One of the most disagreeable phenomena of modern times must surely be the gossip magazine celebrity. The person whose fame (and thus wealth) is out of all proportion to their talent. Take, for instance, Peaches Geldof, who is classed as a writer and model due to an administrative error. Or Paris Hilton, the only person who could make me yearn for a Communist revolution.
The sad thing is, though, that this vile situation was in place long before the age of mass media. I’d like to take you back in my magical time machine, the RETARDIS, to the Regency. This is perhaps my favourite historical period, because you just couldn’t make up the stuff that happened then. Well, you could, but you’d be criticised for being unimaginitive.
The gentleman we’re going to look at today is George “Beau” Brummell, possibly the world’s first fashion guru. He was firmly of the opinion that, when it came to fashion, less is more. Notice in his picture on the left that he favoured a basic cut in understated fabric.
However, to achieve such understated elegance took a hell of a lot of effort. He claimed to have three hairdressers, each one taking a different part of his head. He was said to take five hours to dress, and at the end his room would be covered in rejected clothes. He was unable to find a stock that looked right, so he invented his own in starched muslin, a foot wide. He believed that the best shine on boots was achieved with champagne – and his taste in champagne was not exactly restrained (at one dinner party where the champagne was second-rate, he was heard to call, “Bring me some more of that cider!”) His taste in clothing was so influential that, legend has it, he was once able to make the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) burst into tears when he insulted Prinny’s coat. This tale doesn’t sound all that implausible, but it can’t be denied that the Prince was an enthusiast for Beau’s fashion tips – before he met Brummell, he was in the habit of wearing brightly-patterned, flamboyant clothing. After, he became more restrained in his tastes.
Yes, Brummell was part of the Prince’s social circle, men who favoured heinous amounts of drinking, gambling and whoring even on a school night. How did he rise to such a prestigious position? Well, now, that’s the odd part.
Brummell was not born an aristocrat. He did not come from old money. In fact, he only acquired wealth by chance. His grandfather ran a lodging house, one of whose guests was father of a future Prime Minister, Lord North. North Senior was able to get Old Man Brummell’s son a post in the Treasury, and the son rose to be the Prime Minister’s private secretary, amassing a fortune of over £200,000 (which, accounting for inflation, comes to… ooh, lots). Thus, through hard work and opportunity the Brummells rose from the servant class to the cream of society.
Young George Brummell didn’t particularly intend to follow in his father’s footsteps. He was briefly in the Army, but sold his commission when his regiment transferred to Manchester (because, so the story goes, that would have taken him away from the London social scene). He quickly became a fixture of West End society thanks to having met the Prince at Eton. And, as mentioned before, his fashion sense took London by storm – this perhaps owed something to the fact that his grandfather had been a valet before he had been a landlord, and thus would have been expected to know what was what clothing-wise.
Brummell was famous for his bitchiness as much as for his sartorial mastery, though. For instance, an up-and-coming industrialist once invited him to a dinner party. Brummell asked him how many would be attending. The host said, “Well, there are to be ten other guests, plus you and me, so twelve in all.” “Good Lord,” Brummell reputedly replied, “you don’t mean to say you are to be one of the party?”
Of course, his most famous bitchy remark was to be his downfall. Like most socialites, Brummell thrived off attention. So when the Prince showed up at a party with Lord Alvanley in 1812 and totally ignored him, Brummell’s nose was rather put out of joint (well, actually, that had been the result of a kick in the face by a horse during his army days, but metaphorically). Eventually, he went up to Lord Alvanley and said, as loudly as possible, “I say, Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?”
Now, the Prince was rather sensitive about his weight, and he had a lot of weight to be sensitive about (20 years later, Charles Lamb would dub him “The Prince of Whales”) and, as we have seen, something of a vain man. And so he proved that he was just as adept as Brummell at being a total prick and cut the fop off entirely.
Beau might have recovered from this, were it not for his weakness for gambling. Gambling was taken very seriously in the 18th century, with almost unimaginable amounts being made and lost in a single night at the card table. Yr. Humble Chronicler is no puritan, but there’s something mildly revolting about a man thinking nothing of losing the price of a townhouse in a hand of poker. If you were lucky, you could be set for life. Unfortunately, no one’s luck lasts forever, and by 1816 Brummell found himself hopelessly in debt. Few were willing to lend him money, and those that were were disappointed to see him back at the tables soon afterwards.
He fled to France in order to escape his many, many creditors and eked out a bare bones existence working for the British Consulate in Caen, thanks to Lord Alvanley’s influential word (obviously Alvanley found the “fat friend” joke funny). He would eventually die in hospital, apparently quite insane and, so the story goes, in a vile state of undress and filth.
Still, on the bright side, that might yet happen to Peaches Geldof as well.