Let’s pause a moment to remember Beau Brummell, who died on this day in 1840.
Like so many of my favorite historical figures from the age, Brummell died alone and penniless. In his case, you can also add “syphilitic” to the mix, which almost certainly means “horrifically scarred and insane.”
It’s not how I like to remember the man who single-handedly transformed men’s fashion, steering it in a direction that holds fast to this day.
Beau was hugely influential. In an age when men were still, by and large, wearing wigs, powder, extravagantly ruffled collars and cuffs, and vivid color combinations that would make our eyes water today, he insisted on simple lines, sober colors, and impeccable tailoring.
After his death, he acquired an undeserved reputation for being a fop, excessive in his dress and mannerisms — a figure of fun. In fact, contemporary accounts peg him rather firmly as being, on the whole, elegant, understated, and witty.
He was fastidious about personal grooming, and was considered something of an eccentric for his insistence on daily bathing, shaving, and teeth cleaning. He was commonly quoted as claiming that it took him five hours to dress each day.
But he was equally famous for his belief that, once you left the house, you should consider yourself properly groomed and dressed, and to display any awareness of or concern for how one looked was extremely poor form.
Get as ready as you can to face the world, then trust that you have done all you can, open your door, and face it without flinching.
So yeah, he was something of a social adventurer, enjoying for a time the most elevated circles of Regency society as a close friend and confidante of the Prince Regent and his close associates. And he gambled, and ran up ridiculous amounts of debt.
But eventually, his penchant for living outside of his means outstripped his levels of popular support, and he had to flee the country to avoid debtor’s prison.
By this time, of course, he had completely fallen out of favor with the beautiful people of society. Oh, sure, they still followed many of the dictates of fashion that he had established at his peak levels of popularity, but they had tired of the company of the man himself.
So: he ended his life in poverty, alone, in France. Why does it always have to end that way?
I wish it could have ended differently for the Beau.
It takes a lot to stand up and be different, and to follow your own tastes in the face of overwhelmingly contrary public opinion. I’m sure that it was immensely gratifying, if not surreal, when he suddenly found himself a model for so many of those who had previously laughed at his ideas of what constituted an elegant figure.
But idols have a way of getting overthrown, especially when it inevitably becomes inconvenient to be reminded that it wasn’t your idea in the first place to dress, or think, or behave in a certain manner.
And that’s a shame.
“There are three great men of our age: myself, Napoleon, and Brummell.But of we three, the greatest of all is Brummell.”– Lord Byron