Georgian Style

The Georgian era was a time of splendour and display when it was thought right and proper for those of substance to promenade their wealth for all to see.

The cream of English society was the 1,500 families known as The Ton, who could claim to be of noble birth and the highlight of any year was the London Season which ran from January to July and where Hyde Park became the fashionable meeting place for daytime entertainments and occasional illicit trysts.

Whether strolling through the park, attending a fair, or simply parading in their gilded carriages the rich rubbed shoulders with the poor. Nowhere else in Europe could the aristocracy so flagrantly flaunt their status and wealth without fear of riot or revolution, though they were not immune from robbery and theft, and a gentleman rarely went unarmed or without his servants in attendance.

The place to be seen was Rotten Row, a term intended to mock those rich in silk but impoverished of spirit that was instead embraced by those who if they did not enjoy the humour could at least appreciate the irony.

Early evening soirees and light teas would be followed by lavish night time balls where the women would be seen resplendent in their high heels, silk stockings, heavily brocaded dresses, and evermore extravagant powdered wigs, but the same could be said for the men for whom boots could never be too shiny or breeches too tight, and an abundance of lace was de rigueur for both sexes.

There was of course a purpose beyond mere extravagance and pampered self-indulgence in that the London Season provided the opportunity for young ladies to meet eligible bachelors and prospective husbands in what was somewhat disparagingly known as the Marriage Mart.

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The fashion icons of their day were Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire who was famous for her ever taller powdered wigs (not always best suited for the low ceilings of Georgian homes) adorned with ribbons and peacock feathers and which soon became the must-have look for Georgian ladies.

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The men looked to the dandy of his age Beau Brummel for guidance.

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He was the close personal friend of the Prince Regent who much to the fury of his father George III neglected his royal duties in favour of vanity and self-indulgence. When still only eighteen years of age he was spending £10,000 a year on clothes alone, the equivalent to £500,000 today.

The French Revolution and the gruesome fate that befallen so many of the nobility had for a time unnerved the aristocracy in England and the ladies in particular with the example of Marie Antoinette fresh in their mind were now to be seen in looser fitting dresses of muslin rather than silk and with their cleavages hidden from sight.

Confidence was soon restored however and the men continued to follow the trends set by Beau Brummel and his love of dark coats over brilliant white linen sprinkled with glitter or sewn with jewels that sparkled under the chandeliers, his shiny leather boots, and his evermore intricately tied neck cloths.

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Indeed, such was the fame of Beau Brummel and the praise heaped upon his fashionable shoulders that it was said that the Prince Regent desired less to be King than he did the Great Dandy.

The extravagance of Georgian England and in particular the Regency Period (1811-20) was soon to be replaced by more abstemious times particularly during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) when a sense of propriety dominated and the making of money rather than the spending of it became the priority and the leitmotif of success and respectability.

Lady Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire courted controversy throughout her life and not just for her extravagant fashion sense. She had a series of torrid affairs and was also outspoken in her political views supporting the Whig Party and their critical perspective regarding the Monarchy.

She was also frequently drunk and had been addicted to gambling from an early age. When she died in 1806 aged 48 from liver failure it is estimated that she left gambling debts the equivalent of £3,000.000 today.

Beau Brummel was as outlandish in his claims as he was in his clothes, he had earlier resigned his Commission in the Army when his regiment the Royal Hussars were stationed in Manchester saying that he could not bear to remain in a place so lacking in culture and style, had his boots polished in champagne, and claimed to take five hours every morning to dress.

His life took a turn for the worse when in July 1813 at a Masquerade Ball he publicly berated the Prince Regent for his ridiculous attire. The Prince never forgave him and he was soon to discover than any contest involving, himself and the Prince Regent regarding who was the most fashionable man in England was to be no contest at all.

Deserted by his friends and patrons in 1816 he was forced to flee to France to avoid Debtors Prison.

He could still count some well-connected people amongst his friends however, and they procured a place for him working in the British Consulate in Caen but unable to return to England because of debt he was to find himself imprisoned in France for the same offence.

Those friends still sympathetic to him paid the bail for his release.

He died penniless on 30 March 1840, aged 61, in an asylum having been driven insane by syphilis.

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The Prince Regent became King George IV on 29 January 1820 and morbidly overweight, barely able to stand, and known to take to his bed for days on end he was to become a grotesque figure of fun and the most lampooned Monarch in English history.

He never tempered his self-indulgence and continued to spend lavishly throughout his reign particularly on great folly the Brighton Pavilion designed by the architect John Nash to be the Taj Mahal of the south-coast.

George IV died on 26 June 1830, little mourned except perhaps by the great caricaturists of the day.

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