Raw Moments in Myth and History

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Beau Brummell Gets the World to Suit Up

If you’re going to a New Year’s party, your night is going to involve suits in some way. So that’s my excuse for writing about Beau Brummell, the guy who you all have to thank or blame for the influence suits will have on your evening. 

Prince Regent George IV was not well-liked. For a while, however (before an escalating series of insults drove them apart) he was friends with the most stylingest man in England, George “Beau” Brummell. Brummell was, at his time and since, recognized as the final word on men’s fashion. Even George IV (aka Prinny), whose fashion sense was his most-admired trait, deferred to Brummell on these issues, and could not make fetch happen, proverbially, without Brummell’s approval (Jesse, 1886 “The life of George Brummell, esq., commonly called Beau Brummell. Vol 1”). 

When his own brother was in town, some visitors asked if he would be staying with Beau. He replied “Yes, in a day or two; but I have recommended him to walk the back streets till his new clothes come home.” (Doran, 1857, “Miscellaneous Works, Volume 1: Habits and Men: Beau Brummell” par 18)

Beau went to Eton, a famous British school that can boast Captain Hook as an alumnus. He was, as tvtropes would say, tall, dark and snarky, being known for an acerbic wit that erred on the side of genuine meanness, for his good looks and his always superb sense of fashion. Classmates variously reported him as being “far livelier than his handsome brother William; indeed no one at the school was so full of animation, fun, and wit” (Jesse, 1886 “The life of George Brummell, esq., commonly called Beau Brummell. Vol 1, pg 34) or “not worth a damn” due to having never been flogged once in his time their (Jesse, 1886 “The life of George Brummell, esq., commonly called Beau Brummell. Vol 1,” pg 33).

The modern Eton uniform in use

The Eton uniform is so traditional that even now they wear tailcoats to class. Presumably, this is not a likely candidate for some good old fashioned civil disobedience to permit flare in the dress code. For Brummell, however, the uniforms lacked panache. He added the white cravat, and attached a gold buckle, essentially inventing the tie-pin. His fellow students, and even the administrators, “confessed the present god” (Doran, 1857, “Miscellaneous Works, Volume 1: Habits and Men: Beau Brummell” par 3). The style was adopted officially.

At Oxford “he consumed a considerable quantity of midnight oil, but very little of it over his books (Jesse, 1886 “The life of George Brummell, esq., commonly called Beau Brummell. Vol 1, pg 38). There Brummell “abolished cotton stockings, and made dingy cravats vulgar.” (Doran, 1857, “Miscellaneous Works, Volume 1: Habits and Men: Beau Brummell” par 5). He did not need to wear cologne, as was the trend at the time, because, with stylistic prescience, he bathed regularly (Boyle, 2011 “Beau Brummell and the Birth of Regency Fashion” on “Janeausten.co.uk”).

Later, he joined Prinny’s personal regiment, the 10th Dragoons, which was fully of other preppies who “wore their estates upon their backs - some of them before they had inherited the paternal acres” (Doran, 1857, “Miscellaneous Works, Volume 1: Habits and Men: Beau Brummell” par 6). He was popular at first, but older officers found his irreverence and the extreme leeway he was given by the prince to be distasteful. He eventually left when they were going to relocate somewhere less fabulous. 

Before Brummell, fashion was all about being gaudy. The Macaronis had given “dandy” a bad name, and the order of the day was flashy, flared coats and opulent jewelry, for men. Brummell’s biographer mentions that the Earl of March had written to George Selwyn “The muff you sent me, by the Duke of Richmond, I like prodigiously, vastly better than if it had been tigre…” (Jesse, 1886 “The life of George Brummell, esq., commonly called Beau Brummell. Vol 1,” pg 13).

Before Brummell

Brummell toned it down in some ways (though he still insisted on polishing his shoes with champagne), believing firmly that a man should not attract too much attention from his attire, but that it should be finely cut and the fabric of good quality, relatively form-fitting. His edict “was to avoid anything marked; or of his aphorisims being, that the severest mortification a gentleman could incur, was to attract observation in the street by his outward appearance. He exercised the most correct taste in the selection of each article of apparel of a form and color harmonious with all the rest, for the purpose of producing a perfectly elegant general effect; and no doubt he spent much time and pains in the attainment of his object.” (Jesse, 1886 “The life of George Brummell, esq., commonly called Beau Brummell. Vol 1,” pg 59) To achieve this effect, he endorsed contrasting colors and his long beloved white-cravats and took to wearing dark men’s suits with white ties and shirts. 

After Brummell

If he could not tie the accompanying tie in his first attempt, he would discard it for the rest of the day, believing that the moment had been lost. A servant was seen coming from his room, laden with ties, and, when “interrogated on the subject, solemnly replied ‘Oh, they are our failures.’” (Jesse, 1886 “The life of George Brummell, esq., commonly called Beau Brummell. Vol 1,” pg  61)

As he was by that point a favorite of the King of England, his audience had gone from the boys at Eton to Planet Earth. And so everyone followed suit(e).  

-A.G.F. 

  • 31 December 2012
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