Fashion for Men – Sartorial Splendour from Brummel to Bomer

From the dandyism of England’s Beau Brummell to the romantic exploits of Spain’s Don Juan from the abolition of the black slave trade by William Wilberforce to the storming of the Bastille by an angry mob and the empirical ambitions of Napoleon, the era of revolutionaries and romantics in England and Europe was peopled by an extraordinary cast of characters, the men and women who helped make the modern world.

England’s George Byron Brummell (1778-1840) was considered the high priest of Dandyism, deciding what the well dressed man would wear, remodelling the dress coat, decreeing cravats should be starched and bringing pantaloons into fashion.

Byron CropHe was the first man to wear evening dress of black and he denounced showy materials, fantastic suits, frills and perfume for men. His constant aim was a sober, but exquisite perfection, much like our unknown Gentleman of 1809.

A Gentleman 1809 painter unknown

A Gentleman 1809 painter unknown

Lady Hester Stanhope reported Lord Byron once said to her ‘If the world is so silly as to admire my absurdities – you and I may know better, but what does it signify? His house, furniture, library and all his possessions were very much admired, as were his agreeable cool style.

The cult of dandyism spread as far as Australia and America, taking on heroic form while opposing and challenging current prejudices and social mores. In our fashionable conscious global society today, beautiful boys are very desirable.

My choice for a very accessible modern day dandy would be dapper conman-turned-FBI consultant Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer) in the recent television series White Collar.

Actor Matt Bomer was so convincing, that he and Caffrey’s wardrobe became inexorably linked as retailers took advantage of his stylish image to give men a modern makeover.

Neal Caffrey’s taste in all things from his wardrobe to the wine he drinks became part of many conversations about modern man; his suited style and sartorial splendour.

His fashionable bespoke 50’s retro ‘look’ was the brainchild of White Collar and Caffrey’s creator Jeff Eastin.

He drew on the original style of the ‘Hollywood Rat Pack’ for inspiration, wanting to create an ‘original’ fashion statement for his main character, one retailers are now inspired by.

Matt Bomer’s closet secrets were constantly explored when the series was running and most people would find it hard to believe he’s really a self-confessed casual jeans and tee shirt kind of guy.

Dressing up as Neal Caffrey all the time has surely given him more than a few tips.

He was very convincing as a prince of perfection, a man at the very essence of contemporary cool. His elegant, sophisticated and smart clothes would take him anywhere, from Hollywood to Broadway in New York and on to the theatre in the West End of London.

This is where traditionally the tailors of Savile Row would have outfitted many of England and Europe’s most dashing men, royal or otherwise, as well as the silver screen’s most dapper of stars.

Today that includes actor Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock and Star Trek). He has been seen around the town wearing impeccably tailored Savile Row suits.

Dismayed at the word ‘bespoke’ being bandied about the tailors of the Savile Row Bespoke Association hit back recently laying down some laws about what can be considered bespoke.

‘A suit must start with an individual pattern created by a master cutter, who will also superintend all production; the tailors will be based in England; and all work will be done by hand and require a minimum of 50 hours. The garments resulting from this time-honored process—and only those—will be worthy of bearing the label Savile Row Bespoke’.

Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony
Stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni

The Macaroni. Mezzotint by Philip Dawe for John Bowles. London 1773

From the seventeenth century onward in Europe and England some style of necktie was the subject of passing fashion; it always provided a good indication of the spirit of its times.

During the early 1770’s when Captain Cook was just discovering Australia, young London men were making a fashion of eccentricity and excess.

This was the year when pasta was first introduced onto the London scene. Because the Italians had become renowned for their flamboyant excess over the centuries, English society gave this new generation of fashionable young blades the name Macaroni.

For many commentators, the Macaroni’s, like modern day Goths or Emo’s, were a sign of the deep corruption and luxuriousness of a modern society fuelled by new wealth.

In fact they illustrated a recurrent phenomenon in male fashion throughout the centuries, a younger generations’ radical, provocative rejection of their parent’s generation through clothing.

I am an Englishman, and naked I stand here,
Musing in my mind what raiment I shall wear…

The extravagance of the newly established Macaroni fashion extended to their neckties or cravats, which were often of silk sporting a gigantic lace bow.

Over in France the extravagance of the London Macaroni’s was matched only by the Incroyables, another eccentric group of young men whose ‘heads rested on their cravats as if on pillows’.

Both groups were the idle scions of wealthy families determined to convey, through their bizarre dress, a complete contempt for conservatism and a total rejection of ‘good taste’.

The word ‘taste’ was used often in the context of all sorts of matters relating to the arts at this time. It is in many ways, a very unsatisfactory word. However it does remain perhaps the only one that really expresses an immutable quality of discernment, criticism and perception.

The Macaroni’s were only interested in extremes and so they founded the Macaroni Club. Setting out to be leaders of style, they introduced onto the fashion scene a plain, very much shorter coat, pleated and flared at the back to be worn with a plain or horizontally striped waistcoat and plain or vertically striped breeches.

Macaroni’s also painted, wore two watches and carried pretty nosegays. It was all such a lark, really.

With silken coats and caps and golden rings
With ruffs and cuffs and farthingales and things
With scarfs and fans and double change of bravr’y
With amber bracelets, beads and all this knav’ry.

Costume for ‘Marie Antoinette’ 2006 worn by Kirsten Dunast, based on historical imagery photo by Belinda Watsford at Hollywood Costume exhibition, Melbourne 2013

In England and in France after 1770 a simultaneous elevation of the hair for both men and women caused a sensation.

At first it was simply brushed stiffly up from the forehead, and then suddenly it soared like a skyscraper, quite out of control, while the queue behind for men was bound up into a greased club.

On extremely grand occasions, models of coaches and horses, ships in full sail, windmills, battles, butterflies ad other unlikely things usually of blown glass were perched on top of the snowy, decorated mountain that was a women’s hairstyle and the boys couldn’t let them have all the fun.

Powder, pomade, and even plaster of Paris were the ingredients used. Most especially the powder, which was greyish, pink, blue or violet, was heavily laced with scent.

It is extremely difficult now to get an exact idea about the heights to which these toupees grew; the evidence provided visually by the caricaturists of the day while profuse, was also grounded in excess.

Whatever, the Macaroni was the man who took the town by storm and many a beau, old or young suffered the anxieties of male vanity and modern effeminacy, which reached hysterical levels.

Fashion was focused on the figure and head of the Macaroni, who was the most overdressed and effete man about the town.

He was the complete opposite of the Mohawks, Bodgies and Widgies of the 50’s and 60’s last century, who were rough and terrible, whereas he was delicate and contemptible.

The fortunes of cosmeticians and coiffeurs in London reached their height simultaneously with the elevation of hair, for they were all doomed to have only one way to go after such excesses of extravagance and it all came tumbling down.

This was the London of Regency dandy or of Bucks and Fancy, who idolized bare-knuckle prizefighters.

There were learned societies and earnest lecture institutes like the Royal Academy of Arts, Sciences and Commerce, patronized by the Prince of Wales, and peopled with a whole showcase of ‘emphatic personalities’ of which the whole era was to abound.

Beau Brummel dared to set rules for behaviour on social occasions and spent six hours a day dressing. He was the antithesis of the Macaroni’s, choosing subtle delicately varied colours immaculate linens.

With his meticulous attention to detail, he entirely moved the goal posts establishing new guidelines for English gentleman to follow.

He said, ‘My first thought is for my cravat. It is our test of good taste. I work for hours in hopes that it will appear to be knotted in haste’.

George Bryan Beau Brummell (1778-1840) a Captain of the Tenth Hussars was a friend of the Prince of Wales, the future George IV, who was a good bit older and greatly impressed with his great wit and sense of style.

He was constantly in the Prince’s company and regarded in the circles around the Prince as a virtual oracle on matters related to dress and etiquette.

First as Prince of Wales, then as Regent and lastly as King, George IV was ridiculed by his contemporaries for his size, pretensions, extravagant passions, clumsy love affairs and disastrous relationships. In short he became a target for satirists and cartoonists his face a mask of rouge and grease paint.

For historians of style the Regency is an age of extravagance, or a paradox – where extremes met.

The oriental excesses of his pavilion at Brighton with its glittering domes and minarets were set off brilliantly by the beautifully proportioned, neo classical stucco of Regent Street and Regent’s Park, all of which were designed by architect John Nash under the Prince of Wales Patronage.

Count Alfred D’Orsay art lover, painter, sculptor and one of the great dandies of the nineteenth century who also managed to, we are told, ‘seduce all of London’ pioneered the wearing of a black cravat.

Black had long been the colour associated with ‘gentlemen’ as laid down by Baldassare Castiglione in his book The Courtier (1528). It was one all eighteenth century gentlemen endeavoured to adhere to.

Portrait of Henry Angelo (1756-1835) by Mather Brown c1790 courtesy National Portrait Gallery, London

Sword masters, whose skills were less needed as modern warfare and guns were being revolutionised adapted, turning themselves into the equivalent of modern day personal trainers.

They instructed their aristocratic masters in the art associated with what would eventually evolve into the sport of fencing in private clubs and gymnasiums as a way of keeping fit and trim.

Henry Angelo son of a famous Italian equestrian and sword master, Domenico Tremonando, was considered the best. Angelo inherited his father’s Académie and shared rooms at number 13 Bond Street with the pugilist, who was Champion of England, Gentleman John Jackson.

He is a dashing figure that the poet Lord Byron first had lessons from at Harrow and for the rest of his life retained affection for.

So we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night
Though the heart be still as loving,
and the moon be still as bright

For the sword outwears its sheath
And the soul wears out the breast
And the heart must pause to breathe
And love itself have rest

Though the night was made for loving
And the day returns too son,
Yet we’ll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.

Of all the fashionable celebrities of the romantic ‘Regency’ era in England one stands out.

George, Lord Byron’s portraits depict the countenance the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge had said was ‘so beautiful a countenance I scarcely ever saw…his teeth so many stationary smiles – his eyes the open portals of the sun – things of light, and for light – and his forehead so ample, and yet so flexible, passing from marble smoothness into a hundred wreathes and lines and dimples correspondent to the feelings and sentiments he is uttering’.

With his aristocratic demeanour, personal charm and beauty, Lord Byron, a child of passion and the most famous celebrity of his day, was the very image of what a poet should be.

Lord Byron created a romantic, anti-Brummell anti-Dandy fashion for open necked shirts. He wore his hair short letting it cluster in curls near the face, with it longer at the back and sides.

And, he stylishly wore pearls.

Beautiful-Lord-ByronHis uncomplicated coiffeur must have been a great relief; so much easier to do, to manage; so much less prone to harbour undesirable aliens, and best of all, so much easier to wash.

Is it any wonder that he became the toast of London society and like his modern day counterpart Matt Bomer, Brummel was a man at the very essence of cool.

‘your fair titles
Are but shadows of your ancestry;

And you walk in ‘em when your land is gone,
like the pale ghosts of dead nobility

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013-2014



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