Contributor: Diego Saglia
Location: The Museum of London
Description: The beau monde of Romantic-period Britain, dashing Regency gentlemen, male characters in the fiction of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, and in recent films and TV series: all of these become strikingly present through this pristine dark blue coat dating from around 1803. It was made in London by a tailor patronized by George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummell (1778-1840), foremost among the early nineteenth-century dandies and the inventor of a simple but exquisite way of dressing aimed at enhancing the male physique. The coat brings to life the understated style he and his circle developed. By reinventing male fashion, these men created new modes of presenting and being (in) their bodies: besides demanding the highest standards in tailoring and attention to detail, they were innovative in valuing personal cleanliness and grooming. Though, in the Romantic period, such practices were restricted to a few individuals from the privileged elite, they also anticipated later phenomena up to recent forms of metrosexual or fluid masculine identity. This blue coat has these and other intriguing stories to tell – not least that of its rediscovery.
Now in the Museum of London, the coat came to light in 1956 in the vaults of London’s Coutts’ Bank, where the tailor had deposited it for an unknown client (some sources say it was Brummell himself, and others indicate the banker Thomas Coutts). It was accompanied by a note describing it as ‘an exceed[ingly] good blue cloth great coat, made in ev[e]ry respect in the best manner’. The creator of this unusually intact example of Regency style was John Weston of 34 Old Bond Street, tailor and draper to the Prince of Wales and the Dukes of Cambridge, Sussex and Gloucester. With Schweitzer and Davidson on Cork Street and Jonathan Meyer on Conduit Street, he was a favourite of Beau Brummell’s, and, according to the chronicler of Regency London, Captain Gronow, he oversaw Brummell’s wardrobe and attire.
Made of facecloth (a very fine wool fabric), the coat has a long skirt, a high-fastening silk velvet collar, an M notch and revers, and the sleeves are lined in silk twill. The back has a central vent and two side vents trimmed and fastened with buttons. It also features two back pockets, and on the front are six pairs of gilt buttons crafted by the London metalworker Charles Jennens. In creating the coat, Weston made the most of the capacity of facecloth to follow the contours of the wearer’s body. As a result, the garment has a figure-hugging cut that emphasizes the lines of shoulders and torso. Dandies were heavily satirized as foppish, effete, and effeminate, but Brummell’s version of dandyism moved fashionable masculinity towards sobriety and virility and away from earlier overelaborated styles most blatantly represented by the ‘macaronis’ of the 1770s and 1780s. One of the main aims of Brummell’s dandy dress code was to stress the athleticism of a trim, muscular male body – or to give an impression of one, if the wearer were lacking in that department. This was also achieved by adapting features of military dress, which had become extremely popular during the anti-French wars of 1793-1815 (witness the smart, eye-catching officers in Austen’s novels). Weston’s coat has this kind of military allure. Paired with other items in the dandy uniform, such as the Hessian boots favoured by Brummell, it would have added a touch of heroic swagger to the person wearing it. In addition, ancient statuary served as a model and an inspiration for clothing that could express ‘nobility and strength of purpose in a pose held stiffly above the waist’, but also ‘freedom, as well as sexuality, in a fluid lower body’ (Kelly, p. 204). In the latter case, it was the cut of trousers and breeches that artfully traced the contours of the thigh or calf, and accentuated the genitals by pushing them down one trouser leg (‘which side one dresses’) through a series of adjustments borrowed from hunting attire.
In his Life of George Brummell (1844) Captain Jesse, reports how ‘the late Duke of Bedford asked [Brummell] for an opinion on his new coat. Brummell examined him from head to foot with as much attention as an adjutant of the Life Guards would the sentries on a drawing-room day. “Turn round,” said the Beau: his Grace did so, and the examination was continued in front. When it was concluded Brummell stepped forward, and feeling the lappel delicately with his thumb and finger, said, in a most earnest and amusing manner, “Bedford, do you call this thing a coat?”’(I, p. 63). This often quoted anecdote highlights dandy fastidiousness over detail and quality as manifestations of the social mechanism the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu terms distinction. It also indicates a very selective form of clubbability. The same sense of exclusivity emanates from Lord Byron’s memories of his days among the dandies in the twenty-ninth of his ‘Detached Thoughts’ (1821-22): ‘I liked the Dandies – they were always very civil to me – though in general they disliked literary people … I knew them all more or less – and they made me a Member of Watier’s (a superb Club at that time) … Our Masquerade was a grand one – as was the Dandy Ball – too at the Argyle – but that (the latter) was given by the four Chiefs – B[rummell]. M[ildmay]. A[lvanley]. and P[ierrepoint]., if I err not’ (IX, p. 22).
A rare, intact survivor of Regency male fashion, Weston’s coat is special in many ways. It conjures up this world of exclusivity and self-spectacularizing. It gives us an immediate impression of what a Regency dandy would have looked like wearing it. Moreover, because of the amount of high-skilled handiwork and its carefully devised structure, it is an instrument for effectively shaping a man’s physique – an instance of what we could call Romantic-period techniques of body-fashioning. As such, it defines the person inside it also by associating him with ideas of strength, heroism, and sexuality. Through clothing and other practices, dandy culture outlined a kind of masculinity centred on a privileged, urban identity involved in networks of homosocial bonding, and based on a reimagining and remaking of the male body. These new ways of ‘being a man’ were destined to have a lasting impact well beyond the end of the Regency years and the confines of Romantic-period Britain.
Date: ca. 1803
Creator: John Weston
Subject: George ‘Beau’ Brummell
Media rights: The Museum of London
Object type: great-coat: L 1160 mm (centre), L 750 mm (sleeve), C 1010 mm (chest), C 910 mm (waist), C 1070 mm (hips), L 1250 mm (centre back), C 2150 mm (hem)
Format: wool; silk; velvet; metal
Publisher: The Museum of London
Catalogue number: ID 56.69/1
Christopher Breward, Edwina Ehrman, Caroline Evans, The London Look:Fashion from Street to Catwalk (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, in association with The Museum of London, 2004)
George Gordon, Lord Byron, Lord Byron’s Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie A. Marchand, 13 vols. (London: John Murray, 1973-94)
Shaun Cole and Miles Lambert, Dandy Style: 250 Years of British men’s Fashion (New Haven, London: Yale University Press in association with Manchester Art Gallery, 2021)
[William Jesse,] The Life of George Brummell, Esq., Commonly Called Beau Brummell, by Captain Jesse, 2 vols. (London: Saunders and Otley, 1844)
Ian Kelly, Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Dandy (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2005)
Kate Irvin and Laurie Ann Brewer, Artist, Rebel, Dandy: Men of Fashion (New Haven: Yale University Press in association with Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, 2013)
Rosalind McKever, Claire Wilcox, Marta Franceschini, Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear (London: V&A Publishing, 2022)