This Charming Man
‘If people turn to look at you in the street, you are not well dressed,
but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable.’
Beau Brummell (George Bryan Brummell 1778-1840)
2020 is a year where fashion was sidelined. As the pandemic seized control of the globe, fashion was the last thing on most folk’s minds. But high couture fashion is now biting back.
I’ve just viewed a newly released clip of Dior’s Spring-Summer 2021 collection presentation. Unsmiling models stalk down a darkened show set clutching oversized handbags. Most outfits are surprisingly modest and some gowns are accessorized with head scarves.
Gone are the tiers of fashionistas in their black sunglasses and the blaze of photographers flashes. Barely visible are a few shadowed people in white surgical masks. The subdued light comes from what appears to be stained glass windows in a church. But the jewel-like images, are actually an installation by visual artist Lucia Marucci.
Dior has created a pious church going ambience. Instead of thumping music, there’s just the plaintive wail of Ronchetti’s choral work performed live. Everything about the clip proclaims that fashion is no longer interested in surfaces or trite matters. Jollification and laughter have left the building.
But as we all know, fashion hasn’t always been this austere.
Over 200 years ago, Beau Brummel galvanized Regency London with his original take on British dandyism. Beau Brummell’s neo-classical tailoring and sartorial style can still be seen today – not just on London’s Savile Row – but in masculine formal dress and women’s tailoring.
Brummell came to dominate Georgian society around the time of poet Lord Byron. The Regency period was strict about the precise divisions between classes. But even though he hadn’t been born an aristocrat, Brummell knew how to behave like one. Although his family was ‘middle class‘ he attended Eton and later Oxford University. However, despite excelling in Latin verse Brummell left university after a year. He was a sophisticated, self-possessed sixteen year old dandy.
About a year later in 1794, Brummell entered the Tenth Royal Hussars, the Prince Regent’s personal regiment, as a junior commissioned officer. They were known to be immoral, hard drinkers and keen on elaborate, expensive dress uniforms. Accordingly, Brummell distinguished himself by behaving exactly as he pleased, shirked his duties and avoided parades. Within three years he was made a captain.
As Chateaubriand wrote, ‘Nothing succeeds in London like insolence.’ Brummell wore a mask of superiority and it opened many doors in a society that was class-bound. He was an outsider with a theatrical presence and comedic style. Many writers appropriated his insolent style to create their fictional heroes.
Beau Brummell was a big believer in cleanliness and usually spent two hours bathing. No powdered wigs or cosmetic enhancement was involved. Elegance and simplicity was his signature style. Beau polished his boots with champagne. As one does.
So unusual was his dedication to hygiene and teeth cleaning, that his friends would gather at his house just to watch his morning toilette. Many of his contemporaries only ever perfumed themselves to disguise their bodily stench. Frequently ‘bathing’ only involved face, hands and arms. Sweat was considered to be cleansing.
Having thoroughly cleansed himself, Brummell would begin painstakingly getting dressed. Aided and abetted by his valet, Beau’s linen had to be correctly ironed and starched. Knotting his cravat was a complicated and serious business. Brummell’s valet was observed, exiting his master’s dressing room with a tray of cravats that had been dismissed as ‘our failures‘.
Seduced by his wicked wit, good looks, poise and style, Brummell was soon taken up by British aristocracy and royalty. And provided with access to their privileges.
Brummell affected a cool indifference. His cutting wit and audacity created problems – especially with his friend, the Prince Regent, who later became King George IV.
When the chubby Regent deliberately snubbed him at a high society event, Brummell humiliated him by turning to his close companions and asking loudly, ‘Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?’ Everybody laughed uproariously, but it sealed Brummell’s fate. He lost royal patronage.
Brummell’s lifestyle was fascinating in its extremities. Some historians believe Brummell’s unwise choices were directly attributable to the syphilis he acquired and tried to hide. Beau also suffered depression most of his life, ‘my inveterate morning companions, the blue devils’.
It’s possible his depression was exacerbated by Syphilis and the chemicals used for its treatment. Often the mercury, arsenic and iodine pills hid the disease’s symptoms but did not effect a cure.
His inheritance was not as great as his wealthy friends but he continued to spend and gamble excessively. In 1816 he had to flee to France to avoid debtor’s prison. In 1840 Beau Brummell died penniless and insane from syphilis. He was buried at Cimetière Protestant in Caen.
One of his biographers, Ian Kelly wrote, ‘Brummell’s was a fractured personality, rebuilt in masquerade in the mirror of other people’s expectations of him… He was an utter original.’
Image: Beau Brummell caricature by Robert Dighton (1805).