Just as all of humanity can trace its origins to a single common ancestor, the DNA of classic menswear, dandyism, and the contemporary iGent goes back to one person: George Bryan “Beau” Brummell (1778-1840). In this profile, we examine the life of a man whose impact on style can still be strongly felt more than 175 years after his death.
Beau Brummell: The Original Gentleman of Style
Although Beau Brummell lived centuries ago, aspects of his life will bring to mind today’s #menswear personalities. His story represents the culmination of generations of gradual social elevation: his grandfather was a shopkeeper whose clients included aristocrats, his father gained higher status and wealth as private parliamentary secretary to Lord North, and Brummell himself would obtain the friendship of the future King George IV. And, much like today’s Instagram influencers, he achieved his success entirely by promoting his individual style.
From childhood, Brummell was educated to be a gentleman of status. His father sent him and his brother William to Eton, where, by his early teens he had already demonstrated a precocious mastery of stylistic innovation, embellishing his cravat by adding a gold buckle to it.
This flair with dressing, accompanied by a penchant for witty remarks, were early signs of what we could call the Beau Brummell brand, one he would consciously cultivate for the rest of his life. As a student, Brummell was average, indifferent to his studies both at Eton and, later, at Oxford, where he remained for only a single term.
Upon the death of his father in 1794, the sixteen-year-old Brummell inherited a third of the estate (£20,000-£30,000, equal to several million today by one estimation), held in trust. At this point, he petitioned to join the Tenth Royal Hussars, the regiment of the Prince of Wales, likely in an effort to curry favor from the man who was next in line for the throne. This would be a springboard to further advancement since the new money Brummell held would not be enough to secure a place among the highest of society. However, it may have been enough to get into the regiment, a gambit that paid off for him, as he was indeed noticed by the Prince and highly favored by him on the basis of his charm. As in his academic career, Brummell didn’t do anything special while in the military, yet he managed to gain two promotions–to lieutenant and then to captain–and special privileges–he was allowed to shirk on his duties. Brummell had his entrée into the so-called “bon ton,” the elite 1% of British society, due to the patronage of the Prince.
Brummell as Style Influencer
However, when the Hussars were slated to be posted to Manchester, which Brummell considered a social and cultural backwater, he resigned his commission and established himself as an arbiter of style and wit in London. This was the height of Brummell’s fame and where he made his lasting mark on menswear. His greatest contribution was promoting a completely new style of dress for men, later called “The Great Male Renunciation.” Previous to Brummell’s innovations, men’s clothes were more flamboyant, heavily influenced by the French court and involved wearing wigs, white hair powder, perfume, elaborate silks, and knee breeches with stockings. Brummell replaced this with natural, unadorned hair, long trousers worn with boots, and coats without much ornamentation. Specifically, his uniform was a blue coat (known as Bath coating) with a buff waistcoat, off-white linen shirt with a white cravat, buckskin trousers, and dark riding boots. In the evening, he wore a blue coat as well, though with a white waistcoat, black pants that ended at the ankle, striped silk socks and black slippers. Furthermore, he replaced the reliance on perfumes and powders for personal hygiene with the concept of a daily bath.
The earlier fascination with Continental style had been fed by the great French aristocratic courts of Kings Louis XIV-XVI as the vanguard of fashion. However, the bloody wake-up call of the French Revolution in 1789, followed by a war between Britain and France in the 1790s, prompted the growth of a homegrown British style. Brummell’s genius, however, was not that he invented the elements of his dress from scratch but rather that brought together various inspirations and made of them a coherent whole.
The boots, buckskin trousers and use of wool evoked countrywear, which continues to play a huge role in British tailoring to this day. According to Brummell’s biographer, Ian Kelly, the tailcoat with brass buttons was something already worn at Eton, while blue and buff were the unofficial colors of those in the Whig political party. Directing attention to the cravat worn high on the neck was something being done in post-Revolutionary France, so that influence never went away, and the streamlined silhouette and muted colors of the new look as a whole were supposed to recreate, in clothed form, male nude statuary from Classical Greece. Thus, the hybrid #menswear looks we see today–British Prince of Wales patterned jackets made in unstructured Neapolitan cuts worn with American OCBD shirts and loafers–represent a continuation of Brummell’s legacy: taking the best aspects of different cultural approaches to style and making of them a global synthesis.
The mechanism by which his influence spread is much the same as what happens with today’s iGent who is seen wearing a tobacco linen suit or Casentino overcoats, making it the “must have” of the season. One man innovates and everyone else follows suit, which is what happened, with essentially positive long-term results in the case of Brummell and his circle. What he did in the early 19th century still informs the consensus of what good taste looks like in menswear. His clothes represented an understated elegance including a disdain for anything “over the top.” He also established a limited range of appropriate colors and the color theory for combining them effectively through contrast, something we still do when we pair blue and gray or brown and blue. In later generations, Brummell’s look would evolve into the suit and tie but, more directly, into the sport coat and pants combination, since he preferred not to match his coat with his trousers. The emphasis on neckwear as the ornamental center of attention in a tailored outfit remains with us via the necktie or bow tie. Brummell’s choice of contrasting black and white as he changed from day into evening wear remains the black-tie dress code today. Yet it is perhaps formal morning dress, particularly a morning coat and separate colored trousers with a light-colored vest, that most closely evokes the Regency attire Brummell actually wore.
Many of the behaviors of menswear connoisseurs are also the legacy of Beau Brummell. For one thing, he showed an incredible attention to detail as he dictated how he wanted his clothes to be made–something lovers of bespoke clothes are certainly familiar with–and would go to multiple tailors, each of whom was the best for a different article of clothing. Always displaying a strong cravat game, Brummell time-consuming approach to clothes also applied to his neckwear. It is said that he spent hours adjusting his cravat in front of a mirror to get it just right, arranged in such a way that it looked natural and not overly contrived. In this, he practiced one of the defining aspects of sprezzatura: dedicating a great deal of effort to make something you wear look nonchalant like no effort was required at all. Today, Brummell’s practice of sprezzatura is most often applied to how the contemporary gent should arrange his pocket square to look nonchalant in contrast to the elaborate and affected variations seen online. Indeed, long before the existence of internet tutorials, Brummell’s followers, including the Prince of Wales himself, would gather to watch him go through his dressing routine, undoubtedly voicing their “likes” and imitating his techniques.
Among his Regency-era fanboys, Brummell was known as much for his epigrammatic wit–the tweets of his day–as for his style, and his witty remarks were collected as “Brummellisms.” One, in particular, is often repeated as advice for the current day: “If John Bull [the average Joe] turns around to look at you, you are not well dressed but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable.” This has been taken as a warning against dressing like a Pitti peacock in a style that is mainly meant to be noticed by others, though Brummell’s own fame, ironically, depended on the fact that his mode of dress was noticed. A similar paradox should not be lost in our increasingly casual world either since any well-dressed man is likely to stand out nowadays.
Like many modern celebrities, Brummell’s lifestyle was ultimately his downfall. His personality was haughty and his witticisms often acerbic or rude, so they had a great potential to alienate people. As one example, his practice was to sit with his admirers in the bow window (thereafter nicknamed the “Beau window”) at White’s gentleman’s club in London and pass judgment on the style of men passing in the street, behavior that is familiar to anyone who frequents menswear forums or reads Instagram comments. However, Brummell’s tendency to say snarky things eventually alienated the Prince of Wales, whom he referred to as “fat” after the Prince failed to greet Brummell at a party reception line.
In actuality, Brummell was unaffected by loss of Prince’s friendship but was instead ruined by a gambling habit. He had always lived an extravagant life that required considerable expense. Membership in the Tenth Regiment was a costly affair, as soldiers had to pay for their own elaborate uniforms, horses, and frequent mess hall banquets. In order to remain well dressed, Brummell also claimed to require at least £800 per year (roughly £67,000), and, in addition to this, he amassed sizable gambling debts. He would lose £10,000 in a night, one source reporting he had debts of more than £600,000 (20 times his original inheritance). Facing numerous creditors, Brummell fled England for Calais in 1816. At this time, he was already suffering from the symptoms of syphilis that he may have contracted while living the high life in London. Eventually, he regained favor with the now King George IV and was granted the position of consul at Caen, which enabled him to begin paying off his debts. Unfortunately, the position, which paid a mere £800 per year. was eliminated after the king’s death, and Brummell found himself first in debtor’s prison and then in a sanitarium where he died, insane, from the symptoms of his sexually transmitted disease. The passing of the once most famous man in England went largely unnoticed.
Since his demise, Brummell’s legacy has been subject equally to admiration and ridicule. During the Victorian era, his life was sanitized and various apocryphal sayings and exaggerated practices were attributed to him, but his witticisms were also famously mocked by William Hazlitt for being truly witless and Brummell himself labeled “a splendidly useless human being.” Interestingly, his older brother William lived comfortably as an estate-owner and gentleman without pursuing celebrity though he is essentially forgotten today.
Brummell’s dramatic rise and fall certainly made his life ripe for cinematic treatment, and he has been the subject of several films including one starring Stewart Granger and Elizabeth Taylor in 1954 and a British TV version in 2006. The question of whether Brummell was brilliant or just knew how to get noticed is one that we can ask about social media icons today.
Whatever the case, the fact remains that Beau Brummell was ahead of his time and so many of the things we do as wearers of classic menswear owe a debt to him. What do you think of his style and legacy?