Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Dandy
The name Beau Brummell is familiar but few people really know anything about who he was, or his effect on history. In this biography Ian Kelly sets out to address this shortcoming, and in doing so presents us with a most entertaining and informative read. To date, there been few books touching on the subject of this man who single-handedly conjured up the maelstrom that would swirl all “male-dom” into the fixed business and evening dress, and set of habits and attitudes that we know as the modern man of manners. Although not without its faults, this is why this book is such an important addition to the bookshelves.
The book starts off well with a promising overview of the origins and the evolution of the meaning for the word “dandy” but soon gets mired in the dry history of both the London of the time and Brummell’s parents. Although necessary to provide a context for the story there is little social imagery to draw the reader in. Fortunately once the setting has been established this lack of flow gets brilliantly rectified in the chapters that follow as Beau Brummell is introduced.
The man who would eventually be nicknamed “Beau” for his overall excellence and beauty of style and person is born in 1779 as George Bryan Brummell to middle class (but well-to-do) parents, and the stage is set.
At Eton College, a boys only boarding school, we find Brummell’s world awash with homoeroticism, actual homosexuality and autoeroticism. No doubt the reason for this examination is owed in part to influence by a revisionist movement that sees homosexuality in every crevice of the past. In any case, while at Eton, Brummell meets the Prince of Wales and they develop a pleasant acquaintance. The set is now populated with one of Brummell’s most important supporting characters.
On leaving Eton at sixteen, Brummell purchases a commission in the Prince of Wales’ cavalry regiment. It is here that Brummell forms a strong friendship with the Prince of Wales. The Prince becomes so impressed with Brummell’s talents for social grace and personal style that we find the teenage Brummell attending the Prince’s official state wedding as a stand in for the Prince’s brother. Suddenly the book explodes into color with charming anecdotes between Brummell and the Prince.
The book describes the Beau’s first romance and subsequent loss of love although without as much clarity as could be wished. This is tied together with the closely timed deaths of both of his parents. The author intertwines this triple trauma, which, he believes, specifically contributes to Brummell’s developing a distant stance. Unfortunately, he does not explore this theory any deeper. The net effect is superficially tantalizing enough that it leaves one wanting more, ultimately there is just not enough analysis or synthesis about what behaviours or defense mechanisms these traumas all drove him too, or why.
Under the patronage of the Prince of Wales Brummell seemed to enjoy army life and much of this joy derived from wearing uniforms. There is here a tie-in between leading the rakish, ribald and fashionable life of the Hussar and a newly developing sense of gentlemanly comportment for this period in England. Fortunately for Brummell, according to the author, he was right in the epicenter of what was to become the hussar lifestyle, which included the understated but detail oriented hussar clothes, and the Prince. Thus all the elements Brummell could capitalize on to become both famous and the arbiter elegantiarum of his day were in place. Here there is a little analysis of what factors formed the Beau but still not enough to truly unmask the man and his reasons.
Although dandyism was already taking hold even without Brummell, he had a gift for theatrically performing its details better than everyone else. It would be interesting to know whether it was sincere behavior on his part, or artifice. But I suppose one could say that that is the ultimate question about the man1. In matters of personal hygiene, the Beau was both fastidious and fanatical, scrubbing himself with soap and water within an inch of OCD. The author highlights Brummell’s ability to be taken seriously by society. Brummell was able to grant himself dignity through light-hearted quips and self-effacement. And because he never took himself, or anything, seriously Brummell was like vapor, you could never quite determine what he was made of, but he was nevertheless a very substantial persona. Additionally, Brummell was lucky enough to be built in a manner that was then considered fashionable for a man’s body. All of these factors, theatricality, never knowing if he was serious or in jest, personal hygiene, and physique helped make him the rock star of his age.
While examining Brummell’s relationship to society the author does not provide a matching introspective look at the psychology of Brummell the man. Though it is understood that this is not a psychology book, an analysis reconstructing Brummell’s psyche might shed some light on why he became so extreme at what he liked. The author touches on a tangential analysis of what shaped the Beau’s behavior when he gives an interesting insight about Brummell’s possible severe razor rash from constantly shaving too close. This leads the reader to believe he was not as comfortable as some may have believed and that a certain degree of obsession might have driven the Beau towards fastidiousness2.
Brummell’s leisurely shopping forays in the West End are explored with aplomb as the author discusses the reasons for and the ultimate rise of English tailoring. This is the time for the emergences of the several streets we enjoy today as important spots for purveying English clothes, Jermyn Street, Savile Row, Bond Street etc. It examines the relationship between the Beau and his tailors. How, on the one hand, the tailors needed Brummell to wear their clothes and so offered him credit on generous terms and how, on the other hand, the Beau while he also needed the tailors felt he had to make it clear for everyone to understand that it was he who directed the tailors and not the reverse. The author essentially discusses the birth of the bespoke tradition in the West End, the details of what constituted Brummell’s kit, and the variations he might wear. Numerous details of how coats and pants (and pantaloons and breeches) were made are set down.
And how did this attention to clothes and attitude translate into becoming a celebrity? According to the author, London high society operated like a series of concentric circles. High Society was and is, by its very nature, exclusive. What made that period special is that “Exclusion was one of the key raisons d’être of the gentlemen’s clubs, but also of the etiquette of greeting and dressing. The signal peculiarity of Brummell’s career was that he came from outside the immediate spheres that had formed society but came to dictate the language of exclusion from an apparently unassailable position at the centre3.” He was history’s first celebrity in the modern sense, the first “It” boy.
Within this High Society language was developed and re-developed for the sole purpose of expressing the subtleties of exclusiveness4. One visiting Frenchman in London remarked that the language of exclusivity changed so much that within six months a foreigner would need to learn a completely new English language again.
Contemporaries considered Brummell to rank on the same level as Napoleon as one of the great men of his age. Brummell seemed both to be aware, and find amusing, that he in his frivolity would figure as highly as the “heaviest” most serious man of the time. In many ways as the Lord of the Ton, Brummell was a Napoleon of sorts, waging wars of exclusion with armies of dandies.
In this warfare Brummell’s ability to cut people, that is see them but pretend not to see them, was apparently one of his greatest talents. He did it with such aplomb that it became forever tied to his style and helped make him a legend. His ability to cut people tangibly combined with his well timed quips served to morph dandyism into much more than love of clothing5. Dandyism encompassed both a person and a set of behaviors that included beautiful speech, wit, entertainment, and of course attentions to those details in dress that separate the genteel from the poseur6.
The book devotes an entire chapter to several of his longtime lovers, all female and most of them much older. It is tedious but as a history perhaps it all has to be chronicled. This chapter speaks to Brummell the social climber who could intrigue more readily with women than with men and not have the secret ingredients of his talent either appropriated or exposed. Additionally, the Beau is established as a heterosexual man (with no hostility towards homosexuality) who loved clothes, grooming and the city high-life; perhaps the world’s first metrosexual?
There is excellent coverage on the dandy clubs with which the author creates a tactile zeitgeist for the reader. White’s club gave one instant cachet as no other club could convey. Brummell made White’s, an old fogy’s club at the time, a fashionable endroit again. And the Beau and his dandy set would sit in the club’s bow window which overlooked the street below and people watch while commenting on their dress; a sort of modern day holding up of the score cards. It is terrific the way the author uses the term “fashionista” to describe their people watching behavior, it sort of ties the past to the present.
Club life provided the male bonding of the era where the dandies would follow the lead of their style god and try to one up each other on the subtleties of their quips. These subtle quips were often at the expense of someone else’s appearance or style. The author provides us with a priceless interchange between an officer of the Coldstream Guards and the Beau and his gang of Dandies we can see an example of both the influence of the Beau on other dandies and the subtleties sought after. The Beau and the dandies put down the officer’s new coat (following the Beau’s cue of course and trying to out-clever each other) with a series of subtle quips. When the officer, after enduring quite a bit, finally asks in frustration if there is anything wrong with his coat, Brummell exclaims “Coat?!” and the dandies likewise gasp in a chorus “Coat!?” and of course the punch line is that the poor officer is already overreaching from the start in assuming his jacket could ever be considered a “coat.”
Brummell influenced all men of London society in his day, including the Prince Regent or Prince of Wales. They begat a men’s club together that would showcase all the extremes of dandy excess, notably fine cuisine and gambling. The author notes that it may have been, ironically, the chronic tempo of gambling at this new club (Watier’s) that turned Brummell into a compulsive gambler, a habit that eventually contributed to his demise.
Much of Brummell’s nightlife revolved around the theatre. It was de rigeur to see and be seen at these theatres before one attended a ball or dinner. To be part of the haut ton was an end unto itself. The author claims Brummell was an expert at this sort of being seen at the right time in the right place, forever flirting with the ladies in a way that made them feel special. He speculates, probably quite accurately, that Byron’s Don Juan is based primarily on George Brummell7.
The book illustrates clearly that Monsieur Brummell had quite the opinion of himself. When it became clear to his set that his hitherto strong relationship with the Prince of Wales (always a key ingredient in his maintenance of his spot at the top) had weakened he was recorded to have said “I made him, and I can unmake him.” This proved to be incorrect; ultimately the Prince was royalty and Brummell a commoner, not a difficult choice for High Society to make and although he stayed popular right up until his untimely bout with syphilitic madness, he was progressively shunned.
Brummell’s star had shone very brightly for a fair length of time but nothing lasts forever and having lost the patronage of the now Prince Regent he finally felt the need to flee England to avoid his massive debts8. Also, it appears that the Beau’s peccadilloes led to the contraction of syphilis. The syphilis would worsen creating both physical and mental setbacks for him, and eventually making the once pristine beau, less than appealing. The author makes a fascinating statement, which he might have explored further, connecting men of fashion and style consciousness with promiscuity and even sexual deviance.
In any event, hounded by his creditors9 Brummell fled to Calais in France, and stayed there for some years, recalling some of his faded glory10. He ultimately started to mount his debts once again and of course his illness worsened. Eventually, he was appointed to a foreign office post in Caen11 but his inevitable collapse could not be stemmed.
The remainder of the book is a detailed chronicling of Brummell’s descent into madness from his syphilis. And it is pitiable to read about this man’s deterioration into everything he stood steadfastly against. Finally, the Ultimate Dandy dies in squalor and loneliness and pain, an ironic end for a man who was perhaps one of the greatest living ironies of any age. His demise would later be used as an example by the Victorians as proof that vanity was punishable by the gods.
The book’s Epilogue is excellent and contains some compelling analysis. There are many fascinating conclusions and only a few can be mentioned here. For example, it discusses the Beau’s lasting effects on men’s style and dress. That we today all wear a descendant of the Beau’s wardrobe in both look and attention to detail when we want to project our seriousness and refinement to the world.
Also discussed is the “dandy pose”, which includes an assumption of superiority, backed up by discerning tastes, a dry superior wit, a keen eye for observation and a seeming detachment towards all things. According to the author, this “dandy pose” was copied into a contemporary book based on Brummell called Pelham12 in which the hero (a dandy) serves the template for most future gentlemen heroes in the English literature. Even the Victorians, who tended to claim they eschewed dandyism as frivolous were rife with examples of this dandy-hero in many different forms. In fact, we see a dark hero Sherlock Holmes portrayed as a matter-of-fact dandy who fastidiously observes details as a means to an end. Perhaps it is not a stretch to believe James Bond and the Beau would have recognized and enjoyed each other’s company.
The author points out to us that the great erotic poet Baudelaire found enough merit in the dandy to redefine him as a character who bridges the gap between a tottering monarchy and a not yet stable democracy. Therfore, the dandy enjoys the comforts of the old regime, but also behaves like the modern, lighthearted man about town. Thus, while the dandy supports the establishment, he provokes and reshapes it also.
The idea of the dandy and dandyism is thus superficial and complex, ephemeral and lasting. A dandy is at once living art to be observed and artist able to remold society from the top down. So many men of letters and influence in the Anglo Franco-American world have copied the dandy pose set by Brummell that it is not a leap to consider that he may have had more influence than Napoleon in creating a new reality for how the western mind thinks. Thus, in spite of his apparent superficiality, it would be inadvisable to underestimate the massive but often intangible influence Brummell had on history. It is no wonder that given the choice to be either Brummell or Napoleon, Byron chose to be Brummell
1 It would be fascinating if some of Brummell’s writings could be forensically analyzed both for content and for handwriting to see what the psychological makeup of the man was like.
2 Although, on the subject of forensic analysis, I wasn’t aware that Brummell was as big as the book’s author claims. Apparently, the Beau was over 6’ tall. I had always believed him to be rather small; edifications abound.
3 Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Dandy, Ian Kelly, 2005. P.212
4 Parallels with our own hip hop culture where idle persons from the other end of society constantly come up with in words to distinguish them from the out of touch worker.
5 The word dandy came into its own during this period to describe a set of smart, talented, beautiful, and impeccably well dressed men of leisure and bons temps. Ergo words like dandyism, dandified and a host of other forms to describe the Beau and his male friends, the “dandiacal” body.
6 And which details can only be picked up by others in the know, whether they be in the cut of a jacket or in the behavioral subtleties of noblesse oblige.
7 He is also the person Baroness Orczy based the Scarlet Pimpernel’s lead character (Sir Percy) upon.
8 Debts accumulated mostly from his gambling addiction, and not necessarily from the purchase of food, clothes and drink. Even then, it was primarily a “credit squeeze” because of his loss of influence in society after being distanced from the Prince of Wales.
9 Many still say any dandy worth his salt since should be hounded by his creditors and never pay their tailor.
10 Apparently, when the Prince regent became the crowned sovereign of England, he did not recall Brummell, nor when he visited France and passed through Calais did he even bother to see Brummell. “I have left Calais and have not seen Brummell” was King George IV’s famous statement on this subject.
11 Where his former arrogant tone began to aggressively re-manifest itself to the astonishment of the English ex-pats and French nationals in the town.
12 Pelham or Adventures of a Gentleman by Edward Bulwer Lytton (1828).