The Man Who Made Modern Menswear — PART 2

Beau Brummell
Image credit: Robert Dighton / Public domain

This is Part 2 in a series on Beau Brummell. If you haven’t already done so, you can find the first instalment here.

It’s appropriate that George Brummel’s cognomen, ‘Beau’, is a byword for dandy. He was, after all, the man who defined the ideas of dandyism and is to this day its best-known proponent.

There is, however, a certain irony in what ‘dandy’ is taken to mean in our own time. Today the word tends to conjure images of gilt and jewellery, colour and elaborate dedication, perhaps even a powdered wig or two. This, in fact, would more accurately describe a fop — the very opposite of a dandy.

Fop caricature
A beau by another name: a caricatured fop
Image credit: British Museum / Public domain

Dandyism under Brummell’s guidance came to be defined by the principles of simplicity and utility. It was Beau who, as Bruce Boyer puts it, ‘brushed away the trappings of courtier dress — the jewelled waistcoats and perukes and velvet breeches’. Instead, he championed quality tailoring, sombre fabrics, and a restrained colour palette.

His biographer, Captain William Jesse, noted that Brummell ‘shunned all external peculiarity, and trusted alone to that ease and grace of manner which he possessed in a remarkable degree. His chief aim was to avoid anything marked, one of his aphorisms being that the severest mortification a gentleman could incur was to attract observation in the street by his outward appearance.’ Indeed, one of Brummell’s storied quips came in response to a follower complimenting what he took to be Beau’s elegant appearance: ‘I cannot be elegant, since you noticed me,’ came Brummell’s reply.

This ‘conspicuous inconspicuousness’ meant that small details came to be more important than grand displays and apparent wealth. Richard Sennett in The Fall of Public Man describes the shift as follows:

‘Details of workmanship now show how “gentle” a man or woman is. The fastening of buttons on a coat, the quality of fabric counts when the fabric itself is subdued in colour and hue. Boot leather becomes another sign. The tying of cravats becomes an intricate business. How they are tied reveals whether a man has ‘stuffing’ or not, what is tied is nondescript material. As watches became simpler in appearance, the materials used in their making are the mark of the owner’s social standing. It was, in all details, a matter of subtly marketing yourself; anyone who proclaims himself a gent obviously isn’t.’

Richard Sennett

This prioritization of small details over conspicuous displays — of refinement over riches, in other words — turned dressing into an altogether more egalitarian business. To be considered a man of social standing, you could no longer just throw money at the problem. The conspicuous trappings of wealth had become garish. Now, being a gentleman meant having good taste, and taste can’t be bought. Suddenly your style, rather than your bloodline or bank account, determined your standing. And it was all thanks to Beau  —  appropriate, you might think, for a common-born man whose life was spent in pursuit of social status. 

Beau Brummell and his tailor
Beau Brummell giving directions to his tailor
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

For better or worse, the template set by Brummel still defines how men dress today. It’s a philosophy that Josh Sims eloquently sketches in the introduction of Icons of Men’s Style when describing menswear in contrast to its feminine equivalent, which he says is defined largely by the ever-changing vagaries of fashion:

‘Menswear, on the other hand, is also a product of fashion but this tends to be apparent only in the details, in a ponderous, evolutionary advancement rather than in sweeping statements. Men’s styles are variations on a recognizable, well-known theme, rather than a new score altogether. Ever since the English dandy Beau Brummell ushered in a new, sober, fitted restraint in menswear in the early nineteenth century, peacockery has largely been shunned. Conservatism in clothing has been the mark of the gentleman. Consequently, much of men’s wardrobe — key looks, acceptable colours, standard silhouettes — has been largely the same for perhaps a century or more.’

Josh Sims

Such enduring conservatism in men’s dress is a measure of the radical influence of Beau Brummell. But, while he altered the course of menswear for centuries to come, dramatic changes in his fortunes meant that the course of his own life was much less auspicious than his influence and acclaim might otherwise suggest.

Old Beau Brummell
A portrait of aged George Brummell in Caen
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Brummell’s legendary wit regularly veered toward cruelty and eventually his propensity for boundary pushing caught up with him. He fell out with his royal patron and longtime champion, the Prince of Wales, in 1812, and while it didn’t immediately result in his exile from society, mounting gambling debts and extravagant spending would eventually spell his downfall. He fled to Calais in 1816 to escape his creditors and would spend the next 14 years hopelessly in debt. He eventually ended up in Caen, where he was briefly imprisoned for his debts. By this point, he had lost all interest in clothing and his appearance had become dirty and dishevelled. Instead, he retreated to a fantasy life rooted in his past, which, in 1837, compounded by two attacks of paralysis, led to him being taken to an asylum in Caen. He died there three years later in 1840, with all vestiges of his former life long since lost. 

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