George Bryan “Beau” Brummell was an English dandy of the late Georgian – Regency era, who helped revolutionize men’s fashion.
It is in large part thanks to Beau Brummell that men today wear suits and ties instead of powdered wigs and satin breeches.
The arbiter of taste and leader of high society in the late 18th-early 19th century did not come from an aristocratic background. George Bryan Brummell was born June 7, 1778 in London. His grandfather was a shopkeeper; his father was Lord North’s private secretary and later the high sheriff of Berskshire.
Young George attended Eton where he was known as “Buck” Brummell. At age 16, after a brief stint at Oriel College, he left to join the Prince of Wales’ regiment, the 10th Royal Hussars. Brummell apparently impressed the Prince with his wit and charm, and was rapidly promoted.
When his father died in 1795, Brummell inherited a fortune of about 20,000 pounds (well over a million dollars in today’s money). In 1796 he resigned his commission when his regiment was sent to Manchester, proclaiming that the city lacked culture; the more likely reason is that the Prince was in London and Brummell wanted to stick close to his powerful patron.
Brummell rejected the fussy fashion of an earlier generation – the powdered wigs, velvet knee breeches, elaborately embroidered silk coats. Instead, he advocated simple but exquisitely tailored coats in sober colors, form-fitting pantaloons, highly-polished Hessian boots, immaculate shirts, and exquisitely-tied cravats.
Even the Prince of Wales took Brummell’s advice and changed his look.
Brummell also advocated another revolutionary practice – daily bathing. Even among the upper classes, a brief wash of the hands and a splash on the face was considered sufficient, because the common wisdom of the time held that sweating was healthy, while immersion of the entire body into water – hot water! — was deleterious. Brummell’s insistence on daily baths was a radical notion.
Brummell’s expensive lifestyle, and heavy gambling, soon diminished the fortune he’d inherited. While he was one of the Prince’s close cronies, Brummell could obtain credit based on his connections.
When the Prince became Regent in 1811, however, he distanced himself from his former Whig friends, including Brummell. At a ball he greeted Lord Alvanley but pointedly snubbed Brummell, who then retaliated by remarking “Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?”
Despite this public insult to the Regent, Brummell remained a Society darling. But losing Royal favour made it increasingly more difficult for him to pay his mounting debts. After a string of heavy losses at the gambling table, in 1814 he fled to Calais to escape his creditors. He eked out a precarious existence abroad, and died, penniless and alone, in 1840.
Beau Brummell is the subject of several biographies, as well as the eponymous protagonist in a mystery series by Rosemary Stevens.
Brummell has been portrayed on both big screen and small –by Stewart Granger in a 1954 MGM movie….
There are several clips of James Purefoy as Brummell in this entertaining video, which shows the evolution of male attire from medieval knights in shining armor, to the Tudors, to the Georgian, Regency, and the Edwardian eras. (Well, really it shows hot guys in fabulous clothes 😀 Let’s hear it for period dramas!)