George Bryan “Beau” Brummel, described as the most famous and influential man in early 19th-century London , was the center of a revolution. He sparked change not with rhetoric or military might, but with innovations in masculine sartorial style and manner. Men copied what he wore, his mannerisms, and even his daily grooming routine.
Today he is remembered as the world’s first dandy, but although his name became synonymous with the label, he didn’t inspire its creation. The Oxford English Dictionary, defining the term as one “who studies above everything to dress elegantly and fashionably,” traces its origins to 1780, just two years after Brummell’s birth. Nevertheless, Brummell became a symbol of a new masculine style, one that still dictates the way people dress today. (See also: Marie Antoinette's style revolution.)
Making of a tastemaker
Born in London in 1778, Brummell grew up during a revolutionary age in Europe and North America. The French and American Revolutions (1789-1799; 1775-1783) marked the decline of the aristocracy and the rise of the individual. Men’s clothing began to convey these political and economic changes. The 18th-century male style, heavily influenced by French royalty, was elaborate and flamboyant: a rainbow of hues in billowy silk, satin, and velvet fabrics; lace cravats and cuffs; knee-length breeches with stockings; high, powdered white wigs; and makeup. (See also: Vintage photos of royal families from all over the world.)
The growth of a new British style, one that embraced simplicity, structure, and understatement with monochrome and military fabrics, abandoned such prerevolutionary fashions. Psychologist John Carl Flügel later dubbed this gradual process of simplification in men’s dress the “great masculine renunciation,” whereby men’s fashion became inspired by social equality. It turned its back on extravagance, and excessive grooming became regarded as a feminine trait. (See also: Gender-bending fashion rewrites the rules of who wears what.)
Brummell, a keen observer of society, recognized the social mobility that the modern era promised, one where style and personality rather than birth and wealth could herald status and strength. In 1790 he began his studies at Eton College—where he precociously reformed the distinctive Eton necktie—followed by one term at Oxford University.
In 1794 Brummell moved to London and joined the elite Tenth Royal Hussars regiment, commanded by the Prince of Wales, later to become King George IV. The prince and his intimates admired and were captivated by Brummell’s aesthetic, quick wit, and charm. Buoyed by this patronage, Brummell became their role model, the arbiter of elegance in London society during the first decade of the 19th century.
Sharp dressed man
Brummell’s fashion mantra urged “the maximum of luxury in the service of minimal ostentation.” Or as people might say today, “less is more.” Elegance was about cut and quality rather than color and decoration. He warned that “If people turn to look at you in the street, you are not well dressed, but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable.”
A well-fitting coat in dark blue wool with full-length buff trousers and linen shirt, a stark white linen cravat, and dark riding boots accomplished this new look of understated, elegant simplicity. The tailors of London’s Savile Row transformed their shops into a sartorial mecca to meet Brummell’s exacting standards, and even gave him samples so that he could serve as a walking advertisement for their wares.
Brummell also advocated innovations in personal hygiene. Just as clothes should look polished and clean-cut, so too should one’s person. He replaced a reliance on perfume and hair powder with the concept of a daily bath. For his contemporaries, bathing often meant washing only face, hands, and arms in cool water; sweating was believed to rid the body of toxins. Brummell’s suggestion of a daily soak in hot water was nothing short of revolutionary.
His grooming practices, some eccentric, became well-known. He shined his boots with champagne. His bathing and dressing ritual, which was sometimes attended by the Prince of Wales, occupied several hours of every morning. He used a silver spittoon instead of spitting on the floor, as was the custom. He spent hours trying out different ways of knotting his cravat to make it seem effortless.
Talk of the town
This pursuit of nonchalance extended to Brummell’s carefully constructed persona. As the first truly modern celebrity, Brummell understood that his “look” included not just his style but his manner. His physical appearance, from the clothes he wore to the pose he proffered, was an image he carefully crafted. Brummell’s wit matched his wardrobe—smart and sharp—but his superior bearing, his air of languorous indifference, was a masquerade, a character he played. One prop in his persona—a quizzing glass, a single magnifying lens held in one hand— enhanced his ability to haughtily judge those within his glare. His high-tied cravat, which forced a slight tilt of his head and downward cast of his eyes, achieved the same suggestion of superiority.
His name and image spurred the creation of exaggerated, fictionalized accounts of his behavior. One story claimed that Brummell, lounging on an ottoman at the prince’s manor, ordered the prince to ring the servant’s bell for more champagne. When the servant arrived, the affronted prince allegedly asked him to prepare, not more champagne, but “Mr. Brummell’s carriage.” This incident did not occur, but Brummell’s attempts to deny the story failed. His impudent and stylish persona sometimes made falsehoods difficult to identify.
Exile and ignominy
By his late 30s, the same piercing humor and cool impertinence that had marked his ascent up the social ladder also marked his descent into disgrace. Brummell did, in fact, publicly insult the prince regent, asking the prince’s companion, “Who is your fat friend?”
Whether this was, in fact, the offense that brought an end to their relationship in 1812 is still lost in historical rumor. The loss of his royal patron did not immediately affect Brummell’s lofty societal position, but his extravagant lifestyle and gambling habits had exhausted the small fortune he had inherited from his father. To escape his creditors, in 1816 Brummell fled to Calais, in northern France.
He was appointed British consul in 1830 in nearby Caen, but the position lasted only two years. Lacking diplomatic immunity, he was jailed for his mounting debts. Charitable friends from England secured his release, but Brummell spent his final days in a state of severe depression and self-delusion. The man who had thought beer the most vulgar of drink confused it with champagne. He donned an evening coat, lit candles, and displayed flowers to host parties for nobles who were but ghosts—long-dead royalty whose departure from his imaginary soiree was signaled only by a brief respite from madness.
In 1840, at the age of 61, Brummell died in an asylum in Caen, and was buried in a coffin paid for by charity, an ignominious end for a man once celebrated for his style.
Brummell's legacy, however, is assured. Finding his elevation to style icon inexplicable, Brummell once asked a confidant: “If the world is so silly as to admire my absurdities . . . what does that signify?” Even so, his “absurdities” permanently transformed men’s fashion and lifestyle. His creation of the sculptured suit, collar and tie—even a grooming routine—still informs the way many men dress. Indeed, with his nonchalant display of wit, poise, and indifference that aimed to astonish rather than to please, Brummell created not only the modern concept of individuality but celebrity.
His bronze statue stands in a fitting location: London’s historic and fashionable Jermyn Street, home to the city’s finest men’s tailors. It bears Brummell’s mantra: “To be truly elegant one should not be noticed,” a perhaps ironic encapsulation of the man who was not only noticed but copied, the catalyst and poster boy of a fashion revolution.