Britain has a long, honourable tradition of dandies, men who both take great pride in and pay much attention to their appearance. The first, and arguably best of these colourful characters was George Bryan Brummell, better known by his nickname Beau.
No less an ego than Byron said of him, “There are three great men of our age: myself, Napoleon and Brummell. But of we three, the greatest of all is Brummell”.
No longer was sophistication to be signified by wrapping oneself in furs and silks; he was the first person to advocate that masculine elegance is best expressed by neutrally coloured clothes cut with the precision for which Savile Row would become famous. Not for Beau Brummell the fripperies of perfume or jewellery, both of which he abjured, but rather the search for an elegance of line and cultivation of cleanliness, the latter being more of an achievement in the squalour of Regency London. He would stress the masculine physique by avoiding the billowy, decorated tunics of the past to wear a more contemporary dress shirt, tailored for his body and accessorised by a cravat, which he spent time on developing increasingly intricate and elaborate knots for.
Stewart Granger as Beau Brummell
Brummell rejected the use of breeches and stockings, and instead introduced full-length formal trousers with matching or contrasting jackets, ideally a darker jacket worn over a lighter shirt.
Essentially, Brummell introduced what we now know as the suit to men’s fashion. Exceptionally well-fitting, because hand-tailored bespoke suits, to be precise.
This was a new aesthetic, stressing that less Is more, which would affect the future of men’s fashion to this day – when was the last time you saw a man wearing a periwig, which was the style Brummell was railing against? And rail Brummell did, sitting in the window of his London club sneering at the fops on parade outside, dressed in the fashions of the French.
It should be remembered that at this point, Britain was fighting the French in the Napoleonic Wars, so polishing his shoes with champagne was maybe more of a diss to the French than a sign of decadence.
James Purefoy as Beau Brummell
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Brummell’s life is that he achieved such fame and influence by becoming the first British person to be famous simply for being famous – a proto celebrity as it were – while not being an aristocrat.
Which is not to imply that he came from the lower orders – the son of a politician, he enjoyed the privilege of an Eton education.
He used his style, good looks and intelligence to break through the ranks of the aristocracy, and even befriend and influence the Prince Regent, the future King George VI.
However, while he sought to rival, and even outdo the aristocracy in their wardrobes, they had one thing he didn’t – loads of money.
Having run up substantial tailor’s bills, he fled to France, living in exile until he was caught and forced to work in debtor’s prison. He would die there of syphilis, another reckoning of accounts for his previous lifestyle, at the age of 61.
He is still remembered to this day, and commemorated by a statue in Jermyn Street, one of the tailoring centres of London.