Beau Brummell: The Dandy as Social Revolutionary


1805 caricature of Brummell by Richard Dighton; Image Credit: Wikipedia

On the 7th of June 1778, the most famous dandy in Regency England Beau Brummell was born in Downing Street, London. Despite his middleclass background, he studied at Eton and Oxford, where he quickly gained popularity among his school friends and tutors, always challenging the official dress codes with his reinvented looks. His wit, originality and innovative fashion sense were outstanding. He is noted for not only modernising the white stock, or cravat, that was a typical garment in the Eton boy’s attire, but also adding a gold buckle to it. He would do similar readjustments to his clothing right throughout his life, eventually becoming a trend-setter among the social elites.

In 1794, he joined the Tenth Royal Hussars as a cornet. This was like entering a fashion heaven for the young Beau. Especially with the Ł30,000 inheritance money, which he was left after his father’s death in 1795, he was able to afford the most elaborate outfits. It was said that the officers, many of whom holding noble titles and lands, “wore their estates upon their backs” (Doran John, Miscellaneous Works, Volume I: Habits and Men, Beau Brummell). His expensive looks attracted the attention of not only other officers but even the Prince of Wales, whom Brummell befriended and served at the Prince’s wedding as his best man. Eventually, Brummell became intimate with his patron, and, in 1798, having reached the rank of captain, he left the service. Although he was now a civilian, his friendship with the Prince continued. He moved to Chesterfield Street in Mayfair, where he involved himself in an expensive lifestyle among the social elites of London. Spending most of his money on overly-expensive clothes (he spent on average of Ł800 per year, an equivalent of over Ł100,000 in today’s money) and gambling, he ended up having to flee to France to escape debtor’s prison. He stayed in France until his last days, where he died penniless and insane from syphilis at Le Bon Sauveur Asylum on the outskirts of Caen in 1840.    

51X21YAAVNLBrummell gained the title of the most famous and influential man in London while only in his twenties. This created a personality cult and secured him a considerable place in social consciousness even long after his death. His phenomenon, as there is no other word for such extraordinary personal magnetism, has been described and analysed by many writers. The most apt description of the man appears in an essay by Virginia Woolf: “Beau Brummell had no advantage of birth, and but little of fortune. His grandfather had let rooms in St. James’s Street. He had only a moderate capital of thirty thousand pounds to begin with, and his beauty, of figure rather than of face, was marred by a broken nose. Yet without a single noble, important, or valuable action to his credit he cuts a figure; he stands for a symbol; his ghost walks among us still... The story is, perhaps, too well known  how he drew his head far back and sunk his chin slowly down so that the cloth wrinkled in perfect symmetry, or if one wrinkle were too deep or too shallow, the cloth was thrown into a basket and the attempt renewed, while the Prince of Wales sat, hour after hour, watching. Yet skill of hand and nicety of judgment were not enough. Brummell owed his ascendency to some curious combination of wit, of taste, of insolence, of independence for he was never a toady which it were too heavy-handed to call a philosophy of life, but served the purpose… The grace of his carriage was so astonishing; his bows were so exquisite. Everybody looked overdressed or badly dressed-some, indeed, looked positively dirty-beside him. His clothes seemed to melt into each other with the perfection of their cut and the quiet harmony of their colour. Without a single point of emphasis everything was distinguished- from his bow to the way he opened his snuff-box, with his left hand invariably. He was the personification of freshness and cleanliness and order… That “certain exquisite propriety” which Lord Byron remarked in his dress stamped his whole being, and made him appear cool, refined, and debonair among the gentlemen who talked only of sport, which Brummell detested, and smelt of the stable, which Brummell never visited.” (Virginia Woolf, Beau Brummell, The Common Reader, 1932)

51WtJEHT4KLThe phenomenon of dandyism has been defined as placing particular importance upon one’s physical appearance, refined language, and leisurely hobbies – a cult of self pursued with the appearance of nonchalance. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was mostly typical of those coming from a middle-class background, often striving to imitate an aristocratic lifestyle, and so can be said of the man in question. From a sociological point of view, dandyism can be defined as a phenomenon characteristic of a certain cultural transition, marking a significant change in the social consciousness.  “Baudelaire was the first writer to recognize the prescience of the dandy: holding the dying culture and a new one in congruence, not just enjoying the luminal but defining it.” (Ian Kelly, Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style). Therefore Brummell’s outstanding persona can be understood not only in terms of highly individualistic style but as a signifier of a bigger social and cultural transformation at the turn of the eighteenth and the nineteenth century.  “To describe their world of consociates in the self-obliterating rhetoric of their predecessors and contemporaries was, for those in Brummell’s milieu, like translating Disraeli into Latin-a discipline at once trained and pointless. The structure of elite experience differed from that of their predecessors in being less regulated by position, less narrow or provincial in association, less encapsulated from non-elites and less connected to substantial societal functions. In short, the structure of elite society had loosened, its real shapes disengaged from the traditional matrix; its formal categorizations, once accurate and unequivocal, increasingly invited distressing social malapropisms, the untoward disregard of unnamed contemporaries, and disconnecting forms of social competition.” (Thomas Spence Smith, Aestheticism and Social Structure: Style and Social Network in the Dandy Life, American Sociological Review, Vol. 39, No. %, Oct., 1974)