Jun 1 2012 10:30am

Author Grace Burrowes on Historically Good Looks

Today, Heroes and Heartbreakers is pleased to welcome author Grace Burrowes, whose novel Lady Maggie’s Secret Scandal is now available, to talk historically well-dressed men. Thanks, Grace!

In the privacy of your thoughts have you ever wished you’d come across a fellow attired as Mr. Darcy was? Snug, soft doeskin riding breeches, cut to emphasize the “turn of a man’s leg?” Shining Hessian boots to accentuate the length of that leg? Spotless white custom shirt set off with just a touch of style about the cravat? Elegant, understated waistcoat beneath a beautifully tailored cutaway coat that shows off broad shoulders to wonderful advantage?

Compare this ensemble to its immediate forbearers by calling to mind any image of George Washington, King George III, or the lofty Duke of Devonshire pictured here. These Georgian gentlemen wore high heeled shoes, silk stockings, knee-breeches, cosmetics, wigs, abundant jewelry, bright colors, and heavy perfumes. In many regards, their fashion sense was indistinguishable from that of the ladies they escorted. They dressed to be seen, and more was better.

Enter one George Bryan “Beau” Brummell, (DOB 6/7/1778), son of a former courtesan (she married her protector), grandson of a valet, best man to the Prince of Wales, and thought by some to be, “the first metrosexual” (quoting his biographer, Ian Kelly, from Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style). Brummell’s father, a civil servant in the Treasury who eventually became Lord North’s private secretary, amassed significant wealth before both he and his wife died when Brummel was not yet seventeen. Brummell’s inheritance (about £ 20,000 in the coin of the day), allowed him to buy a commission in the Prince of Wale’s 10th Regiment of Light Dragoons.

The Prince was sixteen years Brummell’s senior, but shared with Brummell a fascination for dress, an appreciation for ready wit, and a taste for the finer things in life. For at least fifteen years, the two were more or less good friends, with Brummel serving as the best man at the Prince’s 1795 wedding. Why they fell out might be a function of Brummell’s friendship with Byron and others objectionable to the Prince, but how they fell out is the stuff of Regency lore.

With several friends, Brummell sponsored a ball to celebrate victory over Napoleon. Brummel’s preference had been to not invite the Prince, who by then was Regent. His Royal Highness got wind of the ball, though, so an invitation had to be sent. In the receiving line, the Prince acknowledged the others hosting the ball, but did not acknowledge Brummell, at which point, Brummel is reported to have asked, “Alvanley, who is your fat friend?”

Long before this falling out, Brummell had established himself as arbiter of gentleman’s clothing fashions, relying in part family connections, in part of his native wit, and in part on his friendship with the Prince, who adopted Brummel’s preferred mode of dress. Brummell’s most radical prescription was that a man ought to bathe every part of his body every day, and avoid heavy perfumes and cosmetics. In addition to this, he advised (as quoted by Harriette Wilson): “If John Bull turns around to look at you, you are not well dressed; but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable.”

Lady’s do love a sharp dressed man.Per Brummell, the quintessential power suit required full-length trousers rather than knee breeches; relied on a palette of black, browns, white, beiges, or grays; and was best shown off by, “clean linen, lots of it, and country washing.” The admonition to use country washing resulted from the sooty air in London assuring that any clothing hung out to dry in the city itself would end up less than pristine. Brummell further believed that adornments should be few and elegant. He occasionally wore a watch on a fob, and had an exquisite collection of snuff boxes.

His commitment to this mode of dress was unwavering and convincing, to the extent that watching “The Beau” dress (from the skin out), and strolling arm in arm with him as he shopped his various tailors, became the gentleman’s pastime among the fashionable set. Brummell stood somewhere between six feet and six foot two—very tall for his day—and that this ensemble, complete with elegant snuff box, looked good on him is beyond dispute. 

Unfortunately, all those snuff boxes were accessories Brummell could not afford. Like other gentlemen of his day, Brummell gambled heavily, lived largely on credit, and ran through his inheritance in short order. His circle of familiars—Byron (with whom he was alleged to have had an affair); Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (with whom he was alleged to have had an affair); Princess Frederica, Duchess of York (her too); Baron Alvanley; the Marquis of Worcester; and the courtesans Harriette Wilson and Julia Johnstone (her, too), reads like a Who’s Who of the pre-Regency, but Brummell lacked the wealth or self-restraint at the tables to keep up with such a crowd indefinitely.

By 1816, his debts were staggering, though had he still enjoyed the Prince’s favor, he might have continued on as the Regency fashion authority for some time. Between profligate gambling that might have stemmed in part from early syphilis, and a wit that had turned biting a few times too often, Brummel was forced to flee to Calais, where he lived largely on the charity of his English friends for the next fourteen years. Through the intercession of his friends, and through an act of clemency by George IV, Brummell served as the British consul in Caen from 1830-1832, though the post, and Brummell’s income, were eliminated in 1832. Brummell died of tertiary syphilis in a charity hospital in 1840, though when he was jailed for debt in 1835, it was Georgiana’s son who provided payment for the entire sum. 

At any point in his difficult, lengthy and penurious exile, Brummell could have righted his fortunes, at least temporarily, by writing his memoirs. As a confidante to George IV in that monarch’s lengthy and colorful salad days, Brummell no doubt had wonderful material and a clever wit with which to deliver it. When asked, he said he’d refrained from such a project because he’d promised the Duchess of York he’d never do such a thing.

Perhaps he made such a promise, or perhaps Beau Brummell was a consummate gentleman in more than just appearance.

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Grace Burrowes hit the bestseller lists with both her debut, The Heir, and her second book in The Duke’s Obsession trilogy, The Soldier. Both books received extensive praise and starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, and The Heir was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the Best Books of the Year for 2010. Grace is a practicing family law attorney and lives in rural Maryland. 

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Julee J. Adams
1. Julee J. Adams
Nicely done! We forget how relatively recent the concepts of long pants and cleanliness are. Thanks for sharing your research!
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
Grace, thanks for sharing your info about the Beau. I feel as though he must have been an unhappy guy, but he channeled his neuroticism into clothing (as you do).
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