If the advent of modern menswear can be attributed to just one person, it would undoubtedly be George ‘Beau’ Brummell. Nearly 250 years after his birth, Brummell’s impact on the style and philosophy of what we wear is still keenly felt and vigorously debated today. The number of changes he brought to men’s fashion constitutes a veritable laundry list (it even includes actual laundering, as it happens). Given the extent of Brummell’s influence, and the remarkable course of his life, this will be a post in two parts, so be sure to tune in later this week for the second instalment.
George Bryan Brummel was born June 7, 1778 in London. Despite having a reputation for hobnobbing with high society, Brummell himself was not born an aristocrat. His middle-class family had long been aristo-adjacent, however. His grandfather was a shopkeeper who rented lodgings to London’s corps d’elite, while his father worked as private secretary to Lord North, Britain’s Prime Minister from 1770 to 1782, and later served as high sheriff of Berkshire.
Despite these relatively humble beginnings (compared to the royals and nobles he mixed with, at least), Beau was dead set on becoming a gentleman from the get-go.
He had a flair for fashion even from a young age. While at Eton, where he was a popular student known among his cohort as ‘Buck’, he altered the white cravat of his school uniform and added a gold pin for good measure. He went on to attend Oxford as an undergraduate in Oriel College where he honed a rapier wit to match his sartorial prowess. He didn’t stay at Oxford for very long, though, leaving in his first year to pursue a military career that eventually led him back to London to join the regiment of George, Prince of Wales, whom he’d first encountered at Eton. The eventual death of his father left him a sum of £30 000. So, in 1799, he moved into a house in Mayfair, and, having quit the military the year before, settled into the life he’d pursued since birth: that of a gentleman.
A new estate, a new life, a new century — it’s here that the story of menswear’s paterfamilias really kicks into gear. By this point, Beau was ready to reap what he’s spent his young life sewing. He entered the urbane fraternity of London high society and quickly became its central figure. London’s obsession with Beau Brummell is the stuff of legend. As ‘England’s pime minister of taste’ he would sit in the window of the prestigious White’s club on St. James’s Street and hold court, passing judgement on passers-by. So valued was Brummell’s opinion that men would wait until he took up his seat before they strolled by, hoping to catch his eye. A sly remark was enough to send someone rushing home to change, but even a negative judgment meant that you were at least seen by Brummell.
Beau himself was an object of much obsessive scrutiny. Audiences famously gathered to watch his morning toilette, in which he’d at times spend hours bathing, grooming, and dressing. Even the Prince of Wales would sit at Brummell’s feet to watch as he tied and retied his linen neckcloth to perfection.
In fact, more than anything, it was the prince whom Brummel had to thank for his status as social arbiter. They had become friends when Brummel served in the Tenth Royal Hussars. During this time the future King George IV first came to admire Brummell’s wit and aesthetic and it was his royal patronage that would cement Beau’s reputation as the most fashionable man in Regency Britain.
Brummell’s influence on clothing ranges from small details, like a strap he added to the bottom of the foot to keep his skin-tight pantaloons in place, to massive overhauls, like the introduction of the suit. Regarding the latter, Brummell shunned the breeches, stockings, and billowy tunics of the day in favour of a uniform of his own devising. It comprised a plain dark coat, long trousers in a complementary (but not matching) fabric, a white shirt, and an elaborately tied linen cravat. Brummell’s taste for well-fitted, bespoke tailoring transformed men’s daytime dress into what would eventually become the modern suit, especially as matching trousers came into fashion later in the nineteenth century and the cravat gradually morphed into the necktie. Beau’s taste for crisp and impeccable linens demanded regular starching and laundering, which meant transporting them to the country where they were cleaned away from the grime of the city (If that sounds rather too decadent, he was also rumoured to polish his boots with Champagne). He also bathed regularly to help keep his whites looking pristine — all of which were uncommon practices before, but caught on as well-to-do Londoners scrambled to keep up with their premier tastemaker.
Brummell’s taste in neckwear ranks among his most famous indulgences. Given the cost and time required to maintain their scrupulously starched whiteness, cravats had become symbols of status and wealth for men of the Regency. As a result, Beau’s habit of spending hours in pursuit of the perfect knot was the ultimate power move. There’s an oft-told anecdote in which a visitor arrives at Brummell’s address mid-morning to find him in a sea of discarded cravats. When asked about this, Brummell’s valet replied: ‘Oh, sir, those are our failures’.
It wasn’t just individual pieces of clothing that changed in Brummell’s wake, however. He would come to define our entire philosophy of dress. To read about the significant ways in which Brummel shaped how men think about dressing to this day, as well as the dramatic changes he eventually faced in his own life, tune in for Part Two on this subject later this week.