In an age when we have many competing demands on how we can spend our leisure time, it is hard for use to imagine a world were entertainment could be had in watching a man get dressed.
In early nineteenth century London the rich with time on their hands – the poor of course were working every hour God sent them – would take themselves off to the Mayfair home of George ‘Beau’ Brummell.
Not rich, talented or blessed with brains, he just dressed better than anyone ever had before or since; not dressed more colourfully or extravagantly as many suppose, but simply with more care, in fact his apparel was confined almost entirely to three plain colours: white, buff and blue-black.
[H]e was born in 1778 in Downing Street, his father being an adviser to the Prime Minister of the day, Lord North. After an education at Eton and Oxford he took up a position in the Prince of Wales’ regiment, the 10th Hussars. Never tested in battle his function essentially was to look good in uniform alongside the Prince at formal gatherings.
One of London’s more improbably rituals resulted from Beau’s friendship and patronage of the Prince, where a procession of grown men of great eminence would arrive at his home each afternoon to watch him – well dress.
The Prince of Wales, three dukes, a marquis, two earls and the playwright Richard Sheridan would sit in respectful silence and amazement as he had a daily bath in hot water – almost unheard of act the time – and from time to time milk was added to the water, setting a new fashion for London.
When the miserly and withered Marquess of Queensbury started taking milk baths, sales of milk plummeted as it was rumoured he returned the milk for resale after immersing his decrepit body into this mixture.
Beau would spend hours getting his apparel just right. A visitor, arriving at his home to find the floor strewn with cravats asked Robinson, his long-suffering valet, what was going on. “Those,” Robinson sighed “are our failures”. It was quite normal during the day to get through three shirts, two pairs of trousers, four or five cravats, two waistcoats, several pairs of stockings and a number of handkerchiefs.
Alas he was not as studious with his comments as with his apparel. After a falling out with the Prince of Wales who later snubbed him at a social occasion (the Prince by now was obese and referred to as the Prince of Whales a behind his back), Beau made what must be one of the most famously ill-advised remarks in social history, “Who’s your fat friend”? he asked of the Prince’s companion.
Ostracised by London’s elite he fled to France to escape his debtors and lived in poverty for 25 years but always looking restrained and immaculate for a pauper.