© 2014 Lord Christopher Laverty. All rights reserved.

The Selfish Giant: Costume Design for Social Realist Drama

Clio Barnard’s stark yet heart-wrenching film The Selfish Giant (2013, UK) offers two fantastic performances from its young stars in their acting debut. Matt Price discusses how his costume design for the film reflects the strong, relatable characters so well…

It is lunchtime in London as costume designer Matthew Price shuffles into the Curzon, Soho. Recently collaborating with Clio Barnard on the Bafta nominated film, The Selfish Giant, reuniting after experimental documentary The Arbour, Price is surprisingly reserved about his work. “I wasn’t really sure if they’d take me on again,” he says of Barnard and producer Tracey O’Riordan. “The Arbour did quite well so I didn’t know if they’d interview designers with more experience but luckily they asked me to do it.”

Connor Chapman as Arbour wearing a pair of rigger boots. These are a commonly worn workwear boot and stereotypically, if accurately, connected with the traveller community. Pay a visit to the Appleby horse fair in Cumbria during June and you will see what we mean.
Connor Chapman as Arbour wearing a pair of rigger boots. These are a commonly worn workwear boot and stereotypically, if accurately, connected with the traveller community. Pay a visit to the Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria during June and you will see what we mean.

The social realist genre of The Selfish Giant is an area in which costume is rarely discussed. Price was clear that there were specific issues. “Well everyone’s got an opinion on contemporary for a start.” This is true. Often overlooked at award ceremonies, sent back to costume houses or even left unnoticed by audiences, social realist costume has it tough. “I think in a weird sort of way when you’re doing certain types of period you’re constricted; it’s equally just as large a skill. It’s definitely different.” Discussing his process seems to confuse Price a little. “I don’t tend to over think it to be honest.” he laughs, “ It’s not something I like to think about too much in the sense that it needs to be really fluid. I think it’s almost as if people don’t notice the clothes that’s when you feel like you’ve done quite a good job. I just think they just need to be naturalistic for me.” As a costume designer on an independent picture, Price’s role is still misunderstood: “I think we get misunderstood as a department quite regularly,” he explains. “I think there’s a massive difference between a buyer, a stylist and a costume designer. I tend to do characters, for example, a grandma in a tower block would be more interesting to me than trying to do a high-brow music video. I’m just more interested in real characters.”

The Selfish Giant revolves around two boys, Arbour and Swifty, who skip school to collect scrap metal in Bradford (it is worth noting here that ‘Arbour’ is both the name of a main character in The Selfish Giant, and also the name of Barnard’s previous film). Played by newcomers Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas, the two characters’ costumes were the main work for Price. “Arbour was based on a real guy called Matty who we’d met briefly when we did The Arbour,” Price explains. “He was just a boy on a horse that was going around scrapping and he crossed the area where we were shooting.” Matty’s presence was reflected in the costume for Arbour. “He had had quite a specific style really which is quite relevant to Bradford as a location, where they tuck their socks.” Both characters’ costumes shaped their character. “Arbour had more layers to him and Swifty was kind of a bit plainer. He had a leather jacket that could have been like a hand me down from his father for example; he’s almost a bit simpler.” The first-time actors also had an input into their costumes. Price notes, “They would tell us how they would wear things. If I wanted them to wear their hoody up they’d say ‘no, it needs to be more like half up and then if I knocked on someone’s door I might put it all the way back. But I’d never leave it all the way up.’ So, little trinkets that they would do themselves would help me.” The locations of The Selfish Giant, mainly housing estates in Bradford, seem to be a different world to the comfortable cinema cafe we currently occupy, and it’s clear how the actors from the locations could help to mould their costumes.

Arbour with Sean Gilder as scrap metal dealer and so called ‘pikey’ Kitten. Practically all of the costumes in The Selfish Giant are very heavily distressed. Director Clio Barnard was clear the central characters should ‘they should wear their dirt with pride’.
Arbour with Sean Gilder as scrap metal dealer and so called ‘pikey’ Kitten. Practically all of the costumes in The Selfish Giant are very heavily distressed. Director Clio Barnard was clear the central characters should ‘wear their dirt with pride’.

“We went to the boys’ houses originally,” Price says. The look for Swifty was influenced by the actor’s own wardrobe. “Shaun who plays Swifty actually did a bit of scrapping before we did that film. He had this Nike tracksuit that we used in the film that was just covered in oil so we used that. We used a couple of Connor’s Adidas tops as well; we sort of mixed and matched it really. They helped us with the levels of dirt because Clio was quite adamant about how the dirt should look, ‘they should wear their dirt with pride,’ she said. I didn’t quite realise the extent of it until I met Shaun. His tracksuit was totally covered in dirt and oil and that set our level for breaking down which was quite helpful.”

Price’s previous collaboration with Clio Barnard on her first feature film also required careful costume design. The Arbour reconstructs the life of Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar and represents real people. “We had photographs, archive documents and documentary footage to look at.” He explains the pressure of costume accuracy, “it was quite a sensitive piece. I didn’t want to offend anyone and make it too ‘costumey’. It just needed to feel very real, especially as Andrea’s mother was sometimes on set.”

Shaun Thomas as Arbour’s only friend Swifty. The actor’s really life wardrobe heavily influenced what he wore in the film.
Shaun Thomas as Arbour’s only friend Swifty. The actor’s real life wardrobe heavily influenced what he wore in the film.

Price’s current research has been interrupted for the day, photographing Londoners for his next project.“I quite like to research with photography” Matt says, “It’s my thing really. I’ll go out and photograph people.” It’s this interest in real people and real clothes that relate so accurately on film. Social realist costume needs Price’s photographs, real influences, to be believable on screen. Whilst science-fiction, fantasy film and even period costume can get away with slight inaccuracies, when the modern world is seen on screen, audiences are perceptive. They know what real life looks like, and The Selfish Giant is harrowing in its believability.

By Pippa Day

Pippa has written about film for Little White Lies, the Guardian and Alternate Takes. She has a specific interest in contemporary costume in independent film and serial drama and the future of costume collection.

© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.