Anyone who knows me will be aware that I‘m no follower of fashion. I’m more interested in the Berghaus winter catalogue than the catwalk. Immediately upon leaving gainful employment, I swapped my high-heeled shoes for flatties, and my business suits for jeans. (With a huge sigh of relief, I might add).
However, I had a mother who spent her life in the “rag trade”, and so I absorbed more information than I realised about the fabric of the clothing industry. I spent countless hours watching her at work, pins in mouth, tailor’s chalk in hand. So this post’s for Jean…
A dedicated follower of fashion
What’s the opening quote all about, and who said it? The words belong to “Beau” Brummell, (actually named George), born in 1786. Beau of course means “handsome”. He was a prominent figure in the circle surrounding the Prince Regent, during the period of King George III’s madness, when his son the Regent (yet another George), took the reins of monarchy.
Beau was best friends with Regent George, but they fell out in a big way. Shortly after, at an evening party, George the prince snubbed Beau and passed him by without any acknowledgement. Beau, never one to hold back, then called to the prince’s companion, in a loud voice, “Who’s your fat friend?”. It’s fair to say that things didn’t go too well for Beau after that. He ended his days in debt, sick and friendless, in a Paris asylum.
So, you may be wondering what a Regency dandy has to do with living history and fashion as we know it now. Well, it is not an exaggeration to say that Beau single-handedly changed men’s fashion. From the garish, over-ornate outfits worn during the Georgian period, to something close to what constitutes men’s formal attire today.
The buttons and frills and bows of the period were worn to the extreme by the ‘macaronis’. These were the over-privileged sons of the upper classes, who after University did the Grand Tour of Europe. They brought back with them paintings and antiquities – and the extremes of continental fashion. Never knowingly under-dressed, they sported elaborate wigs, makeup and ornamentations.
Apparently, fights took place in the streets of London between the macaronis, and the more soberly dressed dandies, as followers of Brummell might be called. (Skirmishes between mods and rockers, punks and new romantics, hippies and skinheads are nothing new at all).
There’s an easy way to visualise what a gentleman’s clothes would have looked like before Brummell changed the fashion world. Have a look at Zack Pinsent’s Instagram account- “pinsent tailoring”. Zack is an English tailor, who dresses in nothing but Georgian attire, even down to his night clothes. He threw away his last pair of jeans when he was 14 years old. His clothes demonstrate the flamboyance and colour and sheer fun of the period, pre-Brummell. Although it’s fair to say that he doesn’t dress to macaroni extremes.
“One should not be noticed”
Our Beau changed all that. He said, “to be truly elegant, one should not be noticed”. Single handedly, he introduced the concept of precision tailoring based on three things: cut, colour, cloth. He discarded knee breeches, the prevalent fashion for so long, and dressed in long trousers which we could easily recognise and adopt today.
Brummell believed that men should always dress in dark, discrete colours. He paved the way for the introduction of the two-piece suit. Beau however didn’t endorse a suit with the same colour trousers as the jacket. He believed there was only one colour for a man’s jacket, and that was dark blue. Trousers could be any other hue, as long as the colour was discrete, sober and definitely non-garish.
He did away with the bows, ribbons, lace, jewellery and all the other fripperies which adorned men’s clothing. To Brummell, the only ornamentation permissible in a gentleman’s outfit was his neckwear. The man’s tie, which has dominated masculine attire for almost two hundred years (and which perhaps has finally been killed off by WFH), is a direct descendent of the cravats lovingly created by Beau and his valet.
“Our failures, sir”.
In fact, there is an anecdote of a visitor to Brummell’s apartment coming across a sea of linen on the drawing room floor. He asked the valet what on earth these were. “Our failures, sir”, was the reply. Any cravat not making the grade after being tied, ended up discarded. Successive attempts followed until perfection was achieved.
Such was his attention to detail, that he would send his linen away to the west country to be laundered. London water was too hard, and hence it spoiled the appearance and feel of the fabric. His fastidious approach extended to his personal hygiene. In an age where people paid scant attention to such things, Brummell bathed daily. He cleaned his teeth regularly and kept his hair short, refusing to wear the often filthy wigs favoured by the older generation.
Beau was so fastidious in his daily toilette, it sometimes took him up to five hours to wash and dress. So fascinating did Regency society find the process, that gentlemen would come to his apartment in Chesterfield Street to observe his regime, and take notes.
But to me, his greatest affectation, and the epitome of his style, was his insistence that his boots were buffed to a brilliant sheen daily, by an application of champagne. Brummell flourished at the height of the wars with France. So it’s easy to see such a gesture as both a demonstration of real cool, and a populist snub to the French.
What Beau Brummell and Zack Pinsent have in common, I think, is the ability to live their lives within their own parameters. Neither gave (or gives) a hoot for the opinion of others. The big difference between them is that Pinsent tailors his own clothes. It is very difficult to find details of who actually made Brummell’s outfits. With one exception, his tailors seem lost to history. So, to redress the balance, let’s spend a little time looking at where the fashions introduced by innovators such as Brummell were actually made.
Savile Row, and its environs in London’s West End, is only a short walk from Chesterfield Street in Mayfair. There he lodged, and that was the area where Brummell’s tailors would have resided. The Row has been the centre of London’s bespoke tailoring industry since the early 1800s. Indeed, the old tailoring houses situated there still proudly display their records of clothing made for the great and famous throughout the last two hundred years. One such house still holds the records for Nelson’s naval uniform, worn at Trafalgar.
But the whole area had been a centre for the clothing industry, since the 1600s. Around this time, a clothier named Robert Baker set up a little shop in the nearby thoroughfare. He and his wife made fashionable lace collars, known as “piccadils” or“piccadillys”. The name transferred to the thoroughfare, and so Piccadilly was created.
Get your coat!
One of Brummell’s tailors that we know of – John Weston of nearby 34 Old Bond Street- made a navy broadcloth greatcoat for Brummell. It was made around 1803 and is still in existence. It survived because Brummell did not collect or pay for it – he was always in debt – and so it lingered in a Coutt’s bank vault for over one hundred years. Then it was rescued by an American university. You can see Brummell’s influence on men’s fashion – perfect tailoring, smooth elegant lines and a sombre colour. It’s not hard to imagine it being worn on the streets today, with never a backward glance.
Of course, all of these sites are just a stone’s throw from Carnaby Street, also known for its dedicated followers of fashion. And, in a nice piece of synchronicity, just off Carnaby Street is the replica pump, whose handle was removed by John Snow, in order to prevent an outbreak of cholera – as you’ll no doubt remember from my last post.
Hiding in plain sight
Thanks to the focused self-belief of Beau Brummell, an influencer if ever there was such a thing back then, it’s easy to see a direct line from his ground-breaking changes in male attire, to what the man in the street wears today.
His image has been used continually, to sell things from men’s grooming products, to modern tailoring – there is a George Brummell Bespoke tailor in Saville Row today.
There’s a statue to Beau in London’s Jermyn Street, on the edge of Piccadilly. Although I have to say, it doesn’t match the man in my imagination, who is inextricably based on Stewart Granger in the 1954 biopic.
And there’s a blue plaque on the wall of his apartment in Chesterfield Street, which says simply, “Leader of Fashion”. But, the living history of his influence is actually there on the streets and on our screens. Beau would recognise his clothing legacy with ease, although I’m not sure he would approve of the extinction of ties, in this lock-down environment!
This post is about the movers and shakers of fashion; the people who wear it well. But of course, for every fashion, there is an army of workers. The tailors and dressmakers, the pattern cutters, the finishers, the embroiderers. They deserve their own post…