Born George Bryan Brummell, on 7th June 1778, he was an icon of fashion in the Regency period. He was known as 'Beau' Brummell, and he became a friend of the Prince Regent, later to be crowned King George the 4th. Brummel devised a new fashion that rejected the old more elaborate fashions for a new look of perfectly fitted and tailored clothing. His new look was based on dark suit jackets and full-length trousers instead of knee breeches and stockings, and most importantly, immaculate shirts with elaborately knotted cravats. He was labelled a dandy.
A rising star
Brummel came from a middle class family, but his father's ambition was for his son to become a gentleman, and young George was raised with that idea. Educated at Eton, he made his mark on fashion when he modernised the white collar, which was the recognised symbol of Eton school.
Gaining a place at Oxford University he made stockings and boring cravats a thing of the past.
When he left university Brummel joined the illustrious Tenth Royal Hussars as the lowest rank of commissioned officer. He was not as well off as most of the other officers and when his father died he inherited around £20,000. Although this was a huge sum of money in those days it was nowhere near what other officers were worth, and he struggled to keep up with their expenditure. Officers in the army were required to provide their own horses and uniforms and be responsible for mess bills. The 10th Royal Hussars in particuar had very elaborate and very many variations of uniform. Their mess expenses were enormous as the regiment was known for its lavish banquets and entertainment. And, as the Prince of Wales, the future George IV was the General Commanding the regiment, raucous and lavish parties were very frequent.
As a junior officer, Brummel's personality shone through and he went all out to impress the Prince. He became a favourite of the Prince and was allowed to have an easy life by missing parades and shirking his duties. After three years he was made a Captain much to the disgust of the older officers, who resented his position with the Prince. When the Tenth Hussars was posted to Manchester, Brummel resigned his commission, saying that he could not abide by the absence of culture and civility in the Northern city.
Statue of Brummel in London
Decline and fall
Brummell's influence over the Prince continued and his wit and charm, combined with his elegance of dress gained him a place in royal society. He took a house in Mayfair and for a time managed to avoid the nightly gambling and other extravagances needed in that society. What he refused to economise on was on his mode of dress. Brummell had the knack of harmony of shape and contrast of colors that most men could not see. He became the officianado of men's fashion and Lords and Knights sought him out to advise them on their dress.
His personal habits, such as a fastidious attention to cleaning his teeth, shaving, and daily bathing was so influencial on the upper classes that they began to do the same. He soon started spending money and gambling as if he were a rich man, but this soon began to eat away at his capital, and he found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the high spenders. His debts mounted, but his credit was good, and he continued to borrow heavily. His attitude towards the gentry was changing and his wit became cutting and sometimes derogatory. The Prince was often annoyed by Brummel's arrogance and lack of manners. Then, at Watier's club, where Brummel was one of the hosts, he insulted the Prince openly by calling him fat.
The Prince was furious and this incident was the final and most public sign that Brummell was no longer in favour.
Brummell's debts spiralled out of control, and he tried to recover by means that only sent him deeper into debt. In 1816 he fled to France to escape debtor's prison as he now owed thousands of pounds. His friend Lord Alvanley helped him as much as he could but there was a limit to his kindness. Brummel lived the remainder of his life in France, where Alvanley managed to get him a position with the consulate at Caen. This provided him with a small annuity.The mighty Brummell had reduced himself to the lowest level by gambling and womanising. He died penniless and insane from syphilis in Caen in 1840. What a wasted life for someone who could have had it all.
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