Simplicity, cut, elegance: hallmarks of men’s fashion today you might say, but how often have we considered the origins of these style principles? Of course, within men’s fashion there is still a great deal of variation, with many choosing to express themselves idiosyncratically, but one need look no further than many high street shops to see the enduring emphasis on pared back, unobtrusive colour schemes.
In the late eighteenth century, a young man by the name of Beau Brummell was gaining popularity for his distinct style. Brummell would have been schooled in gentlemanly manners while cultivating his relationship with own his clothing and appearance from an early age. Commonly referred to as “Buck Brummell” during his time at Eton, Brummell was well-respected. Later Brummell would go on to become known for his good taste and wit in his time at Oxford. Still, it is worthy of note that during his studies at Eton and at Oxford, Brummell did not academically excel.
Brummell’s grandfather and father, having improved their social standing, set the scene for Brummell who would increase the family’s notability further. The family were first familiarised with the aristocracy through Brummell’s grandfather who worked as a shopkeeper, catering to the upper-class desires. In becoming secretary to Lord North, Brummell’s father also advanced his own societal standing. Brummell himself joined a military regiment, performing a role given to him by the Prince of Wales. Brummell became lieutenant and later, captain, despite not having performed exceptionally well. Significantly, Brummell’s style and charisma resonated with the Prince of Wales. Brummel was catapulted into his position as a key influencer, in part, owing to his backing by the prince. Due to this support, Brummell was incorporated into an exclusive sub-sect of British society: the “bon ton“. To add to Brummell’s good fortune, Brummell gained an inheritance of thirty-thousand pounds in 1799 (although the exact amount varies according to different accounts).
London’s style was heavily responsive to European fashion. In the seventeenth century, British aristocrats took inspiration from both Italy and France’s dress: consisting of precious fabrics and tall, stylised wigs. However, Brummell’s influence on London’s sense of what was “elegant” male dressing in the late nineteenth century ran counter to what was commonly worn in court. In contrast, Brummell’s aesthetic drew inspiration from equestrian clothing. The dark coat was a signature for the dandy, and clothing had to be made to fit perfectly. The modern Savile Row coat required for white tie functions bears resemblance to this coat. Nonetheless, as Brummell’s trousers where in a different colour material, he cannot rightly be considered the founder of the contemporary suit. Brummell reached the height of his stylistic influence after resigning from the Prince’s regiment. Rather than ostentatious, Brummell’s appearance was simplistic and tasteful. His dress emphasised quality tailoring and well-kept linen, and Brummell was characterised by the behaviours required to maintain his image, reliant on quality fabrics, hygiene and impeccable design. Harriette Wilson and Captain Jesse’s are two of several writers who recorded Brummell’s peculiar position on taste in their writings:
“No perfumes, he used to say, but very fine linen, plenty of it, and country washing.”
The style referred to as “The Great Male Renunciation” was epitomised by his clothing. Thus, while fashion had previously emulated more closely the extravagant style of the French aristocrats, Brummell promulgated something different. Furthermore, having observed the way in which others fitted clothes in St James, Brummell was quick to comment on and critique their work.
At his peak, Brummell’s impact on fashion was far-reaching, having frequently attended high-society parties. However, the Prince grew to dislike Brummell’s tone, and following a heated argument with Prince Regent, Brummell’s standing deteriorated, and his ability to affect public tastes diminished. Through a mix of profligacy and gambling, Brummell lost most of his wealth. Still, his condition continued to worsen. Having incurred a significant amount of debt, Brummell escaped to Calais. While his companions tried to support him, Brummell continued to incur further debt. Preoccupied with his past stature, Brummell’s appearance depreciated, and he became grubby and unkempt as he gave less and less consideration to his image. Brummell would later die in Bon Sauveur where he spent some time following his paralyses in 1837.
Despite Brummell’s sorry demise, his major contribution to dandy fashion and to men’s dress in general is undeniable. Brummell’s mark on late nineteenth century clothing was indelible, and his distinct appearance has been echoed in contemporary male style to this day.