“Bedford, do you call this thing a coat?” – Beau Brummell, godfather of the Dandy, his life and times

7 June 1778, George “Beau” Brummell, wit, first true English dandy, camp follower of Prinny and arbiter of men’s fashion, was born in London.

“If people turn to look at you on the street, you are not well dressed." (Beau Brummell)

Caricature of Beau Brummell

and large, it was all Winckelmann’s fault. And Classicist aesthetics, of course. Learning to prefer the strong, clear, golden ratioed lines of Greek and Roman sculpture, especially of the male body, over the Baroque exuberance of form, tailors in France began to create close-fitting cuts along the lines of a man’s basically V-shaped silhouette, with comparatively strong fabrics in muted colours as standards for male clothing, basics in place to this day for a man’s suit, at least in polite company. Back then, it was a counterpoint to the aristos’ courtly dress from London to St Petersburg and, interestingly enough, it was the style preferred by the French revolutionaries, with the hair combed à la Brutus, of course, more often than not. However, English gentlemen, not exactly known for their revolutionary ardour, despised French courtly manners as well and began to adapt to the new mode of dressing along with a new body consciousness since the second half of the 18th century. It was, however, not before Regency times that clothing, always a highly symbolic act throughout history, became a dedicated cult of Self. With Beau Brummell as high priest.

Risking one’s neck with carless talk – Brummell insulting Prinny

a military career in the 10th Royal Hussars proved to be too costly for his inheritance (65.000 Pounds, with the approximate purchasing power of 4 Million Euros in today’s money), Brummell decided to sell out of his regiment and teach Regency society how to dress and behave as a gentleman, that is with his hair á la Brutus (short and combed, not with a powdered wig), clean shaven and washed, dressed in the stovepipe trouser he made popular, with a dark coat and an elaborate cravat. Asked about how much a gentleman ought to spend on his wardrobe, Brummell answered: “Why, with tolerable economy, I think it might be done with £800“, roughly 50,000 Euros today. He ran through a fortune in a few years anyway, and tolerable economy be damned. When Brummell fell out with his most influential claqueur, though, "Prinny", Prince Regent George, his star began to sink quite soon and he died in ignominy and probably not very well dressed in France - but his poignant example, in appearance and in habit, for all people who have a habit to risk their necks with their loose tongues and value a bonmot over the security of life and limb, still stands. Cut openly by the Prince of Wales, Brummell asked their mutual companion in full public view: "Alvanley, who's your fat friend?"

“One should either be a work of Art, or wear a work of Art." Dandy caricature, probably by Cruikshank (1819)

A couple of years before Brummel died in exile in Caen like a poor Jacobite on a Hogarth engraving, Thomas Carlyle wrote: “A Dandy is a clothes-wearing Man, a Man whose trade, office and existence consists in the wearing of Clothes. Every faculty of his soul, spirit, purse, and person is heroically consecrated to this one object, the wearing of Clothes wisely and well: so that the others dress to live, he lives to dress.“ which is basically true, at least for Dandies of the early Brummell cut, but omits to mention a way of life that sharply contrasts with common society norms both of the lower and upper classes in its aristocratic disdain. Byron, who was a dedicated follower of fashion when it suited him, brought matters to a head by expressing his disdain for society as well as a revolutionary stance and created his own dandyesque style of clothing that was enthusiastically copied by his ardent followers across Europe and the Americas and an intermediate form between Brummell and the dandies evolving after Baudelaire codified the Cult of Self about the time the Beau died: “The dandy must aspire to be sublime without interruption; he must live and sleep before a mirror", creating the aestheticism, stately disdain and well-dressed bohemien of the fin de siecle, summarised by Oscar Wilde: “One should either be a work of Art, or wear a work of Art." And Beau Brummell certainly did exactly that.

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