers and Native Americans. Her biggest takeaway?
“[Cowboys] really like to dress well,” Carter declares. “We had the old cowboys coming in — I mean, you could stand their jeans up in the corner, they were so starched. Their shirts were pristine, the cowboy boots were well-worn, broken in but really quality. The quality of the craftsmanship of that whole culture is really nice. And then you have the other cowboy who wants to wear Ralph Lauren and a little bit more contemporary clothes. I’m driving around Utah, I go to these warehouses that are the size of an airplane hangar full of ranch wear. And I would think, ‘They gotta catch up. Ranch wear is different today. They need a makeover.’ It was kind of exciting to reintroduce this new style in this series.”
While Carter’s creations for “Yellowstone” are rooted in the classic plaid-and-jeans Western combo, she infused the looks with a modern flair by mixing vintage with new. For Kevin Costner’s John Dutton, the famed Dutton family patriarch who owns the largest ranch in the country, Carter custom-made nearly all of his clothes. That includes Dutton’s signature orange and beige puffer ski jacket, a favorite of Costner’s. “[Dutton] owns such a big ranch, he’s such a well-to-do man, so you know that everything has to be custom. Most of his shirts were custom. His jackets were all made from vintage and we kind of approached it from the depth of the Southwest and the color palette that you see there, he had a lot to say about things that he liked,” Carter explains.
Some vendors she turned to included Carhartt for jackets because “a good one that’s worn in is worth its weight in gold.” Dutton represented the old establishment ranchers, so a “well-worn Carhartt vest and jacket” would underscore his family’s legacy. “He had his barn wear, but most of his stuff was custom-made because [Costner] was very particular about how stuff fit and how things look and how they’re represented — vintage belt, the accessories were important to him,” Carter adds. “Kevin is an expert in cowboys. Still has it, still committed, still as handsome as ever. We went on that journey together.”
One that will have Costner forever indebted to Carter because she rescued his favorite pair of Ralph Lauren jeans that had since been discontinued. “We had to go to the denim doctor and fix that up for him,” she says. “It seems like a pair of jeans is a pair of jeans, but it’s just not true [in cowboy culture]. They really do have to fit almost like tailoring. Who would’ve had guessed?”
And Costner doesn’t have to worry about his denim ever again. “He has 15 pairs now!” Carter exclaims.