GQ on Beau Brummell: It Just Doesn’t Suit

When it comes to turning to Beau Brummell for inspiration, even people in the men’s fashion world get it wrong from time to time—and more often.

Popular misconceptions include:

  • Beau Brummell invented the tuxedo (or at least black-and-white for men’s evening wear)
  • That he employed several glove makers to make each pair of gloves
  • That the Prince Regent broke with Brummell over the impertinent demand, “Wales, ring the bell!” during one of their late-night piss-ups. (Brummell denied this episode repeatedly while en Caen.)

Over time these legends and others have taken on a life of their own, in part because Brummell’s wit tended toward the exaggeration of trifles. He liked to mess with people’s heads.

Still, we were not quite aghast to read this piece on the website of GQ, that venerable organ of manly style formerly known as Gentleman’s Quarterly. We were, however, nonplussed.

It starts out all right:

“Every time baggy, pleated, and yet somehow tightly tapered pants come back in style, there’s a chance that cuff might creep up the calf inching our fashion standards back to the time when men wore tights and breeches and everyone had the plague… To know how we have have arrived at our current sartorial epoch — and why we must defend it — we need first understand how we broke from the ‘ballet look’ in the first place. And for that, we have one man to thank: Beau Brummel.”

True enough for those who care to “defend” such things, except for the repeated spelling of Brummell’s name as “Brummel.” We can’t fault the author, Micah Fitzerman-Blue, overmuch for this, however. The original French editions, as well as some English translations, of Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly’s “Du Dandysme et de Georges Brummel” spell the man’s surname with only one “L.” It’s an easy mistake.

But then Fitzerman-Blue goes on to describe Brummell’s father as an “upper middle-class politician.” He wasn’t. William Brummell was in fact a bureaucrat, the private secretary to Lord North, Prime Minister of England from 1770 to 1782. Bill Brummell never held elective office.

Then there’s this:

“Between preening, plucking, polishing his boots with champagne (fact), and spending upwards of £800 a year (over $120,000 today) on tailoring, Brummel solidified his relationship with the Prince, and established his status as London’s style icon.” [Emphasis ours.]

No, not fact. As Nigel Rodgers points out in his soon-to-be-released book, “The Dandy: Peacock or Enigma” (of which more anon), “… the story that he used champagne as boot blacking is clearly a Brummell joke—champagne is sticky.” [Emphasis Rodgers’.] Anyone who has ever bungled an inebriated toast at a wedding should know this, and the apocryphal nature of this story has been pointed out in several previous works.

Finally, there’s the kicker:

“All that fuss actually resulted in something decidedly unfussy: full-leg trousers with matching jacket, a white linen shirt, and an ascot. In other words, a suit.”

We have a few other words. Brummell didn’t invent the suit any more than he invented the tuxedo. In fact, men had been wearing suits—coat, vest and some form of leg wear (usually breeches) of one matching fabric or another—for more than a century prior. Brummell never wore one. His day costume consisted of a blue coat, white or buff colored vest, fitted buff trousers and Hessian boots. For evening, he wore a blue coat and black trousers that closed tightly around the ankle. Brummell never used the word “ascot” unless to identify the town of that name in Berkshire or the horse races that have been taking place there for some three centuries now. Brummell wore—and wore exquisitely—a cravat. The ascot tie did not appear until several decades later.

In his biography, Ian Kelly quotes Brummell as saying, “I, Brummell, put the modern man into pants, dark coat, white shirt and clean linen.” In that sense, Brummell is the progenitor of modern men’s dress, but that’s hardly the same as saying that he came up with the suit as we know it today.

We should note that Fitzerman-Blue is not a staff writer for GQ but works for a commercial outfit called Bureau of Trade. Its mission is “finding, curating, and selling quality goods, while educating guys on what it is they’re actually buying…” (In this case, a Tom Ford Black Fleece suit.) Here’s to “finding, curating and selling.” Now if Bureau of Trade would only get the education part right—or maybe GQ should hire Esky to do a little fact checking.

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5 Responses to “GQ on Beau Brummell: It Just Doesn’t Suit”

  1. » Blog Archive » GQ on Beau Brummell: It Just Doesn’t Suit « Kvinto Says:

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  2. PLawrence Says:

    Nice piece, M2. GQ continues to fall further away from legitimate journalism.

  3. Bill Thompson Says:

    Good Lord, that’s awful. Shameful lack of research, what with the internets and all. And to think that Gentleman’s Quarterly used to be Apparel Arts. The Beau invented the suit?! Ditto suits (matching jacket and trousers) didn’t come about until the late 19th century. And they were considered undress. I thought everyone knew that, but I guess that’s just the vacu-sealed bubble I live in.

  4. Caroline Lynch Says:

    James looks wonderful, manly and masculine in that suit!! I love you a lot James. I love you so much.

  5. John M. Gilheany Says:

    A masterful setting of the record straight with regards Brummell’s actual legacy.

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