17 July 2012

Fashionable People of the Regency: Beau Brummell

 By Jennifer Deschanel

I don’t know what the runways would think of him today, but during the Regency George Byron “Beau” Brummell was the man to watch for fashion. While not of aristocratic birth, Brummell moved in circles envied by the socially minded Regency.

In his youth, his literary talent and wit brought him second place for the Newdegate prize, but the blow hit Brummell hard. As a result he developed an aversion to books and the literary minded, and chose instead not to exert himself in any manner. However, he did have the foresight to join the Tenth Hussars, a move which would launch him into the Prince Regent’s favor.

The Prince, impressed by Brummell’s influence over men while he served in the military, and his sharp wit, kept him in his favor even after his service ended.  Brummell quickly entered the Regent’s royal society where his elegant, understated, and simple manner of dress, an oddity to begin with, became a sensation. 

Brummell promoted the trouser over knee breeches and looked down on the bright colors, dusted wigs, and powdery make-up on men.  His colors were muted to blacks, dark grays, and shades in brown—much like we see in men’s fashion today. His morning toilette exerted such an influence on the ton that many began to follow suit. Brummell put a fastidious amount of attention into cleaning his teeth; he shaved often and bathed daily. The Prince Regent, enthralled by this, would spend hours in Brummell’s dressing room watching him complete his morning routine.

Brummell had a lot of admirers emulating his fashion sense, but not a lot of common sense financially.   His debts were high, but due to his association with the Prince, was still able to float a line of credit.  That changed when his arrogance got in his way.  Brummell often moved in circles not approved by the Prince. During a masquerade at Waiter’s  private club where he was a host with Lord Alvanley, Henry Mildmay and Pierrepoint, the Prince, who did not favor Brummell’s choice of company, openly cut Brummell. The Prince addressed Alvanley and Pierrepoint but cut Brummell and Mildmay which prompted Brummell’s famous comment of “Alvanley, who is your fat friend?”

Obviously this ended Brummell’s association with The Prince.

 However Brummell  was so popular with the aristocracy that his fashion sense and company was still sought. He had no need to control his popularity, but did have a need to control his debt—which he failed miserably at.  The credit he was once able to float ended when the Prince cut him, and Brummell, unable to pay off gambling debts immediately as debts of honor, fled to France to escape debtor’s prison. There, due to the influence of Lord Alvanley, he secured an appointment to the consulate at Caen and therefore a small annuity. Nothing like how he lived when he was the fashion mogul of the Regency.

Brummell died in 1840, penniless and insane from syphilis.

A great film, Beau Brummell: This Charming Man stars Hugh Bonneville (Downtown Abbey) as The Prince Regent. I recommend it for anyone curious about the life of Brummel and how he influenced the fashion of the Regency era.

Jennifer Deschanel's passion lies in crafting stories from forgotten pieces of history and setting them in locations outside the expected. She writes unusual heroines with unique challenges in the Regency and Victorian eras. Her other books, expanding Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera are written under Jennifer Linforth and are available now.