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.
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.
Among 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.
Beneath 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.
There 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.
Like 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.