Courtesy of Mr. George Brummell…

Now, I shall be honest, I don’t talk much about clothes in my novels.

Not because I don’t know or haven’t spent long hours absorbed in the cut of a waistcoat at the Museum of Fashion in Bath or even longer studying the uniforms in the Musee d’Armee in Paris, but because long descriptions of clothes (his or hers) pretty much bore me witless.

(I also don’t write about the various mixtures and flavourings of snuff, for roughly the same reason…it adds nothing.)

But that’s not the same as ignorance.

Gentlemen’s clothing underwent a radical change during the early years of the 19th century.  The long war with France which began in 1792 had isolated Britain from the Parisian aristocratic trend-setters who had dominated the 18th century, along with their preference for brightly coloured silks and satins.

copy-of-beau-bonhamsIn their place, a new, austere, almost monochromatic aesthetic had taken hold, courtesy of one George Brummell.

And for this new vision of male style, based on the finest of British tailoring, Brummell drew his inspiration from the military (he’d served in a cavalry regiment for a while), from the clothes worn by English horsemen and country gentlemen and, above all, from a classical standard of masculinity as seen in the ancient Greek and Roman statuary, most notably the Apollo Belvedere.

And this ideal (as seen in the muted colouring of said statuary) of “unity, simplicity and a continuously flowing movement from one part of the body to the next” was at the core of Regency menswear.

So, gone was the ornate embroidery, gone were the flashy or clashy colours, gone were the baggy cravats and even baggier breeches.

Then too, the body beneath must needs be moulded into a figure worthy of the clothes–hence there’s a new emphasis on daily exercise as taken by gentlemen at the many boxing saloons, such as Gentleman Jackson’s on Bond Street, or Fencing schools about London.  Riding is also known to build strong back and shoulder muscles, as well as those of the thighs and calves.  Carriage driving also requires very strong shoulders…And if you’re thinking it’s all very macho, homo-erotic even, that’s because it is.

blokeAmong the essentials of this new neo-classical look were breeches or pantaloons for the day, made either of doeskin or chamois leather or a soft stocking-like fabric.  (If made of soft leather, often the wearer first wore them dampened, allowing them to dry to his physique so that they more closely resembled a second skin–they weren’t called bum-clingers for nothing.)

Both had corset lacing at the back, a fall front fastened by side buttons over the stomach, and were held up with braces to maintain the severe and fitted line over the thigh.  They were also cut wider on one side at the top of the thigh, and higher on the other, to accommodate the family jewels, in a custom known as dressing to one side.  Beneath the knee, button fastenings kept the fabric taut down the length of the leg.

Evening breeches or pantaloons were made of sheer black silk jersey, knitted cashmere or a stretchy silk-stockinette imported from India, made with only one seam per leg and that along the outside–though this was sometimes embroidered or ‘clocked’ down the length of it–all of which was intended to frame the flexing muscles of the thigh.

During an evening’s dancing, the jersey would cling tighter and tighter as the wearer perspired until they looked more like they’d been painted on than put on.  Also, due to the extreme sheerness of some of these fabrics, for modesty’s sake, the breeches or pantaloons might be lined with either swanskin, as they termed cotton flannel, or a sheer cotton.

For summer, the breeches would be cut the same, but made of stout pale or white linen or nankeen, a heavy twilled cotton.

Just as important was a gentleman’s fitted waistcoat, which would have been made of white or skin-toned fabric–the idea being that if a gentleman were to remove his coat, in his shirtsleeves and from a distance, he would resemble nothing so much as a naked Greek god, muscular, beautiful, carved from marble or stone.

Coats were now made of dark matte fabrics such as wool Bath cloth or ‘superfine’, sculpted through the back and shoulders, with a high collar to provide a contrasting frame to the whiteness of the starched cravats.  With the new emphasis in society on sartorial matters, there were many specialist tailors from whose work to chuse:  Stulz was known to make a large number of the military’s coats.  But there was also John Weston’s at No. 34 Old Bond Street, or even Mr. Brummell’s favourite, Schweitzer & Davidson on Cork Street.

BAL_202477Beneath it all, the shirt of white linen, plain and lightly starched, with collars “so large that, before being folded down, it completely hid [the] head and face…” with tiny buttons at the neck and cuffs.  Cuffs were worn long–a good inch or two longer than the coat sleeve to emphasise the fact that the gentleman did not work.

And of course, the cravat.

Made of fine Irish muslin, a triangle was cut on the diagonal from a square yard of fabric, with its edged plainly stitched.  This triangle was then folded twice and wrapped carefully about the neck, with the ends tied in one of several manners before the wearer lowered his chin to create a neat series of folds which were either rubbed into place by a day-old shirt or pressed with a hot iron.  (I favour the day-old shirt method, myself…less danger of frying the larynx.)

Footwear?  Highly polished Hessian boots with spurs by day and thinly-soled black pumps for evening.

Stockings?  Depending on the season and the hour, he might wear fine knitted wool stockings or silk stockings, plain or clocked–his preference.

Underwear?  Very little was worn and then only rarely–it being pretty much a thing of the 18th century, although it was still in use (in cold weather, for example) and referred to as ‘summer trousers’.  In this look of self-aware but careless, casual, sensual arrogance, there was no room for lumpy knickers or rucked up shirt tails.

1812_greatcoatThere would also have several driving coats and/or greatcoats, caped, and made of a heavier wool worsted or “Norwich stuff” for colder, rainier weather–that’s most days from September to May and most of June).

Anything else?  Gloves.  Which perform a practical service–they kept the hands clean of city dirt, possibly warm, and if the fellow was driving or riding, they protected his hands and fingers from blistering by the reins.

Hats?  High-crowned bevors from Lock’s, the Hatters, on St. James’s Street.

Moreover, a gentleman would have dressed some three or four times during the course of a normal day.

And according to the journal of a visitor to London at the time, he would also have required, per week, in addition to the usual “20 shirts, 24 pocket handkerchiefs, 9 or 10 summer trousers, 30 neck handkerchiefs, a dozen waistcoats, and stockings at discretion”, a chintz dressing gown and Turkish slippers for taking his breakfast.

A few years back I attended a display of Regency menswear as part of the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, entitled, Undressing Mr. Darcy.  And during the course of the presentation, the abovementioned list was read out and the audience encouraged to think what vain and shallow creatures were the men of 1812 that they required so many shirts.

Ehem.  Let me just put it this way:  No deodorant.  And no loo roll.  (Thank heavens for those clean shirts…)

In fact, due to the no deodorant situation, one finds that many of the surviving shirts of the era have neat triangular patches inserted under the arm in order to eradicate the yellow perspiration staining.

purefoy as brummellLike Brummell, other gentlemen of his class and station bathed every part of his body every day, and in hot water.  Brummell himself used no perfumes (they were considered very 18th century) but smelled instead of very fine linen and country washing–which he said were the mark of a gentleman.

So that’s a little of what himself is famous for.  I think we owe him a myriad of thanks for the introduction of daily bathing.  I think that often.

However, there’s one small point that I feel I should also mention and that’s that  Brummell loved dogs.  Really doted on the things.  And they are said to have had an instinctive affection for him.  And it’s probably that which tells me–regardless of all that was said about him and there is a lot which is to no one’s credit–he and I should have got along just fine.

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Yes, I’m ranting…

Yes, I am ranting.  Rant, rant, rant

And I’ll tell you why.  Because of the internet. 

Because it makes me crazy and because so many misstatements of fact, so many bare-faced lies, and so much misinformed drivel is trotted out as fact on all the various blogs that clot up the blogosphere that it makes me absobloominglutely crazy. 

So there I was today, reading along in my quaint little Englishey fashion, when I came upon a blog about George Brummell–or Beau Brummell, if you prefer.  Whatever. 

And within two paragraphs, I was swearing.  Expleting.  Using the full-force of my extensive vocabulary in three languages! 

(It’s at times like this that I hate being an expert.  I hate, hate, hate it.  I want to be a nice person, you see.  I want to be supportive and lovely and charming and say things like, “That’s utterly fab!” and “I think you’ve done a smashing job…” 

I do not, not, not want to be known as that wild-eyed, wilder-haired semi-lunatic professor who throws chalk [hard] with unerring accuracy at his students and hits them smack in the forehead when they get their Latin verbs wrong!  [I had a professor like that once.  He was utterly brilliant.  Terrifying.  But brilliant.])

Also, please understand that I don’t really have an interest in Brummell one way or another.  I mean, I know lots about the fellow, because I read and research bloody everything, but knowing about him doesn’t get me firing on all cylinders like say the Russian light cavalry or formation of the Landwehr in 1813 does, or anything.  I mean, I’m sure he was perfectly delightful but…

But, okay, back to this blog…Because the first thing that set my teeth on edge was a bit about Brummell going to Eton where he ‘got to rub shoulders with the aristocracy’ as if it’s some sort of rare privilege accorded to a special few and we should all genuflect or something. 

So let me be perfectly clear here:  I am friends with several members of the aristocracy.  Get over it. 

In fact, until her death, my very dearest friend in all the world had a title–an ancient one.  And do you know what?  She was brilliant.  She was smashing.  She was the very least up-herself, stand-on-ceremony, proud or arrogant person in the entire world.  And I loved her dearly.  And I miss her like stink. 

But I’ll tell you something else.  She had to brush her teeth.  Just like everyone else.  And when she didn’t, she got cavities.  Just like everyone else. 

But back to Brummell. 

The thing about that statement–besides the obvious aristophilia issue which has me splenetically croaking–is that the author had just finished telling us that Brummell was born at 10 Downing Street where his father lived because he was the private secretary to Lord North.  Who was the Prime Minister under George III.  And who had, clearly, a title. 

And in and out of the front door of Downing Street, handing Billy Brummell (young George’s father) the requisite sweeteners to ensure that they could get in to see the Prime Minister were half the aristocratic heads in the kingdom.  Because that’s how politics worked in those days.  

So, young George would have been ‘rubbing shoulders’ with the aristocracy from the day he was born–or any time he wasn’t in the nursery…

Okay.  (Breathing in.  Breathing out.)  So then I skipped a bit, because there wasn’t a wall close enough at hand against which I could bang my head.  Hard…

And then I came across the statement that the thingie that’s called a Bow-window is called that because Beau Brummell used to sit in White’s bow window overlooking St. James’s Street.  What? 

Has no one but me heard of that superlative set of volumes known as the Oxford English Dictionary????  The repository of all the most wonderful information and the definitive authority on how and when words came into use in English?  And there’s no bally excuse for not using it because it’s now ON-LINE!

And had the author of this blog bothered to check any of her facts in that fine and noble work, she would know that it was Samuel Richardson who first used the word ‘bow-window’ in print in the year 1753. 

That’s 25 years before George Brummell made his appearance in Downing Street as a squalling brat. 

Later, Repton uses in in a discourse on gardens and conservatories or something.  And Austen used it in 1816 in Emma.  It had nothing to do with Brummell or his soubriquet.

[I have–since yesterday–refered to the index in my copy of Ian Kelly’s biography, Beau Brummell, The Ultimate Dandy, and have found that Kelly does indeed refer to this thrice between pages 245-46.  He writes:  “The facade of White’s clubhouse…was remodelled during the second half of the eighteenth century, and a little later a bay window was added over a former doorway that became a landmark on St. James’s Street.  Here Brummell held court in the afternoons, in a bow window that became known as the Beau Window…The men of the Dandiacal Body…’mustered in force’ around Brummel’s chair in the Beau Window, watching the world go by and telling jokes.”  I, therefore, stand corrected on this point.]

Pause for more of that breathing manoeuvre…

So then, I skipped along and discovered the startling information that [allegedly] Brummell contracted the syphilis from which he died in 1840 in the last years of the 18th century, when he was stationed in Brighton with the Prince’s own 10th Regiment of Light Dragoons. 

Hello? 

The only problem with that bijou fact-ette is that it’s impossible–which she would have known had the author bothered to read the whole of the Kelly biography that she cited in her footnotes. 

Because syphilis was a fast-working killer in those days and as Brummell was clearly suffering the torments of tertiary syphilis in the 1820s and 30’s, he had to have contracted the disease in London, at the height of his fame and popularity.  So around 1811. 

Because by 1816, he’d shaved off his hair to combat the baldness that was a side-effect of the mercury treatment.

Had he contracted the disease in Brighton before 1797 as she averred, he would have been bald and losing his teeth by 1803–the very time he was introducing the starched cravat of folded linen to the gentlemen of White’s Club! 

And the thing that really vexes me and peeves me in all this is that now this blog with all this rot is out there.  You know?  And some perfectly charming little person, having read a Georgette Heyer novel or something, will think, “Oooh Beau Brummell, I should google him…”  

But instead of coming across a piece that will enlighten her and give her an insight into the early 19th century mindset and provide some useful historical context, instead of all that, this charming little person will get regurgitated sancitmonious Victorian de-sexualising b*ll*cks. 

Because that’s what happened!  By the time Gronow and his mateys were writing this pap about Brummell, Victoria was on the throne, Wellington–another quite the virile man about town–was a staid, elderly statesman, and all that naughty Regency stuff had to be white-washed–and for heaven’s sake, no one mention Harriette Wilson (Brummell’s close confidante and Wellington’s former mistress).  And to say they messed with their facts doesn’t even get warm!

The very worst I ever read of that stuff was one late Victorian biog of Brummell which simpered on about his mincing walk which was like he was tiptoeing around the raindrops. 

Ya, right.  A chappie who was a cavalry officer–think boots, well-built shoulders, hard-drinking, hard-swearing, hard-riding, manly man, a fellow who spent 4-5 hours in the saddle every day–is supposed to have tippy-toed around the raindrops.  I don’t think so.

Oh–and another thing.  Brummell broke his nose when meeting face-to-face with a cobblestone.  On account of his horse having shied and spooked. 

Ehem. 

I also have met with the ground, nose to nose, as it were, pretty much in the same way.  Fortunately, it wasn’t a cobblestone, it was a hummock on the South Downs, so my nose does not have an interesting tilt to one side.  However…It’s not Romantic.  It’s just what happens…

And I’d also like to add that that prissy little picture of him isn’t Brummell.  The most likely candidate for an accurate picture of him is this one with the broken nose…

So what was Brummell then, if he wasn’t this prissy sissy clothes-horse? 

He was a man’s man.  A very well educated man who wrote rather spiffing epigrams in Latin (most Eton boys did so–they’d been writing plays in Latin or Greek since they were about 14.)  He loved dogs.  And dogs loved him.  He didn’t wear perfume or scented after-shave–he said a man should smell like clean, country-washed linen and nothing else.

And he most especially loved fabric.  Not in a girlie kind of way–but more in the way I conjecture someone like Karl Lagerfeld or Yves St. Laurent loves fabric.  He loved the weaves.  He was passionate about the depth of colour in a good English wool.  He loved how the cut of a coat could show off the fabric. 

And the early 19th century was a great time for English wool–the new mechanised looms were producing some fantastic weaves and blends…and he loved them all.  They set him alight.  And his enthusiasm for the cut of the fabric and for the design that would emphasise that changed English menswear forever. 

He was a dandy when the word didn’t mean some bloke who wears all different colours at one go and has floppy hair. 

A dandy as he lived it [dandy in those days was defined as the opposite of a bore–work that out…] wore perfect tailoring in subtle and dark colours–dark blue or dark green jackets with buff coloured breeches for daytime and for evening black breeches (later pantaloons) with a well-cut black or navy coat.  All of which sounds very contemporary, very button-down, very elegant.  No? 

Oh, and he had a great sense of humour–and played lots of practical jokes.  A lot like Oscar Wilde from what I can tell…

He was seriously addicted to gambling.  Compulsively.  Obsessively.  And it was this which destroyed him.  He gambled away millions.  And his addiction destroyed all his relationships–just as any addiction if left untreated will do–obliterated all other interests.  It left the friends who lent him money to pay off his debts seriously up against it. 

And in the end, he had no choice but to face the bailiffs or scarper off to Calais.  Which is what he chose to do.  In disgrace and ignominy. 

As for this other stuff, well…I think what I need to say is, People, do your research.  Do it properly.  Check everything.  Don’t present yourself as an expert if you’re not.  And don’t even think about blagging it.  

If only because I’m sick of knocking my head against the wall because you can’t be bothered.  

Otherwise, shut the **** up.

Austen, the cash cow…

Yes, that’s right.  That’s what she’s become…

Before I go any further, let me say, I was reading another author’s blog this morning about Austen and he was ranting away about how her sharp and satiric work has been stripped of its cleverness, its irony and repartee and bundled into the emotional erotica of Regency Romances (and no, I’m not referring to Georgette Heyer, here)…and I’m thinking, I could have a heated agreement with this person.

Which brings us back to now.

Because what I wanted to say, besides agreeing with this chap, is just how deeply disturbing it is and it should be–not just to me, but to those who call themselves Janeites and who read and admire her work–that she’s thus treated.

The latest instalment in this saga is the announcement by Harper-Collins that they’ve signed Joanna Trollope to write a new, contemporary Sense & Sensibility.  When I broke this news to a friend (with an MA in English) she burst out laughing and all she could manage for some time was, “Joanna Trollope?  Joanna Trollope?” before falling about in another fit of mirth.  Continue reading

A bit about the facts of life, circa 1812…

Yes, that’s right, boys and girls, it’s time to talk about sex.  Are you all sitting comfortably?  Good. 

(Actually, I don’t care if you are.) 

The purpose of sex in the early 19th century was, guess what?  To have fun?  Well, yes, possibly…but really, it was about procreation.  Lots of it.  Babies.  Lots of them. 

 They considered the ideal number of children for a family to be eleven.  (George III had fifteen…)

Why eleven?  Who knows?  But it may very well have to do with the high rates of infant mortality in the period. 

There are even sex manuals from the period and slightly earlier detailing how to ensure conception.  (Yes, indeed there are.  No, you can’t see them.)

This they believed was furthered by the man giving the woman a good time.  The greater her enjoyment, the greater the chances of conception.

They also had firm ideas about how to get boys–we learn this from the invaluable scribblings of Captain Grose in the late 18th century.  It was called riding rantipole or the dragon riding St. George–the lady on top, as it were.  And this was said to get a bishop (a boy).

(I implore you, do not ask me if this works…I have no evidence one way or the other, I assure you.  I’m just telling you what they thought.)

Because children were essential to a family’s business, to inheritance, to property.  Children were effectively your pension plan and your retirement carers. 

Remember too that the high infant mortality rates do not belong exclusively to one class more than another.  Within the memories of many of their grandparents–so just over 100 years–Queen Anne had seventeen pregnancies and births and not one of her children lived to adolescence.   

And no, there wasn’t really any such thing as birth control.  Well, yes and no… 

Again, according to Grose, there were prophylactics called cundums, named after the individual who thought of the idea.  We know Casanova had one of sheep’s gut that he tied in place with a pink ribbon.  But as it will have been used and washed and used and, er, washed or not, as the case may be, I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions about its effectiveness.

But birth control in those days was more generally spelled, ‘having a mistress’.  And that will have been how many men dealt with it.

Now, before we go passing a great deal of judgement from our hindsight position of 21st century medical care and physical well-being, it’s vital to remember that at the best of times, childbirth in the early 19th century was a chancy business. 

Women’s internal organs will have often been severely malformed due to the corsets they wore from childhood…and if the doctor told you that one more pregnancy would most certainly kill your wife, you might approach the situation somewhat differently.  Abstinence was not generally seen as a realistic option, nor was masturbation, so they’re not considering it as adultery or as wrong

(Ian Kelly’s fine biography of Beau Brummell talks about how the boys at Eton were weekly lectured about the evils of masturbation.  Besides hellfire, which is always a useful deterrent, they believed it led to physical deformities, excessive drooling and blindness, and told the boys so.) 

London was at the time the sex capital of Europe.  And the gentleman’s world of London, the world of White’s and Brooks’ and Boodle’s, had a strong measure of sexual indulgence about it.

King Street, which was most famous for its high class brothels, abuts onto St. James’s Street where those clubs are located…it was just a stroll away for the men of Mayfair and St. James’s. 

The house of the possibly most famous courtesan of the era, Harriet Wilson, where she entertained Brummell, Wellington, et al. was there, but hers wasn’t the only one by any means. 

Nor was this, in any way, a society ignorant about sex or sheltered from the realities of it. 

 The early 19th century is still an essentially rural society–despite the beginnings of industrialisation in the north.  On a farm, horses, bulls, dogs are all in possession of their crown jewels and procreation is happening all around.  So the women and men of whatever class would have been fully conversant with the facts of life.   It’s hard not to be in those circumstances.

In the shops and journals, caricatures of the Prince Regent and his brothers were generally of a sexual nature, or perhaps I should say, an explicitly sexual nature.

Their clothes too were designed to heighten nature’s endowments and they added what they could to this.  Women were known to wear nothing but a buff coloured silk chemise under their pale muslins, which when dampened, clung most faithfully to the wearer’s body and especially to her thighs, thus making it appear as if she wore nothing at all underneath her gown.

The men’s breeches, again tight, were cut with one thigh slightly roomier to accomodate the crown jewels.  If one were wearing buckskin breeches, one generally had them cut tightly, then for the first wearing, soaked them so that they dried as a second skin. 

Nor were they particularly strict about marriage being a necessary prelude to sexual relations.  In the 1780’s, it’s recorded that 58% of first births occurred within less than nine months of the marriage. 

By 1800, 40% of women getting married were already pregnant.  So by the early 19th century, although the general attitude toward promiscuity outside of wedlock is changing, it’s changing slowly, and that mostly due to the grassroots popularity of Methodism.

This isn’t to say they thought of nothing but sex.  For this is also the era where a collective social conscience first appears–in 1812 the pillory for women was finally abolished, debtors and their families were at last separated from felons in prison, and in response to the abuse of children in the industrial north, the 1598 Apprenticeship Acts were reformed. 

So there you are.  They weren’t ignorant, they weren’t Victorians, and they weren’t prudes.  And though they never reached nor aspired to the levels of sexual indulgence of 18th century France, still, they were pretty dashed sexy. 

And they knew it.

The Incalculable Importance of a Fine Waistcoat

Now, there are those who believe, today, that a waistcoat is nothing more than a mere bagatelle in the arsenal of a gentleman’s wardrobe.  A thing to be trotted out with morning dress for weddings, with tails to achieve appropriate white-tie-ness, and even, should one be of a foppish disposition, with a dinner jacket.  Of course, should one ride to hounds, one may also sport a natty windowpane check with the hunting pink.

But if this is your narrow definition of a waistcoat’s virtues, then I hesitate to mention it, but you are a Philistine.  A Visigoth.  A mere dabbler in the higher realms of sartorial elegance.  Continue reading

A Gentleman Strips Off…

Following on from Friday’s discussion of learning to tie a cravat, it seemed the sensible thing to do to learn how to remove it.  The which I have now done after taking some advice on the matter.  

And the method is as follows:  Index finger into the front of the Gordian knot and pull, though not so hard to begin strangulation proceedings.  The knot should give way.  And then once that has happened, index finger into the looped-over bit and pull again.    

And there I am, looking devilishly ready for mischief, or bed, with my cravat ends hanging loosely about my neck.  Continue reading

What a Gentleman wears…

I keep getting told that this is a subject of endless fascination–which if I’m honest, always leaves me scratching my head.  But there you go.

The early 19th century sees English tailoring dominating male fashion for the first time.  Previously, it had always been Paris which had been the dominant capital of fashion.  But the combined forces of the ongoing war against the French and Napoleon (which would have made the idea of all things French repugnant to many) and Beau Brummell allowed the English tailors to show what they could do.  And what they could do what draw on Britain’s extra-ordinarily wide access to different weights and weaves of wool, and cut that wool so that it would mould to the figure as only a natural fabric, when well-cut, can do.  Continue reading