Beau Brummell, the famed 19th-century dandy whose sophisticated fashion innovations are still influencing how men dress to this day, was known for his sharply tailored wardrobe, his precisely tied cravats, his strict regimen of personal hygiene, and an extremely unpleasant accessory that he secretly carried everywhere he went.
Dubbed “the first metrosexual” and the first celebrity in the modern sense of the word, Brummell was a commoner who made a name for himself as the best-dressed man in the highest social circles of Regency-era London. He popularized the three-piece suit, and his much-emulated preference for subdued neutrals, precise tailoring, and unembellished fabric is the reason that men to this day wear tuxes on formal occasions instead of embroidered silk jackets and velvet knee breeches. Brummell wasn’t shy about sharing his fashion advice and tips on grooming, but his inner life remained a closed book to his admirers and close friends alike. As Ian Kelly notes in Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style, “His public persona was rakishly heterosexual although his love life was the subject of intrigued speculation.”
And it was courtesy of his secret love life that he acquired his most enduring accessory: syphilis.
Exactly when Brummell became infected with syphilis remains a mystery. However, as Kelly speculates, “if Brummel was infected early with [syphilis], in his twenties even, it might have determined his whole adult sexual persona—‘cool’ alternating with a more desperate neediness.”
Pre-Victorian upper-class society was a breeding ground for the malady known simply as “the pox.”
According to Kelly, an estimated 15 percent of the general population of Paris and London was afflicted with the disease, “but the proportion was much higher in the circles in which Brummell moved.”
Unlike his collection of ornate snuff boxes and high collars, syphilis was an accessory Brummell wished to rid himself of permanently.
To that end, he availed himself of an underground STD treatment industry that catered to wealthy men and women. Kelly’s research uncovered “advertisements for the cures that appeared at the time in French and English periodicals [which] make it clear that this prevalent disease was dealt with quietly, privately, and, to a surprising degree, successfully.”
Almond oil ointment was often prescribed for the chronic skin eruptions that were the hallmark of “the pox.” Orally administered iodine was also taken, along with considerably less anodyne pills containing arsenic. But by and large, the favored treatment of the age was mercury, which was rubbed into the skin and swallowed in pill form. It comes as a surprise to the modern mind that this lethal regimen actually worked…to a certain extent. Reminiscent of present-day chemotherapy, doctors of the time discovered through trial and error that toxic heavy metals like arsenic and mercury were harmful to both healthy tissue and the slender, spiraling bacteria that infested the syphilis sufferer’s body.
However, Kelly notes, “men like Brummell were tragically in error when they thought they were cured and could resume their lives and sexual practices. The horror that awaited many was not so much the return of the disease, but that their infection would be passed on, even to unborn children.”
By 1830, Brummell was spending a small fortune on mercury pills and ointments to keep his symptoms—including severe headaches, intestinal distress, and partial paralysis—in check. He was also suffering from crippling depression, a common side effect of both the infection and the mercury poisoning that he was inflicting upon himself.
Brummell, who once quipped, “stay as long as you need to make an impression, and as soon as you have made it, move on,” was obliged to move on in 1840, a broken man who died in penury unable to care for, much less dress, himself with the exquisite taste and flair that earned him a place in history.