One of the most startling events of 1797 was the first appearance of the silk top hat; apparently it was worn by a London haberdasher who claimed the Englishman’s inborn right to be unique. Crowds gathered about him; some women, we are told, fainted at the alarming sight. But there is nothing so absurd that couturiers and haberdashers cannot make it an imperative fashion; soon all upper-class London males were carrying stovepipes on their heads.
Swords on the hip and wigs on the head were disappearing. Beards were shaved. Most males let their hair grow to their shoulders, but some youngsters expressed their defiant individuality by having their hair clipped short.51 Pantaloons were winning the battle for men’s legs; by 1785 trousers reached to midcalf; by 1793 they fell to the ankles. Shoestrings were displacing buckles and beginning their irksome reign. Coats were long, and now dispensed with embroidery, but art and income were lavished on waistcoats.
As in contemporary France under the Directory, the crossing of noble and commoner produced the dandy—the “buck” or “beau.” George Bryan “Beau” Brummel (1778–1840) specialized in adorning himself, and spent half the day in dressing and undressing. At Eton, where the students called him “Buck,” he became the intimate friend of the Prince of Wales, who felt that clothing is half the art of rule. Having inherited thirty thousand pounds, Brummel hired separate tailors for each part of his body, and made himselfarbiter elegantiarum for London’s males. He was good-humored and kindly, and made cleanliness next to cravats; but he loved gambling even more than finery, ran up debts, fled across the Channel to escape his creditors, lived for twenty years in dingy poverty and slovenly dress, and died, aged sixty-two, in a French asylum for the insane.
Women were abandoning hoops, but they still corseted themselves to keep their breasts poised and full. The waistline was raised, and a generous décolleté attended to the rest. During the Regency (1811–20), fashions drastically changed: corsets were discarded, petticoats were left unused, and gowns were transparent enough to reveal the lines of thighs and legs. Byron thought these revelations were dulling the fascination of pursuit, and, in a rare excursion into morality, complained: “Like Mother Eve our maids may stray unblamed, / For they are naked, and are not ashamed.”52
Nevertheless, there was more modesty in dress than in eating. Meals were immense, not so much through gluttony as because the climate encouraged adipose tissue as a help to body heat. The poor relied basically on bread and cheese, ale or tea, but in the money classes the main meal—sometimes lasting from nine to midnight—could run to several courses: soup, fish, poultry, meat, venison, dessert, plus properly adjusted wines. After dessert the ladies disappeared, so that the men might freely discourse on politics, horses, and women. Mme. de Staël protested that this sexual dichotomy removed a main stimulant to the refinement of manners and the enjoyment of society. Table manners were not as elegant as in France.
Manners in general were hearty and rough. Speech was peppered with profanity; the Archbishop of Canterbury complained, “The torrent of profanity every day makes more rapid advances.”53 Fisticuffs were frequent in the lower classes. Boxing was a favorite sport, and prizefighting drew avid patrons from all ranks. A doubly contemporary description has come down to us from Robert Southey (1807):
When a match is made between two prize-fighters, the tidings are immediately communicated to the public in the newspapers; a paragraph occasionally appears saying the rivals are in training, what exercise they take, what diet—for some of them feed upon raw beef as a preparative. Meantime the amateurs and the gamblers choose their party, and the state of the bets appears also in the newspapers; not infrequently the whole is a concerted scheme, that a few rogues may cheat a great many fools.54
Large crowds—sometimes twenty thousand—gathered for such vicarious violence. Lord Althorp recommended the sport as a purification of the aggressive instincts among the people, but the managers saw it as a purgation of pocketbooks.
Poorer people sought catharsis by tying a bull or a bear to a post, and baiting it with sticks and dogs—in some cases for two or three days—till, in a moment of mercy, they put the victim to death or sent it to the slaughterhouse.55 Cockfighting continued as a diversion until forbidden in 1822. Cricket, which had been played in England as far back as 1550, submitted to formal rules in the eighteenth century, and offered the most stirring matches in the sporting year, with heavy betting and wild partisanship in the immense crowds. Horse racing provided another purge for gamblers, but there was in it, too, an ancient affection for horses, and a loving care in breeding and training them. The hunt was the summit of fashion in sports: the hunters riding to the grounds in handsome coaches, the swift flight over fields and crops, hedges, fences, and streams, on horses and after dogs breathing pleasure in the game.
Every class had its social gatherings, from the coffeehouses—where simple men drank beer, smoked pipes, read newspapers, and talked politics and philosophy—to the sumptuous Royal Pavilion at Brighton, where lucred folk engaged in festivities “almost as gay in winter as in summer.”56 At home gatherings people played cards or other games, heard music, or danced. The waltz had come in from Germany, and had been named from walzen, to revolve. Moralists helped to make it popular by branding it as sinful intimacy. Coleridge, about 1798, complained convincingly: “I am pestered every ball night to dance, which very modestly I refuse. They dance a most infamous dance called the Waltzen. There are perhaps twenty couples—the Man and his Partner embrace each other, arms and waists, and knees almost touching, and then whirl round and round … to lascivious music.”57
The upper classes could arrange dances or other parties at one of the fashionable clubs—Almack’s, White’s, Brook’s; there too they could gamble for high stakes, and discuss the latest performance of Mrs. Siddons, the frolics of the Prince, the novels of Jane Austen, the engravings of Blake, the storms of Turner, the landscapes of Constable. Among the Whigs the social pinnacle was Holland House, where Lady Holland held soirees at which one could meet such dignitaries as Lord Brougham, Philippe Duc d’Orléans, Talleyrand, Metternich, Grattan, Mme. de Staël, Byron, Thomas Moore, or the noblest Whig of them all, Charles James Fox.58 No salon in France could rival Holland House at the end of the eighteenth century.