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Beau Tie: The Legacy of Beau Brummell, Inventor of the Modern Suit

April 14, 2016

By Giovanni di Lupo

In part 1 of our editorial series on the Origins of a Well-Dressed Gentleman, we examine the original 19th-century English ‘dandy and arbiter of men’s style, Beau Brummell.

The next time you’re donning a suit, spare a thought for Beau Brummell. The 19th-century clotheshorse, arbiter of men’s style and, ultimately, syphilitic ruin, is the reason your suit is elegant and follows masculine lines. Because if it wasn’t for Brummell, there’s a fair chance we’d all still be flouncing around town in flamboyant outfits, like out-of-work thespians from the cast of Lady Macbeth. 

Back in the late 1700s when Brummell was a young man the standard attire for gentlemen making their way up in the world was embroidered, high-necked silk coats and breeches worn with braided waistcoats and stockings. It was a hangover from the French court of Versailles that, like a cross-channel cultural meme, was imitated in the English courts and royal circles. However, Brummell, who had briefly been a soldier (admittedly, not a great or brave one) in the 10th Light Dragoons, saw this mode of dress for everyday life as impractical and, quite frankly, emasculating.

Brummell, who was once the most famous man in Regency England, a former friend of the Prince of Wales, was a pragmatist. He was vain enough to appreciate form, but only if it followed function. What’s more, he favoured a ‘less is more’ approach to dressing. “If John Bull [the average man on the street] turns around to look at you”, he said, “you are not well dressed, but either too stiff, too tight or too fashionable”.

A good-looking man with a sardonic, biting wit and popular in aristocratic circles, Brummell was the first to really popularise the pre-cursor to the modern suit, a hybrid of the formal military uniform mixed with practical English country gentleman dress. This usually meant wearing a dark blue coat, buff (yellowish cotton) waistcoat, buff or white knee-length riding trousers and black riding boots. Over the coming century London’s tailoring brethren on Conduit Street, Cork Street and Savile Row reworked and refined this ensemble to create what we would recognise as the suit we appreciate today.

Brummell was fastidious about getting his clothes tailored and championed the tailoring creed regarding the importance of cut, fit and proportion. He would spend hours with his tailor, Jonathan Meyer, having every proportion of his body measured, marking down notes as to whether he stood with a slouch, or how the fabric reacted when he bent his elbow while sitting down (the ‘pub test’). Brummell had long legs and liked a narrower, slim-cut fit in the lower trouser leg, which became the society norm. His crotch area was always tailored to fit super snug to show off his, cough, manhood. 

Brummell almost always only used four colours – blue, black, buff and white – and insisted a man should wear one dominant colour that the rest of the outfit should be subordinate to. Which predominating colour one chooses, he said, “will be indicated by the situation, the age, the form and the complexion of the wearer.”

For all you bearded hipsters out there, Brummell was also on your side. Although he never sported a beard or moustache himself (he loved a big-end-of-town pair of sideburns), he disliked the “effeminate” act of shaving, railing against “those who emasculate themselves prettified by a painful and ridiculous imitation of the smoother face of women!”

Brummell insisted on washing daily (certainly not the norm then) and always wearing a freshly laundered shirt. In fact, the act of getting dressed took on a kind of spiritual dimension for him. As Brummell’s biographer, Ian Kelly, wrote: “His Dandyism… invoked more than clothes: it was a way of being.”

Brummell thus unwittingly became the catalyst for what is remembered as ‘The Great Masculine Revolution’, when menswear evolved from mere superficial pageantry to become personal tools of prestige and power.

Unfortunately Brummell’s piercing humour (he offended the Prince, calling him “fat”), plummeting personal finances and philandering ways saw him exiled to Caen, France, where he spent time in prison for running up debts.

In 1840 Brummell died aged 62 from tertiary syphilis in a French mental asylum. It wasn’t a pleasant end for the man who once was a byword for masculine elegance. Bald, toothless, covered in painful sores and reportedly in ‘an imbecile state’, Brummell died in his bed facing the wall, his nurse said, to hide his embarrassment. It was an ignominious end for a life full of grace, wit, charm and style.

The Beau’s legacy lives on, though, and not just in how and what we wear, but how we treat the suit as a power of self-expression. Today you can find Brummell in the form of a proud bronze statue on Jermyn Street, London. "To be truly elegant one should not be noticed," reads the inscription. Amen to that.