This review by Florence King appears in the September issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.
The Ultimate Man of Style
by Ian Kelly
(Free Press, 393 pages, $26)
The feminist Germaine Greer once declaimed that it was folly to allow men to rule the world when they begin the day by tying a noose around their necks. Ironically, George “Beau” Brummell, who invented what was to become the modern necktie, figuratively ruled the early 19th-century world when the men who actually ruled it gathered in his London townhouse to watch him dress.
Brummell was the first “dandy” — today he would be called a “metrosexual” — a type memorably defined by the historian Thomas Carlyle: “Others dress to live, he lives to dress.” An orphan but a rich one, he persuaded his trustee to buy him a commission in the 10th Light Dragoons, a cavalry regiment known as “the Prince of Wales’s Own” because it had been created to satisfy the military daydreams of the obese “Prinny” (later George IV). The Prince was its Colonel-in-Chief, but since there could be no question of sending the heir to the throne into battle, it followed that his personal regiment would never see combat either. A commission in the 10th Light was a purely social cachet, an entree to aristocratic circles for ambitious commoners like Brummell. Stationed in the royal resort town of Brighton, their sole duty consisted of prancing around on state occasions wearing luscious uniforms inspired by Prinny’s fantasies of himself as a warrior-king.
He wanted to look like a “hussar,” a Hungarian word for the medieval tribesmen who hunted wolves on horseback and slung the pelts over their shoulders. The 10th Light swanked about in a half-on, half-off fur pelisse, miles of ropey braiding, real silver tassels hanging from the sleeves, a leopard-skin helmet with a fur crest, and skintight leather breeches worn without underwear to eliminate panty lines. To top off this fashion overstatement, the Dragoons still powdered their hair and wore it in a queue despite the tax on powder levied in 1795 to pay for the war with France.
Brummell spent five comic-opera years in the 10th Light, resigning his commission in 1799 when he reached his majority and came into his inheritance, but the experience served his purpose. He had met the Prince and built a friendship with him on the marshy foundations of wish-fulfillment; the tall, superbly built Brummell was the man Prinny wanted to look like, and Prinny was the ultimate aristocrat that Brummell wanted to live like. It was a dangerously insubstantial structure, held together by their mutual obsession with clothes.
BRUMMELL TOOK A HOUSE in London and settled down to the serious business of getting dressed before an audience. His toilettes were attended by members of the Prince’s raffish circle, and even, in a psychologically significant reversal of the court levee, by the Prince himself. As they watched raptly, “the Beau” revolutionized male fashion.
His first innovation was the plain white linen “neckcloth” to replace the stiff “stock” that reached to the ears and looked like a surgical brace. The neckcloth had to be tied in a certain way and it often took him an hour or more to get it exactly right. One day some visitors saw his valet carrying a huge basket piled with white linen and asked what it was. Replied the valet, “These are our failures.”
The hussar look had convinced him that his less-is-more instincts were correct. He banished all frills and braid in favor of a severe cutaway coat in undecorated wool, a plain white linen shirt, and a simple waistcoat-the beginnings of today’s suit. For pants he favored the skintight cavalry look, probably because he had perfect legs; it was said that he had the same proportions as the statue of the Apollo Belvedere then on exhibition in London. He may have wanted to flaunt certain other aspects of classical statuary because he decreed that pants must be unlined and close on the side with a “fall” or flap instead of a center fly. Worn with a cutaway coat and without underwear, they left little to the imagination, prompting one hostess to say, “One can always tell what a young man is thinking.”
He changed his clothes so often, especially his “linen,” that his laundry bills were enormous. Refusing to let his washing be hung out in sooty London, he sent it to be “country washed,” i.e., to laundresses outside the city who could hang it in clean air. If clothes were clean, he reasoned, the body under them must also be. Unlike earlier peacock males who drenched themselves in perfume to hide body odors, he was almost neurotically fastidious. To the astonishment of his fashionable audience, he washed his entire body with hot water every day, and even brushed his teeth! As with everything else he did, this too became a fad.
HE BECAME UNIVERSALLY KNOWN simply as “the Beau,” famous for being famous, the model for Lord Byron’s Don Juan, Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy, and, even in faraway Russia, the inspiration for Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. He “knew everybody,” as the saying goes, but nobody knew him because he was that paradox: the emotionally aloof social butterfly who likes dogs better than people.
His present biographer, Ian Kelly, says that Brummell’s was “a fractured personality, rebuilt in masquerade in the mirror of other people’s expectations of him.” This could apply to any of today’s neurotic celebrities but Brummell differed from them in a most refreshing way: he never came to believe his own propaganda. Rather, he saw through his host of acolytes and sycophants and dismissed them with genial contempt. “It is folly that is the making of me,” he told the Duchess of York, one of the few people he really liked. “If the world is so silly as to admire my absurdities, you and I may know better, but what does that signify?”
He was so elusive that posterity has never even been sure of his sexual orientation. Kelly disagrees with historians who claim he was gay or bisexual. The sudden quarrels that flared up between him and the Prince had a quality of bitchiness that suggests a tendril or two of subconscious homoeroticism, but it is generally agreed that the Prince was straight to a fault.
He was close to the bisexual Lord Byron but he was also ten years older, and Byron liked late-adolescent page boys (he made Lady Caroline Lamb dress as one).
He never married, and as far as is known, never fathered any illegitimate children as men of his class routinely did, but he died of syphilis, so if he was not gay he presumably caught it from a woman. Who? Where does an “emotionally unavailable heterosexual,” as Kelly calls him, turn when he wants sex? To prostitutes, obviously, but Kelly thinks he also might have had affairs with the upper-class courtesans of the day, as well as adventurous older women like Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, an ancestress of the late Princess Diana.
I disagree. He probably resented sex because, like the perfectly groomed female fashion plate, he hated to get messed up. He could only let loose with women who didn’t matter.
He was also a compulsive gambler, a virtual guarantee of a low sex drive. He would bet on anything, even the progress of George III’s insanity. Despite his heavy losses he was safe from his creditors as long as he remained friends with the Prince, but his self-destructive streak caused a final break between them. One night at a ball, the Prince, who by now was Prince Regent and so overweight that he resembled a featherbed, greeted Lord Alvaney but ignored Brummell. “Alvaney,” asked the Beau in a loud voice, “who’s your fat friend?” His bitchy lese majesty ruined him. He escaped England one step ahead of his creditors and spent the last 25 years of his life in France.
IAN KELLY HAS PRODUCED such an evocative portrait of a man and an age that we almost sneeze whenever Brummell takes snuff from the elegant little boxes he designed. His simple opening sentence — “On June 7, 1778, a fair-haired boy was born in Downing Street, London” — is as effective as Brummell’s less-is-more sartorial taste, so that it sticks in the mind and infuses a tragic story with qualities of purity and pathos that shine through even in the passages describing his terrible death.
The syphilis attacked his muscles, causing stroke-like spasms that pulled his mouth permanently open; when he spooned up his soup it spilled back out again, until the manager of his little French hotel told him he was disgusting the other patrons and asked him not to use the dining room. His spinal nerves gave way, causing a stumbling, zigzag walk that people assumed was drunkenness. All his mucous membranes became ulcerated and his tongue swelled up and turned black.
The British Consul in Calais arranged for him to be placed in an insane asylum in Caen. Large tumors formed on his scrotum. He became incontinent and fouled his room so often that the staff, unable to bear touching him, hosed him down from a distance. And at the end, “the brain itself shrank away from the insides of the skull and granulated.”
That the perfection of manly grace could come to this makes a superbly entertaining book one with a moral as well.