The 19th-century dandy Mr George Bryan Brummell, better known as Mr Beau Brummell, was famous for his witty one-liners and sharp put-downs, perhaps more than anyone else in the history of male fashion. He is a controversial figure whose history, I suspect, is peppered with fiction, but what is not in doubt was his impeccable sense of style. Mr Brummell's sartorial influence over the English Regency rendered him the arbiter of men's fashion of the era, and a crucial figure in the creation of the modern man's wardrobe.
Mr Brummell was born in 1778 into an upper-class family that was wealthy enough to send him to Eton (his father, private secretary to Lord North, left him an inheritance in the region of £30,000 - quite a fortune for the time), but not sufficiently enough to fund his activities in the racy aristocratic circles he later moved in. He would eventually spiral into debt, although his financial woes were not a patch on his friend the Prince Regent who, before age 33, had amassed arrears of more than £630,000.
Mr Brummell's rise to fame began when he joined the 10th Royal Hussars (the Prince of Wales' Own regiment in the British Army), and, although the wage he earned would have been insufficient to keep him in the elite circle of men he so admired, his popularity elevated him to the rank of captain. He had joined the elite "fast set" that hovered around the prince, enjoying a life if not always dissolute then certainly idle. Drinking and gambling were the basics, and with "Prinny" (as the prince was known behind his back) as company, London's tailors and other tradesman obsequiously presented bills to Mr Brummell that they knew would not be settled. They tolerated this, because a customer acquainted with royalty was worth its weight in gold.
An English 19th century black and white engraving of Mr Brummell
It was this freedom from financial constraint that, paired with his elevated social status (he secured a house on Mayfair's Chesterfield Street), enabled Mr Brummell to impose onto the aristocracy his preferred mode: closely tailored, more subdued clothes and suits with full-length trousers, but always adorned with an immaculately arranged cravat. His paired-down sartorial approach flourished, and Lord Byron's remark that Mr Brummell had nothing more remarkable than a "certain exquisite propriety" perhaps best explains the shift from flamboyant Georgian menswear to a style that let a man's personality take the lead.
Mr Brummell always knew when to time a dramatic gesture in order to keep his name in the swirl of daily gossip characteristic of 19th-century London. His refusal to go to Manchester when his regiment was posted there was a delight to all, even though it meant he was forced to resign from his commission. He was the quintessential Mayfair man who loved assessing women from the window of a club, and in true upper-class style of the day buying a belle de jour for an hour's fun, or even a horse at Tattersalls for rather longer. Then there were the society hostesses to sip tea with, the balls and the gambling. Regency gentlemen were rarely bored, and Mr Brummell's witty commentary complemented their lifestyle perfectly.
Did he really say that his boots were polished with champagne? Did he claim that the perfectly tied cravat might be preceded by as many as five crumpled failures on the floor in front of his mirror - a ritual it is claimed that Prince Regent himself sat in on? Did he actually make the remark that was to define upper-class arrogance right into the last century, when he opined that if John Bull (the public) turned to look at you, then you were not well dressed?
He was the quintessential Mayfair man who loved assessing women from the window, and in true upper-class style buying a belle de jour for an hour's fun, or a horse at Tattersalls for longer
Ultimately, the moment that finished Mr Brummell's reign as absolute arbiter elegantiarum of menswear came when the prince, on the arm of Lord Alvanley, one of his favourite cronies, publicly snubbed him. "Alvanley," Mr Brummell responded loudly, "Who's your fat friend?"
It was the end. Brummell was out of favour and his downfall was swift. Debts were called in, creditors camped at his door and he was forced to flee to France - the midnight coach ride that has marked so many fallen favourites in English history. He ended up in Caen in northern France, where he died of syphilis after being driven to insanity by its ravages, his poverty and loneliness.
Was Mr Brummell a visionary or a fool? There is no doubt that he exerted influence in a period when masculine dress was becoming very much simplified after the feathers and furbelows of Georgian fashion. The slimmer silhouette on which he insisted was influenced by many things - military and naval dress uniform, tightly cut riding jackets, the dirt and grime of the new cities that encouraged sober colours. And, often forgotten, the influence of the Grand Tour which had taken the English aristocracy across Europe to the paradise of Italy, especially Venice and Rome, where they learnt from classical sculpture the perfection of the toned male body with no adornment: an archetype that has been with us ever since.
However, it is perhaps modern women rather than men who owe the greatest debt of gratitude to Mr Brummell. His insistence on personal hygiene and cleanliness - fresh linen every day - was revolutionary in a society where changing underwear or even wearing it was considered of no importance at all by aristocratic men who rode hard and drank hard - and had the body odours to prove it. If Mr Brummell set them on the long road to washing the intimate parts of their bodies, they owe him a great debt of gratitude, as do we all.