George “Beau” Brummell (7 June 1778 – 30 March 1840) was a Regency dandy and fashion leader, famous for his elegant dress, his witty remarks and his friendship with George, Prince of Wales, the future George IV. But there is one man who stands alone as the forefather of men’s style. The father of dandyism. The man who introduced the suit and tie. That man is none other than George Bryan Brummell, better known as Beau Brummell.
The rise and fall of Beau Brummell
“Beau” was the king of the dandies. A dandy, historically, is a man who places particular importance upon physical appearance, refined language, and leisurely hobbies, pursued with the appearance of nonchalance in a cult of self.
A gentleman of meager means, Brummell broke down the wall that separated average men like him and the aristocrats of England. Although he didn’t have the finances, it didn’t stop him from behaving as though he was as wealthy as those he surrounded himself with. Brummell didn’t just break the rules. He recreated them.
Brummell was home in the bed of very famous wives of his friends or the male friends themselves. When asked if he was also a molly (term for gay ) as well as a dandy he repled certainly not I am greedy. I do not discriminate I am open like a public house.
For the first time, a common man was able to infiltrate the kingdom’s hallowed walls. He developed a close relationship with the Prince Regent, the future King George IV. Unwilling to conform to the guidelines of civilized behavior in the Regency, Brummell instead inspired the future King and those who followed him, through his eccentric behavior and style.
He not only admonished the use of embellished garments and sparkling jewels as part of a gentleman’s attire. He went against the style. Since Brummell didn’t have significant wealth, he couldn’t afford the same apparel worn by the Prince or his other acquaintances. Many believe this is what inspired Brummell to look at better fitting clothing instead of the ornate garments worn by friends.
Brummell introduced the suit. Exceptionally well-fitting and hand-tailored bespoke suits, to be precise. He rejected the use of breeches and stockings and instead introduced full-length formal trousers with both matching and contrasting jackets.
He avoided the billowy and decorated tunics of the past and wore a more contemporary dress shirt, tailored for his body and accessorized by a cravat which he spent his free time developing intricate and elaborate knots for.
This was the birth of men’s style as we know it today. A focus on tailored menswear that flattered the body and showcased a man’s physique, rather than overshadowing it.
Like any man who spends more than he can afford, Brummell rapidly went into debt. After his debt grew considerably, and to avoid prison, Brummell left England for France where he lived in exile until he was caught and forced into debtors prison. Then, in 1840, Brummell passed away without a penny to his name at Le Bon Sauveur Asylum where he was being held for insanity caused by syphilis. He was just 61 years old.
In his short life, Brummell managed not only to influence current fashion, but he earmarked a place in the history books and is today, still known as one of the world’s most stylish men. One might say that it is thanks to him that we no longer favor the use of ornate costumes and instead have far more elegant and simple attire.
So, what, if anything can we take away from Beau Brummell’s fashion sense?
Well, we have arguably adopted quite a bit. But perhaps there are a few things we can still learn from Brummell. Here are five:
1. Consider the cravat.
Most men today wear standard long neckties or bow ties. Few wear cravats. However, the cravat is an ideal way of taking an otherwise formal outfit and adding a touch of sprezzatura to it. Your favorite suit can easily become a more casual, yet sophisticated, garment by substituting a cravat for the tie.
2. Try a new knot.
The four-in-hand, windsor, oriental, et al. These are all knots that everyone knows. While I don’t necessarily advocate the use of an Eldredge, there are still knots worth trying like the double four-in-hand which will separate you from the pack.
3. Ensure your clothes fit.
The number one rule when buying off the rack is to remember that your next stop should be the tailors. The fact is that no article of clothing will fit you perfectly off the rack. Therefore, it’s vital that you visit a reputable alterations tailor to at least have them give it the once-over. Make sure your clothes fit. Before you wear them.
4. Consider investment pieces.
Rather than look for sales, search for investment pieces. If you spend $200 on a cheap suit from the department store, chances are you’ll spend three times that amount replacing and repairing it. It likely won’t fit well and will show its lack of quality rather quickly.
Instead, consider vintage pieces you can find on websites like eBay and in vintage stores. Often you can find a jacket or suit that will last your lifetime for a fraction of the price you’ll spend on a lower quality item. It’s not unusual to find jackets on eBay’s UK site from Ralph Lauren Purple Label, Brioni, Chester Barrie, Hardy Amies, Gieves & Hawkes, and other well-known menswear lines for the same price you might spend on a suit at Men’s Wearhouse.
5. Take care of your wardrobe.
It’s a well-known fact that Beau Brummell spent five hours a day getting ready and polished his shoes with champagne. The key to a great wardrobe is maintaining it. Provided you’re investing in quality menswear and caring for it; you’ll likely never have to worry about replacing items as they wear out. You don’t have to spend five hours a day doing it, but a few minutes before you get dressed and at the end of the day can mean the difference between adding to your wardrobe and replacing it.
From Downing Street to Eton
George Bryan Brummell, famously nicknamed “Beau”, was born on 7 June 1778, the younger son of Billy Brummell and Mary Richardson. He was born in Downing Street, where his father worked as private secretary to Lord North. In 1783, Billy Brummell retired from politics and bought an estate, Donnington Grove in Berkshire. In 1786, Brummell was sent to Eton with his elder brother, William. They were Oppidans or fee-paying boys and boarded with Dame Young. Brummell mingled with the aristocracy, becoming known for his gentlemanly manners and ready wit, which kept him out of trouble. He developed an interest in dress and his elegant bearing earned him the nickname Buck Brummell.
A grand inheritance
Beau Brummell, byname of George Bryan Brummell (born June 7, 1778, London—died March 30, 1840, Caen, Fr.), famous for his friendship with George, Prince of Wales (regent from 1811 and afterward King George IV). Brummell was deemed the leader of fashion at the beginning of the 19th century.
Brummell’s grandfather was a shopkeeper in the parish of St. James, London, who let lodgings to the aristocracy; his father was private secretary to Lord North from 1770 to 1782 and subsequently high sheriff of Berkshire.
From his early years Brummell paid great attention to his dress. At Eton, where he was sent to school in 1790 and was extremely popular, he was known as “Buck Brummell,” and at Oxford, where he spent a brief period as an undergraduate at Oriel College, he preserved this reputation for fashion and added to it that of a wit. He returned to London, where the Prince of Wales, to whom he had been presented at Eton, gave him a commission in his own regiment (1794). Brummell soon became intimate with his patron, and, in 1798, having then reached the rank of captain, he left the service.
n 1799 he succeeded to a fortune of about £30,000 (a bequest from his father, who had died in 1794). Setting up a bachelor establishment in Mayfair, he became, as a result of the Prince of Wales’s friendship and his own good taste in dress, the recognized arbiter of fashion and a frequenter of all society’s gatherings. For a time his influence was unchallenged, but eventually gambling and extravagance exhausted his fortune, while his tongue proved too sharp for his royal patron. They quarreled in 1812, and, although Brummell did not immediately lose his place in society, his debts increased so much that on May 16, 1816, he fled to Calais to avoid his creditors. There he struggled on for 14 years, always hopelessly in debt. From 1830 to 1832 he was British consul at Caen. In 1835 he was imprisoned for debt, but his friends once more came to the rescue and provided him with a small income. He soon lost all his interest in dress; his personal appearance was slovenly and dirty, and he began to live fantasies in the past. In 1837, after two attacks of paralysis, shelter was found for him in the charitable asylum of Bon Sauveur, Caen, where he spent his final years.
Brummell went up to Oriel College, Oxford, in May 1794, but after just one term, he asked his father’s executors for a commission in the army. He became a cornet in the 10th Light Dragoons – the Prince of Wales’ own regiment. The dragoons wore elaborate uniforms and liked to be known as Hussars. They were disorderly, hard drinking and known for their lack of morality, and included many of the Prince of Wales’ set, of which Brummell soon became an important member. Brummell obtained promotion to lieutenant in 1795 and then captain in 1796, and with each promotion came a new, and grander, uniform. But life in the army had its costs. A fall, or possibly a kick, from his horse broke his nose, damaging his classic profile.
Brummell and the Prince
It seems incredible that a non-aristocratic boy of sixteen should be accepted into the Prince’s own regiment and then into his circle of intimate friends. How Brummell first came to the Prince’s notice is not known, but it seems likely that it was his wit and dress sense that attracted the Prince, probably while Brummell was still at Eton. Brummell supported the Prince at his wedding to Princess Caroline in 1795; he was also one of the drunken companions whom she accused of ruining her honeymoon. When the regiment were ordered to Manchester in 1798, Brummell sold out, anxious not to lose his position of influence with the Prince. The following year, he came into his inheritance. He was now a man of means and meant to make his mark.
Beau Brummell the dandy
Brummell moved into 4 Chesterfield Street in 1799 and determined to become the best dressed gentleman in London. His levées became events of great importance as gentlemen, including the Prince of Wales, came to see how he dressed. It was around 1800, after Brummell’s first season in London, that he acquired the nickname Beau. His style was understated elegance, with a limited palette of colours, rather than the gaudy finery of the Georgian gentleman. He was famous for the intricate folds of his neck cloth and the Bath coating material of his blue jacket. He patronized a variety of tailors so that no one could say that they made him famous.
Brummell rules the ton
For many years, it was Brummell’s opinion that mattered. It was he who influenced who should be given vouchers for Almack’s. He could bring someone into fashion by showing them favour or put someone out of fashion by cutting them. He was a member of Whites, Brooks and Watiers. A bow window in his club at White’s became known as the Beau window because that was where Brummell liked to sit. He was the perpetual president of Watiers which was established to provide better suppers to the gentlemen who ate in their clubs.
Brummell’s lady friends
Though he flirted prolifically, Brummell’s affections were rarely engaged. Brummel’s first love was reputedly Julia Storer, later Julia Johnstone, who became a famous courtesan. He was particular friends with Lady Hester Stanhope, the eccentric bluestocking; Lady Elizabeth Howard, Duchess of Rutland, until his rudeness alienated her; and the Duchess of Devonshire who wrote poems for his collection. But his closest lady friend was Frederica, Duchess of York. He loved her unstructured house parties at Oatlands and shared her love of animals. He gave her a dog, Fidélité; she sent him gifts in exile, including a comfy chair. One of the few items in Brummell’s possession at his death was a miniature of Princess Frederica’s left eye. This suggests a level of intimacy that can only be guessed at. Brummell claimed it was out of respect for promises to the Princess that he refused to publish his memoirs even when he was desperate for money.
Brummell was famous for his wit, but infamous for his rudeness. It was this rudeness which eventually cost him the Prince of Wales’ regard. “Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?”(2) he asked, referring to the Prince. Brummell ran up debts through his extravagance, but also through his heavy gambling losses. He was continually borrowing money, but matters came to a head when a man named Richard Meyler discovered that Brummell was going to renege on his debt to him. He sat in White’s and told all who came of Brummell’s infamous conduct. He was, effectively, asking him out. Meyler became known as Dick the Dandy-killer.
Escape to Calais
On 18 May 1816, Brummell fled. He travelled through the night to Dover and on to Calais, which was as far as he could go without a passport. He stayed at Dessin’s Hotel and entertained in his apartments whilst learning French and writing his memoirs. Brummell had escaped his debts, but he could not escape the reality that he was ill. He probably acquired the habit of visiting prostitutes whilst in the army, and at some point, late in his time in London, he was infected with syphilis. Before he died in 1830, George IV made Brummell the British consul in Caen. The salary enabled him to start paying off the debts he had already accumulated in Calais. He celebrated his freedom in Paris before taking up his post.
Consul in Caen
In Caen, he lodged with Madame de St Ursain and fell in love with her teenage daughter, Aimable. By now, he was suffering from terrible headaches and depression from the progression of his illness. But his position as consul did not last and when the post was abolished in 1832, his debts became pressing and he had to hide to escape the bailiffs. That summer, Brummell suffered a temporary paralysis. His letters to Aimable were discovered and her furious mother evicted him from his lodgings. When she was sent to England, Brummell gave her his album – poems that he had collected from his friends.
Decline and death
On 4 May 1835, Brummell was arrested for the money he owed to Leleux, the owner of Dessin’s Hotel in Calais. George Armstrong, a Caen grocer, agreed to travel to England to seek pecuniary help on Brummell’s behalf. Brummell was awarded compensation for the loss of the consulship and was duly released from prison on 21 July 1835. Brummell struggled on as the syphilis took its course. He was increasingly in pain, delusional, depressed and subject to seizures and eventually insanity. In January 1839, he was transferred to an asylum where he died on 30 March 1840. His death went virtually unnoticed in England where he had ruled as king of the ton for so long.Read more about Beau Brummell – 30 quotes and anecdotes.Notes(1) For a closer look at how relative worth is calculated, please see my blog, “How much did a ticket to a Regency ball really cost?”(2) From Jesse’s The Life of George Brummell Volume I p273.Sources used include:Bell, John, La Belle Assemblée (John Bell, 1806, 1810, London)Bourke, Hon. Algernon, The History of White’s (1892)Carter, Philip, Brummell, George Bryan (Beau Brummell) (1778-1840), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn Jan 2011, accessed 5 Oct 2012)Huish, Robert, Memoirs of George IV (1830)Jesse, William, The Life of George Brummell, esq., Commonly called Beau Brummell (Saunders & Otley, 1844, London)Kelly, Ian, Beau Brummell, The Ultimate Dandy (Hodder & Stoughton, 2005)Watkins, John, A Biographical Memoir of Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1827, London)MeasuringWorth website – for calculators of relative worth
|George, Prince of Wales
from Memoirs of George IV
by Robert Huish (1830)
|The bow window at White’s
from The History of White’s
by Hon Algernon Bourke (1892)
|Frederica, Duchess of York
from A Biographical Memoir of Frederick,
Duke of York and Albany
by John Watkins (1827)
|Brummell as an old man
from The History of White’s
by Hon Algernon Bourke (1892)