In this new series on historical fashion, we will explore the lives and legacies of some of history’s oft-forgotten fashion icons. The men and women we’ll cover all materially shaped today's European and American fashion world, yet sadly go unknown by many. The first figure to enter the spotlight is Beau Brummell (1778-1840).
But first, a moment of truth: you may be fashionable, but you’re never going to be as fashionable as Beau Brummell. Don’t just accept it – internalize it. It’s only healthy.
George Bryan “Beau” Brummell was born in 1778 to William Brummell, the high sheriff of Berkshire. Through his father’s connections, he attended Eton (England’s most prestigious boarding school) before going on to Oxford, but left the university after being presented to the then-Prince of Wales, the future King George IV of England. He joined George’s regiment of the British Army and was promoted to the rank of captain, likely due more to his friendship with George than to his abilities.
However, in both his academic and military life, it was clear that he had a more important priority than his studies and managing his men: his religion was style. While Brummell left the army in 1798, he stayed close with Prince Goerge, serving essentially as his lackey. In 1799, Brummell’s father died and he inherited a fortune to the tune of £30,000, which in today’s currency would equal several million dollars. His material needs satisfied, Brummell devoted his life to being a socialite and leader in fashion, which worked pretty well until he alienated everyone he knew and was forced to flee his debts before dying of syphilis-related causes. You know. The usual.
That was the great contradiction of Beau Brummell: for someone who was so well-educated and cared so passionately about etiquette, he was unforgivably rude. According to a story of the time, Beau fell out of favor with George when he was still Prince of Wales one morning when the two encountered each other on a morning walk. Beau had recently had a fight with the prince, so when they saw each other having a morning walk. George ignored Brummell and only spoke to his walking partner, the 2nd Baron Alvanley. Brummell decided that the best way to react to this was to ask, “Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?” This incredible rudeness, combined with his terrible debts and the heavy partying, meant that by the time Brummell died, practically penniless and alone in the world, he had endured a dramatic fall from grace.
However, Brummell’s impact on culture was not just his Kardashian-level dramatic personality and rich life. He left his mark on England in two substantial categories: style and hygiene.
On the style front, Beau Brummell is credited with popularizing what is now the three-piece suit. He didn’t invent any pieces of clothing, but he made them what they are today as an ensemble. The arrangement of coat, waistcoat and trousers is his legacy. He also lived in a fashion era where more was more: the fancier the fabric, the more powdered the wig, the more ornate the ornaments, the better. Instead of following his contemporaries, Beau introduced elegant styling to the fashions of the day. He valued fit and craftsmanship over visual display. He didn’t wear a wig or powder his hair. Instead of flamboyant purples and gold, he wore dark, flattering colors. In an era where consumers insisted on maximizing their clothes with as many beads and ruffles as possible, someone championing understated elegance was nothing short of revolutionary. In some ways, Brummell was like a 19th-century Coco Chanel: he wanted fashion to work with the body, not hide it.
Of course, in order to seek fashion that complements the body, you had to have a body worth complementing. This meant it had to be clean and smell fresh. Unlike today, that was not the norm. Swimming against the current, Brummell championed the then-outrageous practice of bathing the entire body in hot water every day. He is considered to be the reason English people do so nowadays. He also brushed his teeth and smelled okay enough not to wear perfume, which at the times was essential because of the lack of regular, full-body washing.
Imagine a world where that was abnormal! Actually, let’s not.
Between the scandalous life and the valuable contributions to society, Beau Brummell embodies the principles of both style and fashion. In many ways, Brummell defined how the Western world views both formalwear and hygiene alike.
A lasting legacy indeed.