This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

Fashionable Beau Brummel died in a madhouse in Calais

Posted in Historical articles, History, London, Royalty on Friday, 28 February 2014

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about Beau Brummel first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 573 published on 6 January 1973.

Beau Brummell,  picture, image, illustration

Beau Brummell

The First Gentleman in Europe was blubbering! Even his warmest admirers could never have claimed he was a perfect man, but not for nothing had the Prince Regent gained his nickname. He had a certain style, he was, indeed, a gentleman – outwardly at least.

Yet now his greatest friend, George “Beau” Brummell, had actually said that he did not like the cut of his coat. It was enough to make any man weep!

Who was this Brummell, that he could be so bold with his future sovereign, a Prince who was already virtually Britain’s king because his poor father, George III, was so ill? Brummell was not a Duke, nor an Earl, nor even a knight, but he was more powerful than any mere nobleman. Quite simply, he was the leading figure in London society for 20 years.

The ultimate tribute to him came from the poet, Lord Byron. “I would rather be Brummell than Napoleon!” said he, with his tongue not more than half in his cheek.

Of course, there was far more to the “Beau” than his famous flair for clothes. Everything about him – dress, personality and conversation – had that indefinable thing, style.

Brummell broke the rules of fashion by leading a revolution in taste. This superman, born in 1778, was the grandson of a valet and the son of a private secretary of Lord North, the man who helped lose the American Colonies. The secretary made a modest fortune.

This helped Brummell to go to Eton, where he became known as “Buck” Brummell, and was very popular. He attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales – who was not Regent until 1810 – and his princely patron got him a commission in the army. But soldiering was not to Brummell’s taste, though his handsome frame looked splendid in uniform. He left the army, and, when he came into money, set himself up at No. 4, Chesterfield Street, Mayfair in London, where his revolution, aided by the Prince, was planned.

At the beginning of the 19th century, there were two male fashions in society, over-elaborate clothes and deliberate untidiness. Often the two went together. Brummell altered all this, sweeping away the last of the 18th century “look” the first time he stepped out of his house. His fashion, soon copied by every would-be dandy in town, was simplicity itself: tightly fitting trousers, the banishing of all extravagance, and a starched cravat which nobody could tie like its inventor and his valet. His cut-away coat was always dark blue. And that was it! Not everyone deserted breeches, but the Brummell style was the look that everyone tried to copy.

The cravat was the final triumph, and one not easily achieved. Once, a visitor called on the Beau and found his valet arranging his cravat. On the floor there was a heap of discarded ones and when the caller asked what they were, the valet said: “Sir, those are our failures!” The haughty look of Regency men was partly due to the fact that, once in a cravat, it was hard to turn or lower the head!

Some dandies spent half the morning getting their cravats right, and it should be pointed out that “dandy” at that time did not mean that a man wore gorgeous clothes, but simple ones like those of Brummell’s.

His revolution took other forms. In an age when few bothered much about washing and wearing clean clothes, he changed his shirt three times a day and spent a remarkable amount of time washing himself, not such an easy business before the days of hot and cold running water.

His fame increased to such an extent that he, more than the Prince, decided in that snobbish age who was “in” society and who was not. Once a merchant asked him to dinner. At that time no businessman was “in.” “I’ll come with pleasure,” said Brummell, “if you will promise faithfully not to tell anyone!” His wit could often be cutting and cruel, but he was much liked as well as feared. Hostesses considered their parties a disaster if he did not appear.

But his pride got the better of him. The Prince, as we have seen, admired him tremendously, but Brummell started making jokes at his expense, forgetting his vengeful nature. Finally, the Beau broke the rules again, though not in fashion. Walking with his friend, Lord Alvanley, he met the Prince and Lord Moira in Bond Street. The Prince cut Brummell to talk to Alvanley and when the couples moved off, Brummell said: “Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?”

It was a fatal blunder, as the Prince hated being reminded of his size. The downfall of Brummell began.

He put up a good fight, for he still had many friends, but he started to gamble heavily without the fortune to back up his heavy losses.

In 1816, he had to go into exile and he settled in Calais in France. Though his friends rallied round, he got into worse debt. At least he could try and dress well in his little eight by nine foot room, but finally even this was beyond him. Reduced to rags, he wandered through the streets with French urchins at his heels shouting: “There goes Monsieur Brummell, the Dandy!”

Once, the Prince passed through Calais, but did not call on him. Finally, he started to go mad, holding phantom receptions in his tiny room for his old friends. He died in a mad-house for paupers in 1840. It was a sad end to a great success story, a success depending not on prowess in battle or parliamentary debate, or business skill, but on wit, elegance, style and knowing just how a cravat should be tied!

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.