The iconic English dandy George “Beau” Brummell, who set trends and influenced royals during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, left behind an enduring legacy that includes the common business suit men still wear today. Not only did he transform fashion, but he also spread his revolutionary ideas about how and when people should clean themselves. In fact, some hold him solely responsible for converting the British populace to a regimen of daily—or at least frequent—bathing. So what were the rules of hygiene Brummell set forth?
If you had asked any fashionable young Englishman (or lady, for that matter) of the early 19th century whether they bathed every day, they would have given you an astonished reply in the affirmative. But in truth, they probably only meant that they regularly washed their face, hands and arms. At the time, people considered this brief routine sufficient attention to one’s cleanliness. It was Brummell’s insistence on washing his entire body each day that made his contemporaries—initially, at least—view him as an eccentric.
Common wisdom of the 19th century—and many of the most esteemed medical experts of the day—held that “chafing” and perspiration, not bathing, could rid the body of toxins and maintain optimal health. There was much discussion of how frequently one should chafe one’s skin, which involved vigorously rubbing it with a towel or length of linen, as well as what types of fabric promoted the most beneficial level of perspiration. In fact, heavy materials like wool and cambric often won out over lighter weaves because consistent perspiration was thought to be central to a person’s well-being. Brummell maintained that soaking rather than sweating rid the body of germs and grime.
Nineteenth-century Europeans believed that cool or even ice-cold water did a body more good than a steaming bath. Interestingly, warm water was considered too exciting to the body and prone to produce a shock to the system, opening the floodgates of disease. Nevertheless, Brummell would use his coal cellar to heat up gallons of water for his daily dip. Of course, few of his contemporaries had the resources to afford this luxury, and many didn’t even have a bathhouse or tub in the first place.
Beau Brummel’s fashion ideals favored simple, classic and largely unadorned beauty. He eschewed the bright colors, wigs and showy fabrics of the previous generation, promoting clean lines, understated hues and impeccable tailoring. Brummell took a similar approach to bathing and grooming, refusing to douse himself with the stifling scents and lotions prized by young men and women of his day. Many of his followers would eventually adopt this simpler ethos, relying on a healthy soak in the tub rather than copious amount of perfume to smell fresh and clean.