Ask around today, and the name Beau Brummel conjures up the Bay Area 1960s psychedelic pioneers of "Laugh, Laugh" fame. The band name, by way of the London dandy scene centered on Carnaby Street, referred all the
way back to the original dandy, one Beau Brummell (properly with two l's), touted on the dustjacket of this fascinating biography as the "first metrosexual"—so now we know who to blame. George "Beau" Brummell, born the son of a valet in 1778 in London, took advantage of a time when rigid class distinctions were dissolving and self-made men could rise to previously unthinkable heights. Brummell served in the 10th Light Dragoons, "the best-dressed and worst moralled regiment in the British Army," where he met George, the Prince of Wales, who was to become his patron. Blessed with a considerable inheritance (for a valet, his father was well connected), Brummell set himself up near Hyde Park, in the "epicenter of the Whig aristocracy," and became famous, as we say now, for being famous. Devoting himself to the art of personal adornment and hygiene in an age when bathing was an irregular custom as best, Brummell perfected a new style of fastidious male costume—fitted pants, trim waistcoat, collar and tie—that eventually morphed into the ubiquitous tailored man's suit and tie of the 20th century. As Ian Kelly (who has imitated Brummell onstage) puts it, Brummell "taught modern men how to dress." Indeed, tailors gave him clothes to wear as a form of advertising, so potent was his influence. The limelight didn't shine for long, however. Brummell's acid wit poisoned his friendship with the Prince Regent, precipitating a rapid spiral into debt and disgrace—helped along by a bad case of syphilis—and the bon vivant ended up a mental patient, exiled in France. But Brummell's style revolution, as Kelly carefully traces, lingered in the works of authors as diverse as Thomas Carlyle (Sartor Resartus
), Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde (Brummell = Dorian Gray) and Virginia Woolf. Oddly, what began as an essentially conservative uniform was transformed, especially by the French theorists of dandyism, into the showy, elaborate male peacockery—the ruffles and puffy shirts—that we associate with dandyism today. On a more political note, Kelly observes that Brummell, a snob who attached himself to the capacious coattails of the corpulent prince regent, was also, paradoxically, a "man whose style made it possible for Everyman to act like a prince," and in this sense was the true "son of the French Revolution."
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