If you’re a typical gentleman of the Caucasian persuasion you may have on occasion donned a suit and necktie and admired yourself in the mirror.

At some point in this extended period of self-gazing, your thoughts may have drifted from contemplating your own reflection to wondering whereabouts the men’s suit came from and asking what of its history? Was it a look collectively arrived at, or was there a little-known fashionista who matched this with that and by doing so split the fabric-atom of menswear and ta-ra, the modern suit was born!?

Indeed there was, and contrary to what you may be thinking, he was not of African origin. As surprising as it may seem it was a White man who gave us the suit and tie.
Beau Brummell was a visionary. He was a stylish cad who charmed London society while sponging off the Prince of Wales. Although not exactly a role model, he was undeniably typical of his time, and his story, if nothing else, is beaut.

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These were virtually unknown in England until Brummell made them popular

Young Beau fit right in among the gentry from the get-go. In the late 1700s, his father — a politician and Lord’s secretary — packed him and his brother off to Eton where he hobnobbed with the aristocracy. From early on he began to concern himself with fine-dress, elegant manners and refining his natural wit. In fact, the famed cravat worn by the Eton elite was given a natty upgrade after the precocious young Beau added a gold buckle to it. This amounted to a mini cultural revolution at the esteemed college.

When his old man croaked, the inheritance he bequeathed young Beau made the dashing young squid wealthy indeed.

Cutting from Oxford after just one term, despite showing great promise, Beau requested and received a commission in the 10th Light Dragoons. There, in the Prince of Wales’ own regiment, he rose to lieutenant after joining as a lowly cornet. The Hussars were by all accounts a pack of boozing tearaways with a reputation for debauchery. They did, however, look grouse in their spiffy uniforms.

When his old man croaked, the inheritance he bequeathed young Beau made the dashing young squid wealthy indeed.

This is where young Beau began to demonstrate his considerable flair for scrubbing up shmick. It was a hard act, what’s more, considering that an officer had to fork out for his own mount, mess bills, and uniforms. The Hussars uniforms changed with expensive regularity and the mess bills were astronomical since the regiment insisted upon the best victuals and finest grog known to humanity. These dinners came to resemble sumptuous orgies.

Admired by all, Beau cut such a dapper figure and possessed such swagger, that he was granted a license to act as he pleased. Consequently, he shirked his duties, failed to make parade, and skived off — all-be-it with a paramount of style. There was little left to do but promote him. Much to the consternation of those with more soldierly leanings, Beau was elevated to the rank of captain.

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We here at UNA have the utmost respect for cads

During his time with the Dragoons, the young Beau had ingratiated himself with the Prince of Wales after toadying his way into the royal inner circle. Brummell got so close to the Prince that in 1795 he supported him at his wedding to Princess Caroline. Later, the Princess would blame Brummell and his friends for getting pissed and spoiling the reception with bawdy antics like upchucking behind curtains and flashing the bridesmaids.

Now a captain, when Beau’s regiment was transferred from London to Manchester he said, “Sod it”. Being stationed to Manchester would have been too much like exile so he quit his commission and set his sights on London society.

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James Purefoy played Brummell in the 2006 BBC movie This Charming Man. Hugh Bonneville played the witless Prince of Wales

It was there that his charm became his saving grace because it was the only currency he ever managed to save; the monetary variety slipped through his fingers like flour through a sieve. He estimated his addiction to buying clothes ran at around what would now be near enough to $200,000 a year. To maintain this extravagant habit, for a time anyway, he forewent the gambling and whoring that was the irresistible evening activities of the times. But his adventurous tailoring was turning heads and creating a stir especially among his tailors who he went to equally creative measures to avoid paying. Nevertheless, the garish powdered wigs of the 17th century were still in vogue, as were breeches and stockings. Along with the forerunner of what is now the standard gentleman’s suit, the snazzy courtier had perfected a unique necktie.

During his time with the Dragoons, the young Beau had ingratiated himself with the Prince of Wales after toadying his way into the royal inner circle. Brummell got so close to the Prince that in 1795 he supported him at his wedding to Princess Caroline. Later, the Princess would blame Brummell and his friends for getting pissed and spoiling the reception with bawdy antics like upchucking behind curtains and flashing the bridesmaids.

Today wigs and stockings are très homo, but in those days the conventions that Beau was brazenly flouting in favour of his bespoke full-length trousers and long tailored coats outraged many for their dandyish chic. Dressing as a bloke does today in a smoothly cut suit back then was the equivalent of prancing around like a poof on heat strangely enough despite dispensing with the pancake makeup and girly wigs, which were considered manly. Go figure.

However, society became enthralled with Brummell’s sartorial eccentricities. Even after leaving the 10th Light Dragoons, Beau kept sweet with the Prince of Wales, and in fact, was at the peak of his popularity with the slug-witted son of mad King George. In fact, his prized position at the Prince’s side proved useful in keeping his tiresome creditors at bay. He had long since burned through the fine fortune his father had left him.

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Dressing well is all part of the rich experience of being a White man

Beau was a wizard of garbs: coordinating colours with the gimlet eye of Michelangelo sizing up a canvas and partnering articles of clothing as though a cupid pairing lovers or a great chef creating a tantalising dish from unlikely ingredients.

Brummell claimed it took him five hours to dress in the morning. So fascinated with the ritual of putting on one’s day wear was the Prince, who had all the dress sense of a wedge of cheese, that he would spend hours at Beau’s Mayfair home studying him as he went through each stage of harmonising his wardrobe.

Before long, the whole upper stratum of London society was knocking at Beau’s door in the morning eager to observe Brummell in the routine of his toilette. They would literally watch spellbound as Beau pulled on his trousers one leg at a time until kitted out in his finery hours later he knotted his tie and fastened it with a dazzling pin. They might have been students of medicine observing a surgeon performing an operation. But the haughty Pom gents, despite the status of their class, had to learn how to brush their teeth by studying Brummell. It seems he was also pioneering personal hygiene in such innovative areas as taking a daily bath.

Brummell was thus drawn hammer-and-tongs into the Prince’s court and from there into the company of notorious libertine Lord Byron of whom the Prince did not at all approve. This coterie of gentlemen all dressed as Brummell did and the Watier’s Club, to which they all belonged, was dubbed “the Dandy club” by Byron. Having once avoided gambling, Beau was now racking up debts he had no hope of covering.

However, society became enthralled with Brummell’s sartorial eccentricities. Even after leaving the 10th Light Dragoons, Beau kept sweet with the Prince of Wales, and in fact, was at the peak of his popularity with the slug-witted son of mad King George. In fact, his prized position at the Prince’s side proved useful in keeping his tiresome creditors at bay. He had long since burned through the fine fortune his father had left him.

Beau’s success as often is the way with things heralded the beginning of his downfall. Already privately piqued that his upstart guest was more popular in society than himself, the Prince took exception to Brummell’s flowering friendship with Lord Byron. The Prince explicitly warned Beau to avoid his company and when he failed to do so the Prince publicly “cut” him. This resulted in Beau making an unfortunate quip that compounded the problem when upon their entrance and cognizant of the slight he asked the Prince’s guest “Alvanley, who is your fat friend?”

Thus far, Brummell had managed to survive despite penury on the basis of the line of credit afforded by his social status. When the Prince snubbed him, the fabric of Beau’s delicately woven society came unwoven. In debt to his fellow Dandies, Beau was booted out of the Watier’s club and he came a cropper. Skipping to France to avoid his creditors, Brummell died stricken with syphilis aged 61 at a French nuthouse.

Nonetheless, despite making a dog’s breakfast of his life, Brummell is remembered as the man who gave us the suit and tie. A statue was dedicated to him at London’s Jermyn Street in 2002. We thus raise our glasses to him. Only ours are filled with mineral water because we don’t want to end up like he did.

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The Jermyn Street tribute to the man of style

 

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