Saturday, March 11, 2006

Man of the Cloth


In the reception room of a small but Wallpaper-worthy town house in Mayfair, London, a handful of the city's richest young men about town are gathering. The house belongs to a celebrity and wit who can make or break reputations with a look. A gourmand, gambler, nightclub maven and connoisseur of fine art and furnishings, he is also the best-dressed man in the world, and his revolutionary sense of style will change men's fashion forever. In a moment, these chosen few will be granted entrance to his private chambers to watch him dress. Fortunately, they have time on their hands, as it can take hours for their host to achieve his trademark effortless elegance.

It is the early 1800's. The man is the legendary dandy George Bryan Brummell, better known as Beau Brummell. And whether his name is familiar to you or not, if you have ever worn a suit and tie, in matters of style, you too are his disciple.

In the almost two centuries since his death, the Beau's reputation has weathered idolatry, infamy and obscurity. This year, however, as the subject of a major biography and an Off Broadway play called "The Beau," and with a proposed BBC movie of his life in the works, he may finally begin to reclaim his rightful place in our pop-culture pantheon as the first model of modern masculinity and the originator of inner-city white-boy cool.

"In the history of men's wear, nobody is more important than Brummell," says the British historian Ian Kelly, whose book "Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style" (Simon & Schuster) is due out in May. "His legacy has often been misrepresented because it's assumed that dandies were effeminate fops, but it's not too much of a stretch to say that the original meaning of the word 'dandy' was correlative to 'dude."'

The story of Brummell's rise is also the story of London and its evolution as the first modern city. He and his Regency Rat Pack of immaculately dressed cronies — Apollo Raikes, Lord Alvanley and Poodle Byng — entered the theater of appearances just as London's West End, with its opera houses, brothels, cafes and shops, was beginning to flourish. This nexus of sex, luxury and consumerism was a magnet for the "ton" — the exclusive set of upper-class beautiful people who found themselves in unwelcome proximity to the, well, non-ton. The French Revolution had irrevocably changed the role of the aristocracy and banished the frills and powder of the European courts to costume history. A new way of dressing was needed for this new life of the street; a style that was utilitarian, yet that would immediately separate the natural gentlemen from the emergent bourgeoisie and, more crucially, the nouveaux riches.

The simple urban uniform that Brummell perfected — buff doeskin trousers, waistcoat, navy jacket, starched linen white cravat and black leather boots — drew its inspiration from the clothes of the 18th-century English landed gentry. Two hundred years before Ralph Lauren, Brummell understood that the hacking jackets and breeches worn for shootin', huntin' and fishin' suggested a virile man of action who enjoyed a lifestyle of inherited wealth, yet was untainted by aristocratic decadence.

Unlike the authentic country sportsmen whose garb he had appropriated, Brummell was a stickler for personal hygiene. Unusually for the time, he bathed every day and was always cleanshaven. After him, it became de rigueur for fashionable young men to brush their teeth. His laundry was sent, at great expense, outside the city to be dried in fresh country air, and the soles of his riding boots, polished to the same sheen as the uppers, never caught a whiff of dung. Such meticulousness was sustainable because Brummell dedicated his life to nothing but the wearing of clothes — exquisitely.

Sexual display was an inevitability of the metropolis, and Brummell's sober, austere clothing was made distinctly erotic by his obsession with cut and fit. New woolen textiles that could be shrunk, stretched and molded allowed the skilled tailors of Savile Row to conjure, from a few bolts of fabric and wadding, a silhouette that followed the proportions of Greco-Roman statuary, regardless of the shape of the man beneath.

To emphasize the refinement of his tailoring, Brummell limited his accessories to a signet ring and a watch chain. Within such a spare aesthetic, the expression of luxury became sublimated to a series of subtle details. A shoulder line, the placement of a pocket or the precision of a seam were sartorial semiotics discernible only to other dandies. Brummell and his acolytes could recognize at a glance a particular tailor's signature in the construction of a garment. Thus was born not only the cult of the bespoke suit, with its arcane, elitist nuances, but also the first label-conscious consumers.

However, clothes alone did not make Brummell the idol of his age. He was arguably the first modern celebrity, famous solely for being himself. Brummell carefully constructed and tended his persona and instinctively understood the value of publicity. Although his father was a wealthy civil servant, his grandfather had run a boardinghouse, and Brummell, the ruler of high society, constantly exaggerated his lowly origins. Fatuous claims that he mixed Champagne with his boot polish and made the valet wear his clothes first, lest they look too vulgarly new, ensured he was constantly talked and written about (characters mouthing Brummell's witticisms and flaunting his affectations peopled the novels of his day).

Like Jane Austen's disdainful yet seductive Mr. Darcy, Brummell could be stingingly rude. His cuts were legendary. Designed to put the boring, boorish or unfashionable in their place, a cut could be a bon mot or simply an arched eyebrow, but for dandies the essence of its cruel beauty lay in its minimalism. The Beau's most famous cut is also one that probably hastened his eventual fall. For some years Brummell had enjoyed an erratic friendship with the corpulent Prince of Wales. A version of the story goes that one afternoon, after another of Brummell's and the heir-to-the-throne's frequent fallouts, he bumped into the prince while strolling with his fellow dandy Lord Alvanley. When the prince warmly acknowledged Alvanley but ignored him, Brummell is said to have coolly inquired, "Who's your fat friend?" The prince never spoke to him again.

With typical aplomb, Brummell maintained that it was he who had dropped the prince, observing, "I made him what he is, I can unmake him."

It was Brummell's passion for gambling, however, that would prove his undoing. In 1816, after a sustained losing streak, Brummell fled to France. He settled in Calais, where he became a popular and chic tourist attraction. Over time, however, exile began to chafe. Eventually, with little money and most of his London friends dead or drifted away, Brummell became fixated on the idea that if he could reconcile with the prince, he would be able to return to England. The prince did in fact visit Calais but left without seeing his old friend.

His last few years were a slow descent into madness and degradation, brought on by the final stages of syphilis, which had plagued him throughout his adult life. He died, at 62, after being removed to an insane asylum, gibbering and incontinent, his finery reduced to a few filthy rags. But even with the passing of the ultimate dandy, dandyism itself did not die. Brummell's legacy remains in the form of the suit, that democratizing symbol of masculine elegance, and in his ethos of self-creation — the belief that a man need only exteriorize his aspirations to make them reality.

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