Cobbie Yates on the sartorial story behind ‘The Silent Twins’
‘This film turns a lens on Black British culture and mental health in a way that isn’t often done,’ says the Soho House member and costume designer
Monday 12 December 2022 By Sagal Mohammed
Costume designer and Soho House member Cobbie Yates’s biggest gig yet came in 2019, when he was assigned the task of designing the costumes for The Silent Twins, Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s biographical drama based on journalist Marjorie Wallace’s book of the same name. It tells the true story of June and Jennifer Gibbons – twin sisters from the only Black family in a Welsh town in the 1970s and 1980s.
As a result of an isolating experience of rejection, the twins turn inward and from a young age refuse to speak to anyone but each other in a special language. As they grow into their teens, they end up at the notorious Broadmoor psychiatric hospital following a series of petty crimes, including vandalism. The story unfolds thereafter, as it becomes national news and they’re ultimately faced with the choice to either separate and survive, or die together.
Smoczyńska’s film stars Soho House member Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance as June and Jennifer, who won Best Joint Lead for their performance at this year’s British Independent Film Awards. Meanwhile, Yates connected with the project while working on it, picking up an additional credit as associate producer – his first time taking the title after years of heading up wardrobe on various film sets, music videos and editorial shoots.
Here, Yates tells us about the filming experience, what the story means to him, and how he reflected the adolescent journey of the twins and their expressions through fashion.
How did you get involved in The Silent Twins?
‘I was wrapping up working on my brother Reggie Yates’s film Pirates and the script supervisor asked if I’d heard about an upcoming film called The Silent Twins. I hadn’t, but then I read an article on Deadline and saw it was in early pre-production and that Tamara Lawrance was involved. I had just finished watching The Long Song and was really impacted by her performance. I also love everything Letitia Wright does. It already looked like an amazing project and it was a departure from what I’d been involved with before, so I was hell bent on doing the costume design.
‘I started researching, bought the book The Silent Twins by Marjorie Wallace, and became obsessed with their story. I got in touch with one of the producers through a friend – hairstylist Vernon Francois – pitched him my ideas and he was so up for it.’
The Silent Twins was filmed in Poland with Agnieszka Smoczyńska as director. What was that experience like?
‘It was amazing. Being able to collaborate with a team that was majority Polish was just a dream. I co-designed the film’s costumes with Katarzyna Lewińska who is just incredible.
‘At the time of filming in 2019, we were all on these calls talking about a film that was about Black teenage girls in the 1970s who were living in a very white space in west Wales. I also think being able to apply some of my research with the cinematographer (Jakub Kijowski) and production designer Jagna Dobesz’s way of working was incredible. It was important for me to find as many references in Black cinema to represent the girls – films like Burning An Illusion (1981) really resonated with me. It’s essentially about a woman trying to find her identity, and that’s what June and Jennifer are trying to do, too. It’s a journey about their appetite for discovery through reading and learning.’
What was it about June and Jennifer’s story that resonated with you?
‘The stories that the twins go on to write are complex, nuanced, creative and visceral. If they were given an opportunity to publish their work, they would have been somewhere completely different. With my work in The Silent Twins, it was really about encouraging people to come together to support and celebrate Black minds beyond entertainment and film.
‘The unrealised possibilities of those two girls is what makes their story so devastatingly compelling and, for me, the costume design was a way to bring all of those elements together for them to be seen and heard. Beyond the costumes, this film turns a lens on Black British culture and mental health in a way that isn’t often done. This was clearly a huge issue in the 1970s and 1980s, and it’s still a problem now. Films like this are essential in making us engage with these issues.’
What were your favourite costumes in the film?
‘With the costumes for the twins, it was all about capturing their duality, their differences, and the psychological hold they had on each other. I used colour to reflect their emotional states at the time, but also as a way to unify them, evolve them, and eventually separate them. When they’re apart, you see their palette open up more.
‘In terms of favourite looks, I was moved by a couple of images of the girls that Marjorie Wallace gave us access to. There was a black and white picture of them wearing these Eskimo coats with these fur hoods – they looked so delicate. Those coats carry them through the story. They have the same camel-muted coloured coat as children. As they grow older and become teenagers, their interests start to change and separate. We wanted to define this clearly in their colour palette – Jennifer wears a raspberry tone, June is in a bluish purple as they discover their differences.
‘In their teenage years, they jump around with their obsessions and you see that expressed very visually in their clothes. At first they are into Boney M, soul and funk because that’s what their older sister listens to. The next minute they’re really into punk rock, reflecting The Clash and Ramones.
‘When they want to be writers, they develop their author style and become obsessed with Jane Austen, and you see them in chiffons and pussy-bow blouses. When they enter the 1980s, they get into David Bowie. They also have this Americana phase where they become obsessed with the Rolling Stones and Woodstock because of these American boys who get them into a lot of things, which leads to them being incarcerated and sent to Broadmoor Hospital. It was a very complicated journey to document. I wanted that volatility of obsessions and experiences to come through the clothes, so that you can see the trauma that was enacted on them – how they were wearing all of these different personalities.
‘Then there was my Prince Charles costume. We got a very unique and special brief, which meant I found myself being cast in the film to play Letitia’s husband, Prince Charles. We only had a couple of days to put together the costume in Poland, but we took time to ensure we had the best elements to represent the first time the world would see an image of a Black Princess Diana and Prince Charles.’
What’s next for you?
‘I costume designed Amrou Al-Kadhi’s upcoming film Layla (Film4). It’s a love story involving a lot of queer people of colour. It follows a Palestinian queer trans drag artist living in London while navigating love, friendship and the city. The project has been really cool so far and the creative team involved is just incredible. It’s been such a happy experience, which made me do the job at an optimum level. Everything was coming so naturally to me. It really reminded me that when I’m stressed it minimises my own potential.’