Beau Brummell was an iconic man during the Regency period and the legend of his fashion sense still lives on today. Brummell established the style for men to rid themselves of their overly ornate fashions. Brummell insisted upon an image of more refined and elegant taste. He believed a dark, perfectly tailored coat, with full-length trousers, a crisp white linen shirt, and intricately tied cravat was the message of elegance men should portray. He didn’t care for the knee breeches and stockings that were so popular at the time. Although, knee breeches were mandatory if one were to frequent Almack’s, one of the social clubs during the period.
Brummell is credited with introducing the modern men’s suit, worn with a tie. He was not only known for his style of dress, but also for his daily grooming, which included shaving, teeth brushing, and daily bathing, which was not ordinary at the time. He claimed it took him five hours to dress, which to my calculation, for a man, that is four and a half hours too long. He preferred his boots to be polished with champagne, whereas I would have preferred to drink it.
Brummell’s preference of dress had people regarding him as the epitome of a fashion conscious dandy. A dandy is a man who placed great importance upon his appearance, refined language, and pursuits. Dandies often portrayed themselves with cool nonchalance. A dandy with a self-made, middle-class background often tried to imitate the aristocracy. Brummell himself was not from an aristocratic background. He was the early form of what we would call a celebrity. He was in essence, famous for being famous, although his friendship with the Prince Regent helped in that regard.
Brummell was educated at Eton and then went onto Oxford University. While attending Eton, he modernized the cravat, which was the mark of the Eton boy, and he added a gold buckle to it. In 1794, Brummell became a low rank commissioned officer in the Tenth Royal Hussars, a personal regiment of the Prince Regent. Brummell was promoted to lieutenant in 1795. The prince was drawn to Brummell’s witty personality, which was biting, and often times, too honest. He was known as an excellent storyteller and conversationalist.
Due to his friendship with the regent, Brummell in turn, was allowed to shirk his duties in his regiment and basically do as he pleased. He was made captain in 1796, which angered some of the older officers who felt Brummell was receiving special treatment. When his regiment was sent to Manchester, he resigned his commission, claiming the city of Manchester lacked atmosphere and culture.
As a civilian, he still remained friends with the regent and this friendship gained him access into the regent’s royal society.
Brummell took a house in Chesterfield and tried to avoid gambling and other extravagances, since he now was rubbing elbows with the wealthy elite. Nevertheless, he refused to spend less on his clothing. Men of superior rank continued to seek his advice on their dress. It is said that when Brummell was asked how much money a man should spend yearly on his attire, his response was, “Why, with tolerable economy, I think it might be done with eight hundred pounds.” Today, this amount is roughly equivalent to $63,780.00 a year in U.S. dollars.
Unfortunately, Brummell’s wealthy friends would lead him to spend far too much money on gambling and the high-life, causing his capital to rapidly deplete. He found himself having difficulty keeping up with his own expensive form of dress. As his debts mounted, no one was willing to give him credit. Brummell was cut from some of the dandies when he went to a ball where the Prince Regent was present. After being rudely snubbed by many in attendance, he approached Lord Alvanley who was standing with the regent, and asked, “Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?” As you can imagine, the Prince Regent was not amused, this public incident was the final blow and Brummell no longer found favor with the future king. Although even without the prince as a patron, he was still courted by large segments of society interested in fashion.
In 1816 Brummell suffered bankruptcy and fled to France to escape debtors prison. He spent the rest of his life in France where he continued to struggle with his debt, although he did have friends in England that sent him money and tried to help. He ended up doing time in a debtor’s prison in France, until his friends rescued him. By this point in his life, he was no longer interested in clothes. He was said to always be dirty and unkempt, when he’d once had been so meticulous about his personal hygiene. Due to insanity caused by syphilis, he was placed in a French insane asylum in 1837. He died a pauper in 1840.
No, this story did not end on a happy note, but it sounds like Brummell was not only fashion savvy, he was also a man who was well liked, favored by a king, enjoyed the fun times in his life, and he had made himself some very loyal friends. In essence, he lived, and his legacy still lives on in many historical romances and fashion history classes.