Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Why I Love the British Regency, Part Two: A Very Dapper Gent

In my first post in this series exploring similarities between the British Regency and our own era, we looked at political similarities. Today, we turn our eye to a much lighter topic, fashion. Specifically, masculine fashion. Specifically-er, we're going to talk about one particular man: Beau Brummel.

If you have ever worn, or admired a gentleman in, this attire:

Or this:

You have this man to thank:
He was a little less bronzed in life.

The influence of George Bryan (Beau) Brummell has endured for two hundred years, and shows no sign of flagging.

We tend to think of English high society as being the playground of the aristocracy--those born into old, titled families. While the haute ton was predominantly made up of the nobility, Regency society also embraced outsiders--so long as those individuals proved to be sufficiently diverting.

Beau Brummell (b. 1778) was just such an outsider. His grandfather was a valet, and his father was a private secretary to Lord North. The connections his father made through his work enabled him to send young Beau to Eton and Oxford, where he made the acquaintance of the future grandees of Society. Beau met the future Prince Regent in 1793, at the age of fifteen. The two became fast friends. By the time of the Regency, Beau was part of the Prince's inner circle, called the Carlton House Set. This small group led the way in dictating the Regency's tone and style.

What did Beau Brummell do that was so revolutionary? In the eighteenth century, the well turned-out gentleman donned an array of colorful silks and satins, powdered wigs, knee-length breeches, and as much lace as the ladies.
Totally GQ, yo.

Damn, I look good.
Beau stripped away the ostentation and ornamentation in men's fashion, focusing instead on elegant simplicity. He began with thorough daily grooming, which included washing, shaving, plucking, and exfoliating his face. In lieu of gaudy fripperies, Beau demanded exquisite tailoring in his clothes, in order to showcase the clean lines of the masculine physique. He wore long trousers instead of breeches. He introduced the starched cravat, and insisted on a precisely executed knot. If he made the slightest error in tying his neckcloth, it was discarded, and he started over with a fresh length of linen.

Beau's whole process of getting ready became a literal spectacle. He admitted a lucky few to his dressing room to watch his daily toilette and learn his trade secrets.

In An Elegant Madness, Venetia Murray conveys this reflection of a devotee of Beau's:

Max Beerbohm (a dedicated dandy in his youth) wrote some fifty years after Brummell's death that his hero had been 'in the utmost sense of the word, an artist' and went on to extol 'the costume of the nineteenth century, as shadowed for us first by Mr. Brummell, so quiet, so reasonable, and, I say, emphatically, so beautiful; free from folly or affectation, yet susceptible to exquisite ordering; plastic, austere, economical.' Beerbohm writes of the beau's 'fine scorn of accessories' and says that 'In certain congruities of dark cloth, in the rigid perfection of the linen, in the symmetry of his glove with his hand, lay the secret of Mr Brummell's miracles.'

Like other outsiders admitted to the heights of society, Beau's status was only as secure as his aristocratic friends wished it to be. Eventually, an unforgivable gaffe cost him his position with the Prince Regent. Again, from Murray:

Brummell overstepped the line on several occasions, treating the Prince with far too much familiarity and an astonishing lack of respect. He obviously believed his position in society to be so secure that he could get away with anything. The crash came at a ball in London, in 1814. The Prince had arrived in the company of Lord Alvanley, and stood talking to him but openly ignored Brummell. The latter, furious at being cut in public, for once lost his habitual self-control, and called out in a loud voice the fatal words: 'Alvanley, who is your fat friend?' The Prince, whose vanity was legendary, never spoke to him again.

This was the beginning of Brummell's decline in society. In 1816, he fled to France to escape his debts. There he lived, in penniless exile, until his death in 1840.

Though he suffered a spectacular fall from grace in Regency society, Beau Brummell left an indelible mark on masculine fashion. He created the image we associate with the Regency gentleman. His style was so revelatory, so revolutionary, we have not yet supplanted it with anything better. The style of neckcloths (ties) may change over time, and the size of lapels and collars waxes and wanes, but at its essence, our idea of masculine elegance is still Beau Brummell's.


  1. I heart Beau for the following reasons:
    (1) Red carpet fashion
    (2) Becoming famous for being fabulous
    (3) This: far too much familiarity and an astonishing lack of respect. If you're going to go out, do it with a bang!

    I'm not sure where I thought modern gentlemanly fashion originated, but now I know. This was a super fun read :)