A comment made by one of the men at a workshop I attended this week reminded me of the well-dressed Beau Brummell. I’ve seen the 1954 film starring Stewart Granger and Elizabeth Taylor, but apart from reading that he was a “Dandy” didn’t know much about him, so I decided to find out more about Mr Beau Brummell.
Anyone who has ever watched any period dramas will know that Henry VIII and Charles II were very flamboyant in their dress, complete with the elaborate wigs the men wore in the seventeenth century, yet somewhere it all changed… Beau Brummell was the catalyst for that change, which included spending a lot of time in the bathroom. And frankly, in a good way, because hygiene wasn’t high on the list of things to do in Tudor and Stuart England. Brummell changed the fashion from men wearing multi-coloured outfits to wearing just a few, usually more sombre colours, and jackets closer to the ones worn nowadays.
Brummell was born George Bryan Brummell on 7 June 1778, in London (apparently in Downing Street), the son of Lord North’s secretary (Prime Minister from 1770 to 1782). Brummell went to Eton and Oxford, although he only spent a year at the latter, having requested to join the army. (In those days, you had to pay to join, so he had to get the money from the executors of his father’s estate.)
He joined the Prince of Wales’ own regiment as the lowest officer rank, a cornet, however, within two years he had been promoted to captain. No-one is really clear how Brummell came to the notice of the Prince, but come to notice he did, and they became close. When the regiment was sent to Manchester, Brummell resigned his commission; clearing being out of London would not assist him in staying close to the Prince.
By 1799, Brummell had come into his inheritance and soon became known for his understated style of dress. He became very powerful – if he liked you, you would be in the “in” crowd, or not as the case might have been.
He was also known for his wit, and, some might say, rudeness, and this is, allegedly, how he lost favour with the prince – he asked, “Who is your fat friend?” when referring to the prince. Yep, that’ll do it every time.
Brummell also ran up a lot of debts through gambling, and someone to whom he owed money, Richard Meyler, found out that Brummell intended to renege on them. Meyler took the opportunity of telling anyone who would listen about Brummell’s behaviour, which was the nearest thing to challenging him to a duel without actually using those words that he could do. Brummell did a runner. He made his way to Calais, where he could go without having a passport.
Beau went on to become British Consul in Caen, which enabled him to pay off some of his debts, but he probably knew his days were numbered – he was suffering from syphilis. When the job as consul came to an end, the debts started to mount again, and he was eventually imprisoned as a result. A contact agreed to return to the UK to try to get some money, which he did, so Brummell was released from prison.
Within a few years, however, he was growing increasingly ill, leading to insanity that is so often characteristic of the disease. He died in a mental asylum in March 1840.
© Susan Shirley 2016