The Ultimate Man of Style
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The insubstantial life of a turn-of-the-18th-century party boy and clotheshorse.

George Brummell (1778–1840) reigned briefly in London society before being hounded out of the country in 1816, plagued by debts and failing health. British biographer Kelly (Cooking for Kings, not reviewed) aims to celebrate Brummell’s lasting contribution to men’s fashion as the prototypical dandy (according to such contemporary observers as Byron and later admirers like Oscar Wilde). A commoner whose father made a fortune as Lord North’s private secretary, young Brummell grew up on Downing Street and was sent to Eton, where he mingled among the upper crust and made his mark with witty put-downs, a handsome figure and an understated elegance of dress. Indeed, by the time he came of age in 1799, Brummell was a favorite of the Prince of Wales. Blessed with a considerable inheritance, he could step out in style from his residence at 4 Chesterfield Street in Mayfair. He rode in Hyde Park, dined and gambled at White’s and Brook’s and attended the theater in the company of famous demimondaines Harriette Wilson and Julia Johnstone. “Beau,” as he became known, was mostly remarkable for his choice of tailoring. Tall and well-sculpted, he favored a deceptively simple, manly look, distinguished by exquisite attention to detail. Kelly quotes Max Beerbohm, who called Brummell “the Father of Modern Costume” and praised his style as “free from folly or affection, yet susceptible to exquisite ordering.” But in later years, his credit wore thin, his barbs no longer struck the Prince Regent’s funny bone and Brummell contracted syphilis, leading to unhappy retirement in Normandy, madness and death in an asylum.

Fawning and trivial. How much is there to say about someone whose main claim to fame is that he wore the first modern, urban suit?

Pub Date: May 10th, 2006
ISBN: 0-7432-7089-4
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Free Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 2006