Today the quads of Oriel College are brimming with modern day dandies, oozing sophistication and extravagance. Little do they know that the original father of dandyism actually attended Oriel in 1793. George Bryan Brummell, or ‘Beau’, was at the forefront of Regency fashion and one of the most talked-about men in town. Dictator of taste and etiquette, Beau was an adamant socialite and dinner party wit. Despite lacking aristocratic blood, Beau climbed the social ladder with the aid of his flawless appearance and silver tongue. He helped to transform the way men dress today and initiated the British enthusiasm for tailoring.
Before Beau entered the scene, men would parade around in powdered wigs and buckle shoes. Today, these pompous peacocks doused with perfume, powder and paint are considered effeminate and eccentric. Beau was unusual in washing daily and his sombre, fitted attire set him apart from his contemporaries. In Brummell’s season bright colours and wigs were out whilst dark suits and cravats were in. Formal was the word of the moment. His belief was, ‘If people turn to look at you on the street, you are not well dressed.’
Yet his immaculate appearance was said to take five hours to perfect. His shoes were cleaned with champagne and three hairdressers attended his Roman coiffure. When asked how much it would cost to dress a man he supposedly said, ‘Why, with tolerable economy, I think it might be done with £800.’ The average craftsman received £1 per week.
Brummell’s famous white cravats were starched and worn so high up his neck that his nose pointed up in the air and he couldn’t turn his head. Attempting to follow suit, someone allegedly stiffened his cravat so hard that it cut his ear. Beau kept his starching a secret for some time, leaving society on tenterhooks as to his marvellous neck wear.
Whilst his dress was impeccable, his behaviour certainly wasn’t. Beau was notoriously badly behaved at Eton, and continued to be so at Oriel. His friendship with the Prince Regent ended abruptly at a ball. Upon entering, the Prince snubbed Brummell and, in a Sarkozy-Cameron moment, refused to shake his hand. Beau responded coyly with, ‘Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?’
Attempts were made to move beyond his profession as a full time fashionista when Beau entered for the Newdegate writing Prize. Unfortunately, due to his failure to win he quickly left Oriel and the literary world was never graced with his creations.
Beau was possibly the first ‘it-guy’ to walk the streets of London. A Regency Katie Price, this self-made dandy was more famous for being famous than anything else. Yet he made his way in aristocratic society without a title, little wealth, and no profession to speak of. He also achieved great fame and enduring influence over British fashion for centuries to come.