Icon of the Month: George ‘Beau’ Brummel, 1778-1840
Beau Brummel’s infamy has very little to do with clothes. His story is of a young man born into a middle class family who was able to elevate his social status to become one of the most powerful men in England – purely off the back of his charm, his talent, his wit and, for want of a better word, his cool. Contrary to our modern interpretation of the word ‘Dandy’ (gaudy, effeminate, outrageous), the man born George Brummel was certainly far closer to Clooney than Culture Club…
He was born in 1778, at a time when only the aristocracy could afford fashionable clothing. Although his father was fairly well off, his grandfather was a poor shopkeeper, who subsidised his income by subletting rooms to passing aristocrats. Young George was captivated by the way the gentleman guests behaved, and dressed, and his path was set.
Soon after joining the personal guard of the Prince of Wales, Brummel’s father died, leaving him £30,000 – a small fortune at the time. He had already attracted the attention of the Prince through his personality and humour, and now, aged just 21, he had the money and the contacts… and he flew through the ranks, only leaving the Army when his regiment was posted to Manchester – a city he felt lacked style and culture.
From his Mayfair house, Brummel quickly distinguished himself in London circles as an arbiter of style – an oracle of matters not just in dress but also in etiquette. This was an incredible achievement for a ‘layman’, which he pulled off with aplomb for many years, positioning himself as the Prince Regent’s best friend and right hand man.
Amongst the frills and foppishness of early 19th century aristocracy, his style was, contrary to modern opinion, relatively subdued. The secret to his sartorial success was not the brash colours and lavish cloths of the court, but his attention to detail. His clothes were simple, elegant and understated.
That is not to say he scrimped on his spending. When asked about his annual wardrobe bill, he famously quipped “Why, with tolerable economy, I think it might be done with £800” (over £100,000 in today’s money). Unfortunately for Brummel, affordable tailoring didn’t exist at the time, and his excessive spending eventually lead to debt, bankruptcy and flight to France – where he died in a mental institution.
The moral to this story? While it’s possible to dress well and influence the world, it’s important to buy from a tailor who offers value for money as well as style and quality. Otherwise your excessive spending may lead to destitution, insanity and (worst of all) exile to France!