‘I was still standing. I’m shot, I thought, I’m shot. I reached down and touched my stomach. Blood. There was a small hole, slightly charred, in my white shirt: my Paul Smith shirt, I thought, with a pang of anguish. I’d paid a week’s salary for it in San Francisco.’
A novel preoccupied with appearances and the dark realities they can conceal, it is no wonder that clothes are a recurring theme in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. As protagonist Richard notices the gunshot in his expensive shirt at the climax, his ‘anguish’ stems less from the injury to his physical body than to the painstakingly assembled body of signifiers he has spent the novel maintaining; a ‘small hole’ through which his history, in its imperfect secrecy, is exposed.
Richard is smart and ambitious but insecure. He leaves his working class Californian background and abusive parents behind in order to study Ancient Greek at Hampden College – gaining access to an entirely new plane of existence. The Greek class is a exclusive little heterotopia, inhabited by a coterie who present unfailingly as ‘genis gratus, corpore glabellus, arte multiscius, et fortuna opulentus — smooth-cheeked, soft-skinned, well-educated, and rich’, and presided over by the enigmatic tutor Julian Morrow. Richard’s initial ‘picturesque and fictive’ impressions of the Classics clique are based on their outfits; Henry’s ‘dark English suits’, Charles and Camilla in ‘white tennis sweaters’ and ‘straw hats’, Francis who dresses ‘like Alfred Douglas, or the Comte de Montesquiou’.
Richard grows to ‘abhor’ Bunny, who threatens to ‘expose’ the ‘humble lineage’ of his secondhand clothes
Clothes are the means by which Richard facilitates his entrance into this new world, and the means by which Tartt communicates his discomfort to the reader. Invited to lunch by Bunny, the most approachable of the clique, Richard realises that his ‘only good’ jacket (‘dark tweed… Irish wool, gray with flecks of mossy green’) is much too hot for that time of year, but puts it on nonetheless. When a flatmate lends him a more weather-appropriate jacket (‘old Brooks Brothers, unlined silk, ivory with stripes of peacock green’), Richard ends up committing a different and arguably worse faux pas — he now looks too casual for the restaurant’s dress code. Bunny is quick to pick him up on it:
‘This is the East Coast, boy. I know they’re pretty laissez-faire about dress in your neck of the woods, but back here they don’t let you run around in your bathing suit all year long.’
Bunny, whose ‘knee-sprung trousers’ and a ‘shapeless tweed’ jacket mark him as an outlier to the Classics inner circle, is an unlikely arbiter of sartorial taste. Born into a family of nouveaux sneered at by the rest of the clique for being ‘greedy, shallow… just a bunch of zeros, like something from an ad’, Bunny is as sensitive to class signifiers as Richard, and far more invested in policing them to affirm his own status within the group. Consequently, Richard grows to ‘abhor’ Bunny, who threatens to ‘expose’ not only the ‘humble lineage’ of his secondhand clothes but also Richard’s own.
Where Bunny humiliates Richard for his working-class West Coast and ‘tastelessly Californian’ background, however, ‘Camilla he [torments] simply because she [is] a girl’. Clothes remain Bunny’s weapon of choice; during the same lunch in which he mocks Richard’s jacket, Bunny criticises Camilla for ‘not taking the pains she ought’ with her appearance, and attributing this to the fact that she ‘lacks a mother’s firm hand’. The performance of gender, like that of class, is something learned from one’s parents; any perceived omission calls into question one’s upbringing and Bunny, the quintessential bigot, is well aware of this. He contrasts Camilla, who ‘runs around half the time in her brother’s sloppy old clothes’, with his own girlfriend Marion, who Bunny refers to as ‘a real girl’, primarily because she ‘isn’t afraid to wear a dress’, and whose clothes are described by Richard as ‘at once girlish and shockingly matronly’. Tartt uses clothing in this scene to draw parallels between Camilla’s adoption of masculine fashion and Richard’s adoption of clothes that suggest affluence. But in Bunny’s eyes, this doesn’t matter – Richard is not a ‘real’ WASP in the same way that Camilla is not a ‘real girl’.
Taking their cue from Julian, whose ‘most attractive [quality] is his inability to see anyone, or anything, in its true light’, the Classics clique concern themselves less with how things really are than how they appear when ‘polished to… a high gloss of perfection’. Richard’s self-consciousness about his working-class childhood in Plano appears to stem from the fact that ‘[his] clothes were cheap’, that his mother, as Bunny speculates, does indeed wear ‘polyester pantsuits’ – rather than having stemmed from his parents’ violence and neglect. In his desperation to escape from his own past, Richard fails to realise that the clique’s outward facades, which are ‘absolutely beyond reproach’, conceal childhoods of abuse and neglect that mirror his own.
Tartt’s laying claim to a sartorial space traditionally reserved for men is presented as a quaint and adorable foible
This barely glimpsed violence, lurking beneath the ‘beautiful starchy shirts’ and ‘sleek little Astrakhan coats’ of the clique, becomes increasingly prominent as the novel progresses. As their actions lead first to the accidental killing of a stranger, then the cold-blooded murder of Bunny in order to conceal it, the clique’s worsening mental health is communicated through omissions in dress; the formerly angelic Charles’ ‘shirttails [hang] out’ while Francis is frequently without shoes: ‘he was the picture of respectability, except that his feet were bare’. After scattering soil on the coffin of Bunny, the friend he personally pushed off a cliff, Henry wipes his dirty hand on his dress clothes, ‘smearing mud upon his lapel, his tie, the starched immaculate white of his shirt’ in an act of sartorial and moral contamination.
Yet while the other members of the clique must damage their clothes or cease wearing them entirely to disrupt their facade of respectability, Richard and Camilla are described as ‘laissez-faire’ and ‘sloppy’ by Bunny at the beginning of the novel. This is not through any omission in dress on their part but because — from the affluent cishet WASP perspective adopted by Bunny — they are not entitled to the privilege that such clothes convey. This perspective is most apparent in the scene in which — as part of the ongoing attempts to placate Bunny to prevent him from turning them in — Camilla irons one of his shirts for him. That she does so surprises Richard; in his opinion Camilla ‘is not much of one for domestic tasks’. When the shirt is not ironed to Bunny’s satisfaction, he demands to know where she learned to iron in the first place. Camilla responds: ‘I never did. We send our shirts to the laundry’ (emphasis mine). By referring to the shirts as ‘ours’ (belonging to her, as well as to her brother Charles) Camilla lays claim not only to a defining symbol of white collar masculinity, but also the privilege of paying someone else to do the ‘domestic tasks’ that Bunny insists are her job as a woman. In one stroke she asserts her right to reject the gender and class roles he is forcing onto her — the implication that shirts are for women to iron, not to wear.
Disturbingly, this opinion is one often directed at Tartt herself — an androgynous dresser who favours menswear-inspired shirts, tailored jackets and ties. An interview with Tartt in The Independent takes pains to emphasise the way in which her ‘delicate femininity is offset by her masculine style’. Tartt’s laying claim to a sartorial space traditionally reserved for men is presented as a quaint and adorable foible, as if she were a little girl who never grew out of dressing up: ‘it’s hard to emphasise just how petite she is’. It’s eerily reminiscent of the ‘paternalistic stance’ that Bunny adopts towards Camilla in the novel, ‘beaming down at her with the condescension of an old papa towards a dimwit child’. An article in Vice goes even further, highlighting the ‘murderous possibilities’ of Tartt’s personal style and concluding, in an explicit association of perceived gender transgression with moral transgression: ‘it is unnervingly unclear how close her sympathies with her characters may lie’.
The Secret History teaches us that clothes are a space to be easily or uneasily occupied, depending on privilege. If they signify an opportunity to overstep boundaries of class and gender, they also serve as a means of policing them.
Featured image credit: Robert Couse-Baker
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