In “The Secret History,” Dressing Well Has Murderous Possibilities
Tartt’s debut novel shows the fine line you walk when dressing for the world you want.
Donna Tartt in 2015. Photograph by Venturelli for WiredImage via Getty Images.
Clothes Before Prose is a column that explores the use of fashion in some of our favorite novels. This week: a group of anachronistic academic style icons mirror the wardrobe of the author in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.
Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut, The Secret History, a murder mystery in reverse, is as much about morality and mortality as it is about keeping up appearances—of innocence and of belonging, but also of sartorial precision.
It’s the 1980s. Richard Papen has recently transferred to Hampden College, a small fictional school set in the hills of Vermont, based on Tartt’s own alma mater, Bennington College. After he’s denied entry to an ancient Greek class taught by cultish professor Julian Morrow, who is “very particular” about his students, Richard becomes entranced with the small clique that has managed to get inside Julian’s rarefied course. Each of the five students, Tartt writes, present “a variety of picturesque and fictive qualities”—an aura of romantic peculiarity largely supported by clothing. Henry Winter can always be found in dark English suits. Francis Abernathy, “the most exotic of the set,” wears “beautiful starchy shirts with French cuffs [and] magnificent neckties,” and occasionally, to Richard’s delight, a false pince-nez. The twins, Charles and Camilla Macaulay, dress in decadent all-white outfits, and Edmund Corcoran, better known as Bunny, is always in “knee sprung trousers” and a fraying “shapeless brown tweed” jacket. (When we begin the novel, of course, Bunny is already in a ditch, dead. The others have killed him.) They’re the type of clothes you imagine J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis wearing during their Oxford glory days—a kind of idealized college experience in which the clothing is as much a part of your education as the classes.
After much spectating and scheming, Richard is eventually accepted by Julian on the unorthodox condition that he let his new professor dictate the entirety of his four years of studies. Against the cool distance of this “unapproachable” group, he begins to ingratiate himself by playing the part of some West Coast aristocrat, attempting to mime the wealth and peculiarities in “adolescent emulation” of his new peers—an effort largely undertaken with a wardrobe change. In fact, one of the first the very first things Richard says of himself is that in his youth his “clothes were cheap and [his] haircut too short and no one at school seemed to like [him] that much.”
Early on, Richard is invited to a lunch by Bunny, the friendliest of the five (and, it must be said, the least erudite). Richard dons his best jacket of “beautiful...Irish wool, gray with flecks of mossy green” that he had bought with “nearly every cent” from a summer job in San Francisco. As he adjusts his tie in his dorm bathroom mirror, a classmate, Judy Poovey, talks at him—her perceived intellectual inferiority immediately apparent from her image: she loves bright lipstick and big earrings and cut-off jeans and spandex tops and Mel Gibson. She says “fuck” every other word and she doesn’t really care for those “sissy guys in suits and ties.” But Judy, it just so happens, is the ideal accomplice for someone trying to spin falsehoods by playing dress up: she is a costume design major. She points out that Richard’s wool coat is far too heavy for this “scorcher” of a day, and offers him an “old Brooks Brothers, unlined silk, ivory with stripes of peacock green” that she has scavenged instead.
Richard thinks the jacket is “wonderful.” He tells Bunny it’s his grandfather’s when asked about it. The unabashedly WASPy Bunny, who, in the suspiciously antiquated parlance of Jay Gatsby, likes to call Richard things like “old man” and “old soak,” thinks it’s a “lovely piece,” but “not quite the thing for this time of year.” After all, “This is the East Coast, boy...they don’t let you run around in your bathing suit all year long.”
Still, Richard is in and he has no desire to relinquish his new found acceptance, even when he learns his new crew has been attempting to stage their own literal bacchanals, inspired by Julian’s lessons, out at Francis’s country home, right under Richard’s nose—and Bunny’s. Somehow, their mystical plot succeeds, without Richard or Bunny, but when they come down from their orgiastic ecstasy they discover a horrifying result: they have mauled a farmer in the woods.
Or at least this should be horrifying, but for these self-assured elitists, the murder and mutilation of a member of the Egg Producers Association of Vermont is just some unfortunate collateral damage in their getting off and getting in touch with the ancients. As Francis puts it, “It’s a terrible thing we did.... I mean this man was not Voltaire we killed. But still. It’s a shame. I feel bad about it.” Henry describes the farmer’s broken neck to Richard with the same detachment with which he recalls the man’s distinctively New England working class “yellow plaid shirt—you know those woolen shirts they wear up here,” showcasing the logic of disposability these post-adolescents attach to the “hoi polloi” surrounding them.
Be it classmates who dare to wear denim or “barmaids” in cheap turquoise eyeshadow and an excess of turquoise rings to match, the failure to don a shirt and tie is a telltale sign of intellectual degeneracy, and even, twistedly, moral failure—a sign that these outsiders are too of their time, too disparagingly modern.
The group’s full-on descent into premeditated evil doesn’t have very positive repercussions for these fashionable few. Suffice to say, they decide, with Richard’s knowledge, though without his involvement, that the only thing to do is to kill Bunny. As the investigation into Bunny’s disappearance and death wears on, it begins to take a toll on the conspirators’ minds, and accordingly, their attire. The normally stoic and excessively put-together Henry, much to Richard’s horror, absentmindedly smears dirt across his pristine shirt at Bunny’s funeral. Charles’s fall from grace, marked by ever-worsening alcoholism, is mirrored in his increasingly disheveled clothes. When he is arrested for drunk driving and spends the night in jail, Richard notes that Charles’s “night of boozing had done more damage to his clothes than anything else.”
Unsurprisingly, the story does not exactly end well. By the time of the epilogue, however, Richard has moved on—from Vermont to Southern California and from the Greeks to the Jacobeans. He is studying dramatists again, fittingly, as all Richard has really been up to is acting, costuming, and posturing to satisfy his “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs,” just barely fitting in, in ill-fitting clothes. For Richard, the Jacobeans “understood not only evil...but the extravagance of tricks with which evil presents itself as good.” He “felt they cut right to the heart of the matter, to the essential rottenness of the world.” But what Richard, who has always claimed a distance from the actions of the others, is never willing to admit to himself is that this rottenness obscured by these tricks—like fake designer ties and not-quite fitting jackets—is not at the core of the world, but of himself. In his unflinching moral vacuity, there is ever violence in fashionability.
Or so it may seem. What at first appears as incontrovertible depravity dressed up in Saville Row suits becomes more ambiguous when we consider the sartorial choices of Tartt herself, who made Vanity Fair’s 2014 best-dressed list (as she told The Guardian in 2003, “Very nice clothes are not incompatible with the writer's profession”). The Cut has called her style “menswear-inspired,” and she herself told The Telegraph that she feels “a real funniness about women’s costume.” In The Secret History, the clothes of women—from students to mothers to barkeeps—are frequently described as absurd and overdone and contrived. (The subdued and androgynous Camilla, whose feet are even described as “boyish,” is spared this assessment.) Tartt’s own style is suits, trench coats, and pressed shirts. She dresses like her characters, who attend a college based on her own, and is often praised for living in her own private utopia, eschewing book tours and social media and the typical trappings of the New York literary establishment. In this morally muddy world, it is unnervingly unclear how close her sympathies with her characters may lie. Dressing for the world you want is more dangerous than it may seem.