Wakanda may not have been real, but the Black Panther Costume designer Ruth Carter and Hannah Beachler, the film’s production designer, both drew on very real tribes and cultures to represent the diverse peoples that make up the nation of Wakanda.
In Black Panther, Wakanda is a kingdom made up of several different tribes, each with its own distinctive style. Carter and Beachler researched the traditional culture and clothing they drew from different parts of the continent.
Carter was particularly inspired by the work of contemporary fashion designers who use African traditions in current trends and textiles. She was inspired by the wool collection of South African designer Laduma Ngxokolo Maxhosa range, the couture of the Ghanaian-British designer Ozwald Boateng and the silhouettes and prints of the Nigerian designer based in the United States Duro Olowu, she Recount Atlantic. Winks to the dapper street style of Congolese sappers and the Afrofuturist originality of Afropunk festival-goers.
Drawing on existing cultures, the film’s costume aesthetically locates fictional Wakanda in the real African continent. These are some of the tribes whose influence and styles can be spotted in Black Panther Wakanda.
A tribe of warriors disguised as simple farmers protect the borders of Wakanda. Their most distinctive clothing characteristics are the blanket coats they wear, the traditional equipment of the Basotho people. In Lesotho, a mountainous country surrounded by South Africa which has snow in winter, the Basotho blanket holds deep meaning.
Produced by a company sanctioned by the Basotho royal family (although that didn’t stop Louis Vuitton from being very closely inspired by the covers for their Spring Summer 2017 collection for over ten times the price), the symbols on the cover make sense. The most prestigious being the ear of corn found on the seanamarena, meaning “to swear by the chiefs”. In the film, the blanket coats worn by the Border Tribe have Wakandan symbolism and technology that transforms them from farmer to warrior.
In the film, the border tribe live in the mountains that hide Wakanda, living in simple villages. In the film, the verdant and rolling landscapes of the border tribe closely resemble those of Lesotho. In addition, the men and women of the border tribes are skilled horsemen, just like the Basotho, except that in the movie, they ride armored rhinos rather than horses.
In several scenes of the film, the text “Wakandan” appears on the screen and is inscribed on the walls of T’Challa’s throne room. In reality, however, the script is inspired by Nsibidi, whose origins lie in present-day Cross River in south-eastern Nigeria.
So far, the Nsibidi symbols that have been discovered number in the hundreds, but it is possible that there are even more. While the script is still used sparingly in southeastern Nigeria, colonization, especially education and religion, has dramatically reduced its use.
Ndebele, South Africa
The gold rings worn around the necks of Dora Milajé come from the Ndebele tribe of South Africa. Known as indzila, only married Ndebele women can wear the rings, although they have recently become a fashion trend in South Africa. Traditionally, husbands are expected to provide the rings once they have built a house for their wives. The richer a husband, the more rings a wife has.
Today, the aesthetics of Ndebele culture are still one of the most immediately recognizable South African cultures. In addition to the intricate beads, the Ndebele women are known for their bold and colorful murals scattered throughout eastern South Africa, which could also be spotted on some of the walls in downtown Wakanda. Esther Mahlangu, is perhaps the most famous Ndebele artist, the most recently ordered to design the interior of a limited edition BMW.
One of the elders of Wakanda wears the distinctive locks of the ovaHimba women. Carved in otjize pastry, based on butter, fat, red ocher and scented with aromatic herbs, ovaHimba braid or twist their hair into thick strands, often leaving the ends puffy. Living in the ruthless desert climate of northern Namibia, the ovaHimba also protect their skin with the red-brown otjize paste.
Guides and tourist sites on Namibia almost always present images of this tribe and their skin tinged with red. The ovaHimba are thought he was living in relative isolation, but tourism and globalization followed them into the desert.
Zulu, South Africa
Angela Basset as Queen Mother Ramonda makes an entrance with a large disc head dress. In most of her scenes, she wears a smaller version of the hat, which Carter borrowed from Zulu culture. the isicolo is a hat worn by married women, and was traditionally shaped from leaves of grass, with cotton woven through. Their sizes and colors differ between clans, sometimes reaching a meter in diameter. For Black Panther, Carter had Ramonda’s spectacular white isicolo 3D printed, from an interview with Vanity Fair.
Maasai, Kenya / Tanzania
The Dora Milaje, with their dark red armor and large spears resemble Maasai warriors, who was the look Carter wanted. the Shuka Maasai is immediately recognizable by the red and blue checkered shawl (sometimes with black, yellow or green, but red is always the base color) draped over the semi-nomadic Maasai.
Today, the Shuka has been adapted into jackets, pants and handbags to become an iconic fabric of Kenya. While the exact story of the origin of why the Maasai started wearing shawls is unclear, they fought for ownership of the design when Louis Vuitton borrowed their gaze for their spring summer 2012 collection, free of charge. Carter also drew inspiration from Maasai beadwork techniques, particularly the packaged disc necklaces and pearl necklaces worn by Maasai women.
Dahomey, Republic of Benin
The fearsome Dora Milaje has long been a feature of Black Panther comics, but the all-female military unit is said to be based on an actual version of female soldiers who existed from the 1600s in Dahomey, the present-day Republic of Benin in West Africa. In the film, the group is led by Zimbabwean-American actress Danai Gurira and primarily acted as King T’Challa’s bodyguards. However, in their time, the “Amazons of Dahomey”, as Western historians called them, waged wars for the kingdom, especially against French colonial forces.
In one of the film’s opening scenes, Michael B. Jordan’s character visits a London museum for a heist in which he steals a menacing long-horned mask with a mane. He seems to have been inspired by Mgbedike, a relic of Igbo origin in south-eastern Nigeria. Mgbedike translates to “the time of the brave” and is used during local rituals. Although there are different versions, the masks usually depict an assault with features such as horns and bare teeth.
In the same scene in the London museum, Michael B. Jordan investigates the bronze heads on display. The bronze heads are known to originate from the ancient kingdom of Benin in southern Nigeria. Although they remain in production in Edo, many ancient samples looted in the late 1800s remain on display in Western museums. Indeed, there has been repatriation campaigns of some of the artifacts. In one case in 2016, “Okukor”, a bronze rooster from Benin, was eliminated a Cambridge University following student protests. The repatriation of African art is important in the scene as the character of Jordan, who is portrayed as strongly anti-colonial throughout the film, accused museum officials of theft.
One of the most distinctive cultures apparent in Black Panther is a lip plate worn by a former Wakandan in the throne room. The lip plates are derived from the culture of the Mursi in Ethiopia and are also seen among Chai and Tirma, for whom it is a source of pride but also of identity. While the lip plate in the film is worn by a man, the lip plates are generally worn by women. In the Mursi culture, teenage girls have their lower lips cut to allow for lip plate. Until the wound heals, the cut is held open by a wooden plug after which the opening is stretched further by inserting larger plates over time.
Towards the end of the film, King T’Challa is seen wearing a Kente scarf, the fabric that has its origins in Akan, in the Ashanti region of Ghana, where it was first woven with raffia fibers. Old Kente mythology suggests that the idea of weaving Kente was developed based on a spider web. Although Kente has become very worn, it was initially reserved for members of the royal family and special occasions.
Tuareg, Algeria / Mali / Niger
Carter often drew inspiration from several tribes to build a character’s costume. She told Vanity Fair that resort beading techniques Tuareg jewelry was a “starting point” in designing clothing for everyday Wakandans. Tuareg jewelry often combines jade, amber and other stones with handcrafted silver, each piece having its own meaning. The hand of this nomadic desert tribe is also found in the drapery of the priestesses.