History : May-Jun 2019
6 MAY/JUNE 2019 PROFILES Beau Brummell, First Male Fashion Icon Once the toast of London’s early 19th-century social scene, Beau Brummell died in poverty. But his notions on men’s dress still inform modern styles. GEORGE, PRINCE OF WALES. CAMEO BY JAMES TASSIE, CIRCA 1790 Brummell urged “the maximum of luxury in the service of minimal ostentation.” G eorge Bryan “Beau” Brum- mell, described as the most famous and influential man in early 19th-century Lon- don, was the center of a rev- olution. He sparked change not with rhetoric or military might, but with in- novations 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 in- spire its creation. The Oxford English Dic- tionary, defining the term as one “who studies above everything to dress elegant- ly 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. The 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 aristoc- racy and the rise of the individual. Men’s clothing began to con- vey 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. 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 gradu- al 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 be- came regarded as a feminine trait. 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 dis- tinctive Eton necktie—followed by one term at Oxford University. In 1794 Brum- mell moved to London and joined the elite Tenth Royal Hussars regiment, com- manded by the Prince of Wales, later to become King George IV. The prince and Innovater, Influencer, Debtor 1840 After a mental breakdown, Brummell dies in an asylum in Caen. 1816 After descending into debt, Brummell flees to France to escape his creditors and prison. 1799 Brummell inherits money following the death of his father in 1794 and becomes a trendsetter in London. 1778 George Bryan Brummell is born in London to a middle- class family. His father is secretary to Lord North. BRIDGEMAN/ACI 1830 Brummell becomes British consul in Caen after years in exile spent running up more debts in Calais. 1835 Having helped abolish his consular post a few years previously, Brummell is jailed for debt.