James Boswell’s Bonkers Clothing Budget

George Willison James Boswell portrait
Image credit: Scottish National Gallery / Public domain

Recently, I came across a bit of menswear marginalia that caught my interest. I was reading James Boswell’s London Journal 1762-1973 (in tacit acknowledgement that I will never get around to reading his substantially longer and more famous Life of Samuel Johnson) when I discovered in an appendix the portion of his annual budget that Boswell spent on clothing.

In case you haven’t encountered him before, James Boswell was a prolific eighteenth-century writer, traveller, lawyer, laird, and all-round bon vivant best known for writing the aforementioned Life of Dr Johnson, which is generally thought of as one of the best — some say the best — biography ever written, to the extent that the name ‘Boswell’ has become synonymous with the title ‘biographer’.

Sadly for Boswell, despite his impressive literary reputation, his name has also been synonymous with some of his less respectable exploits. He has long been thought of as a doddering drunk, an incurable lecher, an exhibitionist fool, and an all-around reprobate and figure of fun. Johnson himself aptly referred to Boswell as a ‘clubable man’, while David Hume once called him ‘a young gentleman very good-humoured, very agreeable, and very mad’. 

Actually reading his diaries, however, reveals Bosswell to be not only a first-rate author but a man of extraordinary humanity and complexity whose various struggles, despite being removed more than two centuries from our own, can feel all too relatable even today. 

One such struggle — which in true Boswellian fashion straddles both relatability and absurdity — is the financial difficulty he faced throughout his life, which brings us to the matter of his clothing budget. At the time that his London journal was written, Boswell was a man in his early twenties who had just recently escaped to London from Scotland, where his father, Lord Auchenlick, a laird and respected High Court Judge, wanted him to follow the family tradition of going into law. The young and free-footed Boswell, meanwhile, entertained plans of living it up in the English capital and managed to convince his father to foot the bill with an annual allowance of £200 — a sum of about £32 500 in today’s money. Boswell finds it ‘difficult’ for this amount to ‘support the rank of a gentleman’ but gamely apportions his yearly expenses as follows:

Breakfast £9
Candles £6
Coals £7
Washing £6
Shoe-cleaning £1
Clothes £50
Stockings and shoes£10
Total: £157

Amusingly, Boswell gets the total wrong, which actually comes to £164. Of his budgeting, he notes that ‘A genteel lodging in a good part of town is absolutely necessary’ although it is ‘very dear’. Of his appearance, he says ‘I would have a clean suit of linens every day’ as well as ‘hav[ing] my hair dressed every day, or pretty often’. He also observes that ‘I must have my shoes wiped at least once a day and sometimes oftener’ and that ‘To be well dressed is another essential article, as it is open to everybody to observe’, hence his willingness to spend an impressive £50 pounds on clothing. 

This amounts to squarely a quarter of his annual income and the addition of washing, shoe cleaning, stockings and shoes brings the total up to a staggering £67 (£10 900 in today’s money) — a sum that dwarfs any other single expense, including his rent in central London for a full year, and one that amounts to just over a third of his budget. Boswell, meanwhile, reckoned himself ‘in every respect to be frugal, saying ‘I am really surprised at the coolness and moderation with which I am proceeding. God grant I may continue to do well, which will make me happy and all my friends satisfied.’

By contrast, every statistic I found online about contemporary annual clothing budgets in the UK and US, estimates the figure to be well below 5% of total income in each case. To be sure, there’s no question that weighing the expenditure of a man about town more than 250 years ago against our own time is comparing apples to oranges, but it seems a noteworthy anecdote nonetheless. 

D. George Thompson painting A Literary Party at Sir Joshua Reynolds'
A literary party at Sir Joshua Reynolds’ by D. George Thompson depicting Boswell and Johnson on the far left
Image credit: National Portrait Gallery / Public domain

As I mentioned, this amusing titbit lies hidden in one of the journal’s appendices, but there are many other clothing-related anecdotes that pepper Boswell’s account of this London tenure (he visited and stayed there many times) as well as in other points throughout his life. He is, for instance, pleased at being ‘well dressed and in excellent spirits’ on one of his early meetings with Samuel Johnson, although he notes upon first seeing Johnson in the flesh that ‘Mr. Johnson is a man of a most dreadful appearance. He is a very big man, is troubled with sore eyes, the palsy, and the king’s evil [scrofula scars, in other words]. He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice.’ Johnson for his part reckons that ‘£30 a year was enough to make a man live without being contemptible; that is to say, you might be always clean. He allowed £10 for clothes and linen.’ 

While Boswell’s own clothing expenses proved considerably more permissive, he did take to dressing like Johnson in ‘a scratch wig and watchman’s great coat’ after his mentor died and while awaiting the publication of his biographical opus — a choice that was much commented on in the press at the time. There was also an incident where following his grand tour Boswell insisted upon meeting the Secretary of State dressed like a native Corsican chief, armed with pistols and a stiletto knife, and wearing a cap topped with a tuft of cock’s feathers. It was a look one of his biographers reasonably called ‘a ludicrous display’.

While in true ‘Bozzy’ fashion much of this no doubt sounds ridiculous, I imagine few people scanning through posts on a menswear blog would disagree with Boswell’s assertion of the importance of dressing well and the noteworthy role this plays in our social lives. Moreover, as people no-doubt prone to spending more than the average person does on clothing, knowing that one James Boswell was willing to part with the lion’s share of his wealth solely for the sake of his appearance is likely to be a consoling and most favourable comparison.

James Boswell portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Image credit: National Portrait Gallery / Public domain

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