BEAU BRUMMELL – The Definitive Guide to the Supreme Dandy
George Byron (Beau) Brummell was a celebrated gentleman of Regency England. The doors of London’s ton were opened to him not by virtue of wealth or background, but by his own wit and charm, which won him the friendship of the Prince Regent (Prinnie) among others.
He carved a name in tailoring and style history with his Dandy costume, redefining the way men dress. In eschewing the frothy lace and frilly trims of the time as un-masculine and replacing the breeches and stockings with a full length trouser he ushered in a costume closely resembling the modern gentleman’s suit.
According to Beau Brummell “To be truly elegant one should not be noticed.” Though this was not a dictum he followed personally for he was noticed wherever he went. But perhaps he meant to add “for all the wrong reasons”.
Born in 1778 in St James’s London where his grandfather was a shopkeeper and let rooms above to aristocracy.
Beau Brummell was a true son of St James’s which remains to this day the spiritual home of all Dandies and Dandizettes.
Beau’s father however was the private secretary to Lord North and had high aims for his son to become a gentleman, aims which he made perfectly clear to his son when sending him off to school at Eton.
Beau had pretty high aims for himself and began his revolution of fashion while still a boy at Eton by redefining the white cravat of the uniform and adding a gold buckle to it. It was while at Eton that he was first presented to the Prince Regent who was immediately impressed by Beau’s razor sharp wit and charm.
He was a popular boy – known as Buck Brummell – and gained a reputation as a fine boxer and fine batsman at cricket.
He went up to Oxford aged sixteen where he was briefly an undergraduate at Oriel College. He had a dream of becoming a literary great and indeed quickly gained a reputation as a great wit. However in his first year he set his sights of winning the Newdigate Prize for English Verse. Unfortunately he did not secure the prize – unlike another Dandy Oscar ,Wilde who won the coveted prize some time afterwards.
Brummell took his failure to win the Newdigate Prize very badly indeed. In fact he left Oxford in a sulk after less than a year, pledging to turn his back on all intellectual pursuits from thereon in. He promised in fact to never open another book.
His main achievement while up at Oxford was to consign dingy neckties of the period to the past. It is not an exaggeration to say that Beau Brummell single-handedly ushering in the fashion for a high crisp white starched cravat worn high on the neck. Lest one may think this a paltry achievement it is worth noting the amount of press and books published at the time and subsequently about the Beau Brummell cravat.
After leaving Oxford in a sulk, he returned to London where the Prince Regent gave him a commission in his regiment,
The Tenth Royal Hussars in 1894. Coronet was the lowest rank for a commissioning officer. Officers in any military regiment in the 18th Century were required to provide their own horses, uniforms and pay for their mess bills. The 10th Royal Hussars were especially famous for their elaborate and expensive uniform which was compromised of an almost unending array of costumes.
Most of his fellow officers would have had vast fortunes and expected to inherit any number of grand titles and lands. As a middle class lad of moderate means, Beau might have been expected to do badly in this particular regiment but notwithstanding his meagre means, such was the charm of Beau’s personality he in fact took the regiment by storm. His popularity saw most – including the Prince Regent - drawn into his orbit of wit and charm.
After a year, Beau was made a lieutenant and within three years of joining he was promoted to Captain. His rapid rise through the ranks did not go down with everyone. Many of his fellow officers and those in charge envied him his popularity and in particular his friendship with the Prince Regent. They were disgusted by his apparent licence to do exactly as he pleased. He frequently didn’t bother to attend parade and generally skived off his duties. When the regiment moved from London to Manchester in 1895, Beau simply abandoned the regiment altogether citing the lack of culture and civility of the city and moved back to London.
Brummell’s father died in this same year leaving him a fortune of over £30,000. It was a small beans compared to the wealth of the grand circles he was mixing in but nonetheless it was enough to set up a home in a house on Chesterfield Street in Mayfair. With his continued close friendship with the Prince Regent his entrance into society was assured. He quickly became the famous arbiter of style and a regular at social gatherings of the ton. For a time his name was revered.
His morning toilette became a spectacle, taking upwards of two hours. He often allowed his friends to sit in the adjoining room to chat to him while he tied his cravat which is why we have so many written accounts of his art of cravatery.
First he attached the large collar to his shirt – it was so enormous that it entirely hid his face and head. Next the neckcloth was wound around the outside of the collar and finally the collar was folded down revealing his head and face. Standing before the looking glass, his chin pointing upwards to the ceiling he gradually creased the cravat into the desired shape ,all the while dabbing at it with a piece of linen to keep the creases perfectly even. Brummell utterly loathed excess and the later fashion for ridiculously high collars attempted by his legions of fans and fops hoping for the Brummell stamp of approval, only garnered his sardonic amusement.
It cannot be overstated the influence of Brummell on the cravat. Under his rule as the Supreme Dandy, the starched white linen cravat was the only sign of the truly fashionable man. To have any other coloured necktie was social death.
The Duke of Wellington was nicknamed The Dandy such was his own fastidiousness over his own necktie. He took his sartorial elegance so seriously he wore it even on the field of battle. The Duke must have cut quite the elegant figure on the bloody battle field in his battle grey greatcoat with a cape and bright white cravat perfectly tied and asserted with a stately pin.
Before the Duke of Wellington it was usual for military men to use a black stock. Beau’s influence even reached Napoleon who attempted to imitate the Duke’s style and exchanged his own black stock for a white cravat on the day of Waterloo.
White starched linen cravats simply took over and no other colour would do for any man who wanted to be considered a gentlemen.
Brummell’s fortune was eventually drained by his extravagance . When asked how much it would cost to keep a single man in clothes, he was said to have replied: “Why, with tolerable economy, I think it might be done with £800.” The average wage for a craftsman at that time was £1 a week. By any estimate it was an astonishingly fabulous amount – certainly way out of his own reach.
For a number of years his power went unchallenged but his famed wit and razor sharp tongue eventually was his undoing. He offended his royal patron. They quarrelled though it is unclear what about but the end result was eventually his creditors moved in.
When Beau Brummell fled England for France one of the most significant changes in fashion was that suddenly other coloured cravats became acceptable.
He eventually died in 1840 of syphilis in a lunatic asylum in France leaving a trail of debts. But while he died in 1840 owing his tailor a great deal of money, the Tailors Guild – no doubt feeling they owed him a debt of gratitude – funded a rather wonderful statue of him in 2002. A bronze Beau now stands proudly and appropriately on Jermyn Street at the end of the Piccadilly Arcade. When you pass it is customary to stroke his cravat for sartorial good fortune. St James’s London remains the spiritual home of Dandies & Dandizettes and Beau Brummell.
For John Walsh’s take on the Dandy we recommend the Independent article. Or alternatively you get yourself to London’s Private Members Club, Home House, where you can chivvy out Robin Dutt, London’s reigning dandy.