The stylish essentials of the Georgian gentleman

As an exhibition exploring Georgian fashion opens at the Royal Collection, we look at the society fops who cut a dash in 18th-century London, illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s


From left: Beau Nash, Sir Lumley Skeffington and Beau Brummell. Photos: Mary Evans Picture Library; Bridgeman Images

In 1777 The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure carried a comic poem by Holbeach. The rhyme listed the ingredients to make a ‘modern fop’. Among other things: ‘A lofty cane, a sword with silver hilt, a ring, two watches, and a snuff-box gilt.’ 

A George II gold and hardstone double-opening snuff-box, probably London, circa 1750. Sold for £35,000 on 16 December 2021 at Christie’s in London

The fop had been around for several centuries by then, attracting swoons and ridicule in equal measure. But he had undoubtedly reached his silken, cologne-scented apogee in the Georgian era, in men like Sir Lumley Skeffington, who wore satin suits and had ‘the atmosphere of a perfume shop’; the ghostly pale Horace Walpole, who glided on tiptoes, hands tucked into an ermine muff; and Beau Nash, whose clothes were so spectacularly laced with gold that, Lord Chesterfeld claimed, ‘he was taken by many at a distance for a gilt garland’.

Foppism, like its later incarnation dandyism, was not solely about appearance. It was also an attitude. It rejoiced in the throwaway impudence that saw Beau Brummell drawl, ‘Wales, ring the bell!’ at the future King of England, in the lisping wit of Baron Alvanley and the exaggerated deportment of Edward Hughes Ball Hughes (known as ‘The Golden Ball’), who, according to his waspish rival Lord William Pitt Lennox, walked, ‘as if he was on stilts, and had swallowed the kitchen poker’.

Samuel Andrews (1767-1807), A gentleman in blue coat with pink powdered hair, 1796. Oval, in gilt-metal frame. Sold for £6,250 on 22 May 2019 at Christie’s in London

But fine clothes and accessories were the fops’ defining characteristics. On the former little expense could or would be spared. Asked the annual sum a gentleman ought to spend on his appearance, Brummell replied, ‘With tolerable economy I think it might be done for £800’, which is the equivalent of around £110,000 today.

The silver-hilted sword was worn on the left hip, a useful station for the gallant to rest a cocked hand. Swords had always been the mark of a gentleman and an obvious symbol of virility (in the Elizabethan era, rapier blades grew so long that the scabbard trailed along the floor).

A gold, diamond and bloodstone pair-case pocket watch, by William Rapson, London, circa 1770. Sold for £7,500 on 5 December 2012 at Christie’s in London

Georgian gentlemen carried small-swords, an adaptation of the French dueling épée. They were not merely fanciful, for although duels were not common in England, London was unpoliced, ill-lit and highly dangerous. Walpole’s carriage was held up in Hyde Park by the notorious James MacLaine — the model for Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera. MacLaine’s accomplice discharged a flintlock so close to Walpole’s pallid face that it left a powder burn on his cheek. The owner of Strawberry Hill House passed the whole thing off as a lark. The fop may have appeared soft, but — like all English gentlemen of the era — he prided himself on his sangfroid and was tough as teak.

The most fashionable watchmakers in London were John Ellicott and Benjamin Gray. Their pocket watches were not cheaply bought. Ellicott quoted Walpole the price of 150 guineas for a watch, chain and accoutrements (generally a couple of enamelled seals), while Gray, whose workshop was in Pall Mall, was dearer yet. This in an age when a skilled craftsman might expect to earn £50 a year.

A collection of walking sticks, 18th century and later. Sold for £2,125 on 10 May 2011 at Christie’s in London

Like the sword, the ‘lofty cane’ was a marker of masculinity. Reaching up to the waist, it was generally made of ‘clouded’ (mottled) Malacca and topped with silver, gold or ivory. The handling of this instrument was important, the parading dandy attracting the eye of ladies by twirling it nonchalantly, in the same way that he might today rev the engine of an expensive sports car while waiting for the lights to change.

Snuff was the tobacco of choice for high society; the common people smoked, the aristocracy snorted. It came in a great many varieties, flavoured and spiced, from merchants such as Fribourg and Treyer in the Haymarket. Spending on what Alexander Pope called the ‘titillating dust’ was lavish. Viscount Petersham — who wore Cossack pantaloons and was never seen in public before 6pm — died leaving a snuff hoard valued at £3,000.

The boxes in which snuff was carried were trinkets of great importance. Made of precious metal, fine porcelain or tortoiseshell, many carried illustrations by well-known painters such as the Venetian Rosalba Carriera, or the Van Blarenberghe brothers of Lille. Collecting them became an obsession amongst Georgian gentlemen. Lord Byron spent £500 on snuff-boxes in a single shopping spree (he later disposed of most of his collection to pay for his ill-fated campaign in Greece), while Viscount Petersham owned 365, one for every day of the year, and always chose ‘one that suited the weather’.

The taking of snuff was a ritual and a performance. Beau Brummell impressed all who saw him with his ability to open his snuffbox and extract a pinch one-handed without spilling a grain.

The handkerchief, characteristically silk, edged with lace and dangling from hand or sleeve, was a prerequisite for the snuff-taker, though the brown stains the post-snort sneezing left on them were far from genteel, and dark colours and patterns were, of necessity, favoured over white.

The fop bathed daily in perfumed water and brushed his teeth. This was by no means common, even among the aristocracy. Topham Beauclerk, great-grandson of Charles II, was said to be so filthy he attracted vermin, yet such were the standards of the day, he still managed to capture the beautiful Lady Diana Spencer.

English school, after Canaletto, A masqerade at Ranelagh Gardens, 1759

English school, after Canaletto, A masqerade at Ranelagh Gardens, 1759. 21 x 30 in (53.3 x 76.2 cm). Sold for £4,375 on 12 August 2008 at Christie’s in London

The fop spent his days at leisure — shopping in London’s West End, riding in Rotten Row. A spot of gambling at White’s or Brooks’s (faro was the game of choice, though the fop would bet on anything: fortunes were lost wagering on whose footman could remove his coat the quickest) was followed by an evening at some fashionable spot, the Pantheon in Oxford Street, perhaps, or Chelsea’s Ranelagh Gardens where the child Mozart was heard performing beneath a rotunda ceiling painted by Canaletto.

Perhaps they might attend a ball at Almack’s Assembly Rooms, or one of the scandalous masquerades given by Mrs Cornelys — a Venetian opera singer who had children by both Casanova and the future King of Prussia — at Carlisle House in Soho. The Chippendale-designed Chinese room here had a floor covered with fresh turf and lights suspended from orange trees, and the goings-on were so outrageous that Walpole claimed the housemaids resigned from ‘fatigue at remaking the beds so often’.

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The lavish lifestyle, the furious spending, the reckless gambling and drinking too often ended badly. Beau Brummell spent his final years penniless and mad in a French asylum; Beau Nash died deeply in debt, his mistress so distraught that she chose to live in a hollow tree; while Baron Alvanley — who had once dined on apricot tart every night regardless of the season — was forced to sell off his family estates and ignominiously resign his membership of White’s. Badly prepared, the recipe for the modern fop was, it seemed, also one for penury.

Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians, runs from 21 April to 8 October 2023 at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

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