This last week, I’ve been comfort-reading, which means Georgette Heyer. And the influence of Beau Brummell crops up an awful lot.
He is there, even in novels like Arabella that are set after his flight to France. Brummell might be gone from the scene, literally, but he’s still around, in spirit.
Until that moment [Arabella] had thought Mr Epworth quite the best-dressed man present; indeed, she had been quite dazzled by the exquisite nature of his raiment, and the profusion of rings, pins, fobs, chains, and seals which he wore; but no sooner had she clapped eyes on Mr Beaumaris’s tall, manly figure than she realized that Mr Epworth’s wadded shoulders, wasp-waist, and startling waistcoat were perfectly ridiculous. Nothing could have been in greater contrast to the extravagance of his attire than Mr Beaumaris’s black coat and pantaloons, his plain white waistcoat, the single fob that hung to one side of it, the single pearl set chastely in the intricate folds of his necktie. Nothing he wore was designed to attract attention, but he made every other man in the room look either a trifle overdressed or a trifle shabby. (Arabella, Chapter 6)
“Nothing he wore was designed to attract attention…” That could have been a description of Brummell himself. After all, Brummell was the one who said: “To be truly elegant, one should not be noticed.”
But Mr Beaumaris was noticed, at least by Arabella…
Why? He attracts her attention, not because he is dressed to draw the eye, but because he is not. And because everyone else is dressed to attract attention. That in itself is interesting.
Heyer is telling us that, even in 1816, Brummell’s austere style of dressing had not yet captured the majority of the Upper Ten Thousand. Clearly, most of the gentlemen at Lady Bridlington’s ball were wearing much more showy fashions—the sort of “exquisite raiment” displayed by Mr Epworth, for example.
Have a look at the YouTube video below, an extract from the BBC Four film from 2006. It’s largely set at a dinner party in Brummell’s house. Although it obviously relates to a much earlier period of Brummell’s career (probably the mid-1790s), the variation in dress is notable. Brummell himself is in the austere evening garb we associate with him. His male cronies are much more colourful and peacocky, dressed in satins and silks. Some are also wearing wigs. The man whose dress most resembles the Beau’s is the tailor, hopeful of getting his bill paid. If you watch to the end of this delicious clip, you will discover how he fares…
Brummell on the page
Heyer puts Brummell on the page in Regency Buck though not, I don’t think, in any other of her books.
[Judith] turned away to enjoy to the fill her first sight of Mr George Bryan Brummell.
She could scarcely forbear to laugh, for surely there could be no greater figure of fun. He stood poised for a moment in the doorway, a veritable puppet, tricked out in such fine clothes that he cast the two gentlemen who were entering behind him in the shade. It could not be better. From his green satin coat to his ridiculously high-heeled shoes he was just what she had expected him to be. His conceit, evidently, was unbounded. He surveyed the room through his quizzing-glass, held at least a foot from his eye, and went mincing up to Princess Esterhazy, and made her a flourishing bow.
Judith could not take her eyes from him… So this was the King of Fashion!
She was recalled to a sense of her surroundings by a quiet voice at her elbow. “I beg pardon, ma’am: I think you have dropped your fan?”
…She took it with a word of thanks, and one of her clear, appraising looks. She liked what she saw. The gentleman was of medium height, with light brown hair brushed à la Brutus, and a countenance which, without being precisely handsome, was generally pleasing. There was a good deal of humour about his mouth, and his eyes, which were grey and remarkably intelligent, were set under a pair of most expressive brows. He was very well-dressed, but so unobtrusively that Judith would have been hard put to it to describe what he was wearing. (Regency Buck, Chapter 5)
Brummell is unobtrusively dressed. And, again, there are gentlemen at the event who are dressed in a way that makes Judith laugh. So Heyer is telling us that the Brummell style is not adopted by everyone, even though Judith’s chaperon makes clear that Brummell’s approbation, or not, may make or break her.
“But if I cannot succeed without being obliged to court his approval I had rather fail.”
“Miss Taverner,” he replied, the smile dancing in his eyes again, “I prophesy that you will become the rage.” (ibid.)
Which, of course, she does. Thanks to the unobtrusive Mr Brummell.
Brummell in spirit
If Heyer is right, gentlemen in the Regency period adopted a variety of styles of dress, some aping Brummell’s restraint, some wearing much showier and more colourful clothes. And no one is quite sure which is which, it seems. When Sir Waldo Hawkridge is expected in Yorkshire, it is assumed he will be a dandy, since he is known as the Nonesuch. But it is not so:
Very pleasant-spoken, Sir Waldo, but not at all the regular dash Tom Ostler had been led to expect; he wasn’t rigged out half as fine as Mr Ash, for instance, or even Mr Underhill. … (The Nonesuch, Chapter 3)
“It’s of no use to ask me what sort of coat he was wearing, or how he ties his neckcloth, because I didn’t take any note of such frippery nonsense—which I should have done if he’d been sporting a waistcoat like that Jack-a-dandy one Ash was wearing the last time I saw him! Seemed to me he looked just as he ought. Nothing out of the ordinary!” He paused, considering the matter. “Got a certain sort of something about him,” he pronounced. (Ibid.)
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” but “got a certain sort of something”. Sounds like the Brummell style, don’t you think?
So what’s wrong with the Brummell style?
The style was very muted. Lots of black, dark blue, white and buff. Monochrome, essentially. It was fine when others were wearing bright colours. But once almost all the males in society began to don the Brummell style, things became pretty drab. Look at this print of men’s fashions from the 1820s, for example—black, grey, dark blue… Boring?
And so it went on. In the Victorian era, it got even more predictable. Black, black and more black. Colour, fabric, fashion were frivolous things, for females. Men were serious beings. Look at these black coats from the 1850s (and, yes, the models do all look like Prince Albert).
Pre- and Post Brummell male fashions
So before Brummell, we had silk and satin, colour, heeled shoes, wigs and fancy accessories. After Brummell, or at least once his style became the accepted mode and the Victorians had doubled down on it, we had nothing but drab for male attire. Think of the red carpet for the Oscars. How often do the male stars wear anything but a slight variation on the standard black tie/tuxedo?
I can see, and accept, that his style was a change, and possibly an improvement, over what went before. It stood out because it was different.
“If people turn to look at you on the street, you are not well dressed, but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable.” ~ Beau Brummell
But once everyone had adopted it, the Brummell style was a downward trend. Nowadays, men in formal dress are more like a large flock of magpies. All black and white. Very difficult to distinguish one individual among so many uniformly outfitted corvids.
Let’s bring back men in frivolous and colourful fashions. Though possibly not as colourful and frivolous as the Prince of Wales in this second fabulous clip from the BBC’s 2006 film:
When I went looking for videos of the BBC’s Brummell film to include in this blog, I discovered that I’m not the first to have a go at Brummell for making men’s fashion dull and boring. In the video below, the presenter describes it as “stagnating” men’s fashion.
An interesting piece and worth dipping into, though you have to ignore the presenter’s wince-inducing French pronunciation and the fact that she gets Brummell’s name wrong—George Byran Brummell instead of George Bryan.
I wonder if she thought the name was something to do with Byron? 😉