For nearly two decades, George Brian Brummell held London’s high society in the palm of his hands, an astonishing feat considering his background. Brummell came from a middle-class background – at the time of his birth (7 June 1778) his father was secretary to Lord North. Being ambitious, the elder Brummell invested in his sons’ education because he wanted them to become gentlemen. Both William (the elder) and George were sent to Eton, where the latter soon made his mark as a boy with an eye for fashion. He is said to have modernised Eton’s cravat and addded a gold buckle.
After a short stint at Oxford, Brummell joined the Tenth Royal Hussards, the personal regiment of the Prince of Wales, in 1793. There, his wit and careful dress won him the friendship of the Prince, the future King George IV, and conseqently he progressed rapidly in his career. In 1799, he sold his commission when the regiment was to move to Manchester, and used his father’s inheritance of over £30,000 to establish his life as the Beau (dandy) of London society. Soon he became not only the arbiter of men’s fashion, but also a central voice in determining who was allowed access to the more select upper circles in society, channelled through the social gatherings at the Almack House.
Beau Brummell, as he was by then known, played a decisive role in preparing the way to men’s modern fashion. He opposed the prevailing Georgian dress code with its excessive fineries and striking colours which varied in proportion to the social standing of the wearer. A man’s social position had henceforth to be invested in the quality of the material and a garment’s perfect fit – not discernible at first sight – while the exterior should remain unobtrusive: few colours, simple composition, and a very clean white shirt with a white, elaborately folded tie that became his hallmark, the forerunner of the modern tie. He abandoned the traditional kneebreeches and opted for ‘pantalons’, the simple pair of trousers that men (and women of today) are still wearing.
Much of his fortune was spent on sustaining the refined lifesyle of an aesthete in dress and habits. His daily toilet would take several hours and involved – contrary to the prevalent praxis – brushing his teeth, a thorough bath, shaving, and a careful coiffure. He generally dressed in a dark blue coat, tightly buttoned at the waist and with tails cut above the knee, buff-coloured trousers, a waistcoat, a white shirt and a very white tie, starched and tied in special ways. More about the tie here. He is said never to have used perfume, as his cleanliness did away with the need. Food and drink were always of excellent taste and enjoyed with moderacy.
Unfortunately, Brummell aligned with the gambling habits of his circles and began accumulating debts. By 1812, he had also lost the Prince’s favour, and when creditors began collecting his debts, he had to flee to France (1816). He died in a lunatic asylum in Caen, France, on this day 176 years ago, poor and in a state of insanity owing to syphilis.
His spirit has, however, lived on. Not only had he altered the prevalent male fashion of the day in Engand and France, he also set and example of an aesthetic lifestyle that would be followed by others (e. g. Oscar Wilde and Marcel Duchamp). His life has inspired a number of films and books on dandyism, he has appeared as a character or caricature in literature, and his name – epitome of taste and elegance – has been used in ads, to promote products, or even to name plants.
Source: IMD, Public Domain Wiki Commons