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Abstract

During the Romantic period, arguably the most famous man ever to be famous for not doing much of anything moved through the streets of London and the imaginations of his contemporaries. George “Beau” Brummell, whose name is still immortalized in clothing stores, regency romance novels, and a song by Billie Joel, and whose impact on masculine fashion still shapes what people wear and how they see clothing, made accomplishing nothing more than being well (if austerely) dressed a virtue and an art form. Although he left little or no writing in his own hand, iconographic literary depictions of him or of what he represented were immediately generated by Byron, Hazlitt, Bulwer-Lytton, Disraeli, Carlyle, Balzac, D’Aureivilly and others during the first part of the nineteenth century, and reflections on his image and on the dandies who followed him continued to reverberate throughout literature and art well into the twentieth century. By the mid-nineteenth century, the regime of the “man in black” seemed absolute (and lasted at least through to the “man in the grey flannel suit” of mid-twentieth century America); throughout this period Brummell frequently represented all that was abjected by modern masculinity: love of fashion, of fabric, of the shape and cut of one's clothes. Brummell himself bore a complex relationship to the emerging regime of masculine fashionable austerity. He dressed austerely, in blacks and whites, and encouraged the future George IV to do the same (no small personal challenge), but he also paid keen public attention to the details of masculine dress. Men may have been in the process of renouncing the pleasures of personal display during Brummell's lifetime, but Brummell, who turned heads wherever he went, troubled emerging boundaries that at least by the mid-nineteenth century were often to seem natural, permanent, and unquestionable.