Historical Notes: The undisputed `King of the Dandies'

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THE REGENCY buck, beau or dandy is an immortal figure. Urbane, elegant and totally masculine, he was an icon to his contemporaries and has been celebrated in romantic fiction ever since. He is not to be confused with his 18th- century predecessors, the fop, the fibble or the coxcomb. It was true that the genus had many variations but to mistake a Corinthian for a dandy would have been as insulting to both at the time as failing to differentiate between mods and rockers in the 1950s.

The most absurd of all the 18th-century styles was that of the Maceronis who flourished in the 1770s. They were a group of young men who tottered round Mayfair on scarlet shoes with four-inch heels and diamond buckles, wearing wigs a yard high, and carrying such accessories as muffs, flowers and fans. Throughout the 18th century, in fact, the extravagance of a man's dress had been an indication of his status and the means by which he expressed his aesthetic discrimination - the more costly and brilliant the better.

It was "Beau" Brummell, the "King of the Dandies" during the Regency who decreed that such ostentation was vulgar and that true style lay in absolute simplicity. His views caused a fashion revolution whose effects have lasted to the present day. Brummell and his fellow-dandies invented the masculine "uniform" of a plain dark suit, white shirt and cravat, which is still recognised as the only permissible attire for formal wear throughout the Western world.

Dandyism attracted as much adverse criticism as praise, and the word was more often used in a derogatory sense than as an accolade. The Regency dandy was caricatured as a ridiculous figure in contemporary cartoons and any aspirant to the style was liable to be mocked as a "veritable tulip" or a "pink of the ton".

Brummell was the undisputed leader of society for more than 15 years, universally accepted as the arbiter of fashion and ultimate authority on all matters of manners and mores throughout his "reign". It was said he could make or break a social aspirant with the lift of an eyebrow. The Prince of Wales once burst into tears because Brummell criticised the cut of his coat.

His whole life was dedicated to creating an effect and he knew by instinct every trick of the publicity game, the late entrance, the throw-away line or an outrageous remark sure to be overheard and repeated.

He behaved outrageously at parties. If he deigned to show up at all, he usually refused to dance, spoke only to his particular friends and left early. Regency hostesses were not only prepared to put up with this but felt the evening had been a total flop if he failed to appear.

Lord Alvanley was one of the more attractive members of the inner circle of dandies. He was said to give the best dinners in London. On one occasion his friends offered a free dinner at White's to the member who devised the most expensive dish. Alvanley won with a fricassee made of the breasts of 300 birds and once enjoyed an apricot tart so much that he ordered a fresh one on the sideboard every day for a year, just in case he fancied it again.

Such affectations were par for the course amongst the Dandy Set, but led to financial disaster. Alvanley, like many of his fellow-dandies, gambled heavily and ended up in debt. His horses and carriages were seized and only the fishmonger would give him credit. He was lucky; as a peer he could not be imprisoned for debt.

Commoners, like Brummell himself, enjoyed no such privilege. Rather than go to gaol they fled the country. It was possible at that time to live cheaply in Paris and this coterie of bankrupt ex-dandies probably had rather a pleasant time, swapping reminiscences of their days of glory - certainly better than a stretch in Fleet prison.

Venetia Murray is the author of `High Society, A Social History of the Regency Period 1788-1830', (Viking, pounds 20)