Guys, if you hate having to put on a suit to be considered “dressed up,” here’s the dude to blame: Beau Brummell. (You can thank him for the fashions for being cleanshaven and bathing daily too, though someone else may have invented the latter eventually anyway.) And here’s the intriguingly contradictory — well, not really, but bear with me — story of the man, his fashion sense, and his inescapable self-destructiveness.
When I say “contradictory,” I mean that’s how Beau Brummell: This Charming Man looks to our modern eyes. Brummell was so profoundly influential that he made it impossible for us to see the revolution in men’s fashion that he ignited in London at the turn of the 19th century as those in the throes of it did. So there’s far more unintentional humor here than there should be… and I don’t mean humor that the filmmakers didn’t intend, because they clearly intended it, I mean humor that Brummell wouldn’t have recognized as such. He wouldn’t see it as a joke, like we do, how the men considered truly fashionable in his day sneer at his shocking wearing of full-length trousers, or his disgraceful going about in public sans powdered wig and face makeup. These men look like clowns to our eyes, and Brummell, with the lean lines of his elegant duds and his handsome face that we can actually see, he looks positively dashing. (It doesn’t hurt that Brummell is played here by James Purefoy [Vanity Fair, The Mayor of Casterbridge], who is quite delicious both in Brummell’s wardrobe and out of it, a sight that we are treated to more than once.) There is no corner of my not inconsiderable imagination that is able to look upon the bewigged men as anything other than buffoons, nor Brummell as anything other than the height of classic style.
You want costume drama: here it is. This movie — which debuted on the BBC in 2006 and BBC America in 2007; it’s based on a biography of Brummell by Ian Kelly — really is all about the clothes, but not in a shallow way: in a way that makes us really recognize things we take for granted, like our assumptions about beauty and design, and the lengths to which some people will go to surround themselves with things that please them. For, of course, that’s integral to Brummell’s flaws, all of which involve money: he never has enough of it, yet yearns to keep pace with his wealthier friends in the gambling parlors. And maybe, the subtext seems to suggest — at a snappy 79 minutes and jam-packed with wit and passion and angst and drama, this movie is all about the subtext — the stroke of outrageous genius he displayed in daring to turn fashion on its head was all about finding a way to stand apart as a leader in the bitchy, catty realm of bored aristocrats in the only way he could. (He counted the Prince Regent, the future King George IV — played here by Hugh Bonneville [Tsunami: The Aftermath, Scenes of a Sexual Nature] — among his pals, until… well, you’ll see.)
Brummell explains his approach to fashion thusly: “The dandy is a portrait of studied carelessness but without the appearance of study.” The same could be said of this delightfully inscrutable movie, which unfolds itself over multiple viewings to remind us that surface appearances are often so much more than that.