December 2021: Stylin’ in the 19th Century

We often hear the word “dandy” applied to wealthy, fastidiously dressed, 19th-century gentlemen unduly devoted to themselves, their image, and style, yet it seems an antique, ill-fitting designator to apply to today’s fashion trendsetters in a world where runway looks and streetwear run the gamut and individuality is stressed. Yet, interestingly, being a “Beau Brummell,” the dandiest of the dandies, is still a fashion ideal among designers, stylists, and the fashion-conscious.

 

Menswear has changed considerably since the 19th-century where fashion was the calling card of the upper class and strict social guidelines dictated the dress required of both men and women for different times of the day and social activities. Men of this class needed to be slaves to fashion – to be accepted and to convey their social position to others through the expense and appropriateness of their wardrobe. Fashion was all about fitting in – from the length and cut of a jacket to the correct colors and accessories to style the appropriate “look” for the occasion. The same social precepts that defined a gentleman’s public fashion also dictated his at-home leisurewear and bedroom attire. He might have to change his dress up to six times a day depending on his schedule! Fashion was a sunup-to-sundown commitment of time and money. Some would argue that it still is today, although what defines and who wears fashion has changed considerably.

 

Dressing as a dandy became aspirational among a new generation of wealthy, fashion-conscious men, first in England and then throughout Europe and America, in the first half of the 19th-century. Accessories were critical to the dandy’s style. The typical dandy carried a long gold-knobbed, tasseled walking stick, and was never seen in public without his bejeweled snuff box, in which he carried chewing tobacco. To ward off bad odors he may have carried an artificial nosegay, a small bunch of flowers, or worn powder or perfume. Many dandies brandished swords with diamond handles and hung two fobs, or pocket watches, from their elegantly tailored waistcoats. Being a dandy was as much about attitude as it was a style of dress, and those walking by could easily identify one.

 

Many early dandies adopted the name “Beau,” after the most famous dandy of all, and the man who truly changed the course of men’s fashion, George Bryan “Beau” Brummell (1778–1840).

 

According to the Encyclopedia of Fashion, Beau Brummel was the son of an English butler who was educated at Oxford. Brummell resisted some of the more flamboyant trends of his day. He dressed simply and plainly, preferring wool and cotton fabrics, carefully tailored jackets, and ankle-length, loose-fitting trousers in dark or neutral colors worn with white shirts. A typical outfit for Brummell consisted of a blue woolen tailcoat with brass buttons, buckskin-colored pantaloons (loose-fitting trousers), and immaculately polished boots. And he didn’t wear a wig or makeup. The only item of elaborate clothing he wore was his necktie—a large bow-tied cravat, a scarf tied around the neck.

 

In typical dandy fashion, it was said that he had three separate hairdressers: one for his forelock, or bangs, one for the hair at the back of his head, and one for his sideburns; that he sent his shirts out of town to be washed because he didn’t think London laundresses could bleach them white enough when white was the social standard and anything less was considered ungentlemanly; and that he bathed daily to promote cleanliness and reduce the need to wear perfume.

 

Yet Brummell’s greatest contribution to men’s fashion was his use of mixed period reference pieces to create an individual style at a time when conformity was de rigueur. He did not invent the elements of his dress from scratch, rather his aesthetic brought together various inspirations to stylize a coherent look. This mixed-use approach to fashion and the use of cultural references continues to drive the menswear market and define our understanding of what it means to be a Beau Brummell, a fashion-forward rebel.

 

While waistcoats, frock coats, trousers, and top hats from this era are mostly relegated to costume bins, many of the accessories that adorned gentlemen’s fashions of the day – gloves, pocket watches, monocles, cravat pins, walking sticks, spats – are fun to collect and wear, adding a story to any outfit. We share some of these stories in this month’s issue as we explore what was involved in accessorizing the 19-century gentleman, and how the fashions of the day were shared with their consumer market before there was Facebook and Instagram.

 

Also in this issue is our Annual Holiday Shopping Guide, featuring some of our favorite antique shops from across the country. This season, as you visit your neighborhood stores and malls and attend holiday shows, think of gift-giving something special from our past to someone on your list. Independent antique shops showcase mostly ‘Made in America’ goods that make meaningful, thoughtful, and unusual gifts. While ‘big box’ and online stores wait for their holiday inventory to be offloaded from barges sitting off the coast, antique shops are filled now with everything you’ll need to put a smile of remembrance on someone’s face. These independent, local businesses, decorated to take you back to Christmases’ past, need our support now, more than ever. Call before you go to confirm hours, but pay your favorites a visit this holiday season and learn about new places to shop inside our Guide and online on our website with our Shop Finder Directory.

 

As we conclude 2021 with this December issue, we want to share our thanks and appreciation to you, our advertisers and readers, for supporting us so we can continue publishing and return to a more frequent print schedule. We head into 2021 with another great editorial calendar and feel optimistic that next year will see the full return of the shows and activities we love.

 

Happy Holidays and cheers to a new year!

Maxine Carter-Lome, Jeffrey Lome, Judy Gonyeau, Lynn Cotterman, Jill Montague