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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Regency Hygiene, or the Lack Thereof, Part II: Beau Brummell

George Bryan "Beau" Brummell (1778-1840) almost single-handedly brought frequent bathing into vogue in the Regency. The son of a clerk, he was not particularly distinguished for his good looks, education or connection. But he was always very neat, his clothes were a masterpiece of simple elegance, and both his garments and his body were always spotless.

Brummell insisted that a gentleman be clean--clean as in total body immersion in water. His efforts succeeded in part because he had gained the favor of the crown prince, George, later the prince regent. When Brummell converted the prince, the upper classes followed, with the lower orders not far behind.

Brummell turned personal hygiene into an art form. He was famous for his daily three-hour regimen of scrubbing every part of his body, removing all the hair from his face, and then wrapping himself in immaculate, simple clothes that were the antithesis of the male fashions of the previous fifty years. Although his manner of dress was at first called "dandyism", Brummell created the standard of masculine attire we still use today: shirt, tie, jacket and trousers, all well-tailored, on a meticulously clean body.

When he was born, the standard of male beauty consisted of a wardrobe of costly, brightly-colored fabrics, powdered hair or wig, makeup (yes the men wore makeup) and high-heeled shoes. All over a dirty body and filthy hair, both heavily doused with perfume in an attempt to mask, usually unsuccessfully, massive body odor due to infrequent bathing. See previous post.

As an example, these stills from the 2006 BBC production Beau Brummell: This Charming Man show (left), the Prince of Wales before Brummell's influence, and (right), afterwards.

Brummell was not the first proponent of cleanliness. The return to bathing had started before he was born. In the mid 1700's, Philip Stanhope, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, wrote a famous series of letters to his son emphasizing personal hygiene. In France, Jean-Jacque Rousseau extolled cleanliness in his novel, Emile, or On Education (1762), although he personally was not that fastidious.

But the English considered anything French suspicious, and they turned to copious amounts of soap and water only when the consummately British Brummell arrived on the scene.

Brummell's story did not end happily. He fell out with his patron, the Prince of Wales. Afterwards, his gambling debts forced him to flee to France, where he spent the rest of his life. His gambling debts increased as his health declined. He died at sixty-two due to the complications of tertiary syphilis.

Today, we remember Brummell as a male fashion plate. In time, advances in science and the wider availability of soap and hot water cleaned up a world mired in dirt. But Beau Brummell hastened that day by making cleanliness fashionable.

Thank you all,


Elizabeth said...

This reminds me of the spectacle of Marie Antionette's first birth when she practically fainted due to the claustrophobic atmosphere created by all the nobles. I probably cannot, and certainly don't want to, imagine the horrendous smell created by all the unwashed, over-perfumed bodies and wigs crammed into a tiny room WITH the windows shut. Brummell should be seen as a humanitarian!

StephB said...

Awesome post. It sounds like Brummell was quite a player behind the scenes. I must admit, I'm glad he taught the Prince about Hygene.


Linda Banche said...

How right you are, Elizabeth. The smell would be bad enough, but they didn't believe in ventilation, either!

Thanks, Steph. If you have the ear of princes, you make your mark--at least as long as you're a favorite. A treacherous path, indeed.

Lindsay Townsend said...

Poor Beau! I never knew how he ended up - as you say, a treacherous path to princes.
Fascinating post.
I read somewhere that pre-Brummell the aristocracts used to have mouse-traps in their massive wigs, because mice were attracted by all that powder.
Thanks for the insights.

Savanna Kougar said...

Linda, wonderful post.

History is endlessly fascinating. Kudos to Beau for bringing cleanliness to the forefront.

I would never have survived that era without ventilation!!!

Linda Banche said...

Thanks, Lindsay. I feel sorry for Beau, too. Unfortunately, very few people get what they deserve.

I'll believe the mousetrap story. Besides being filthy, those wigs could be huge, and a mouse could easily hide there.

Thanks, Savanna. Figures, there was the least ventilation when it was most needed!

Mary Ricksen said...

Wonderful blog!

Linda Banche said...

Thanks, Mary!