ABOUT Almost a Gentleman ...
"A Regency? Why, I wouldn't write
one if it were the last genre on earth."
Any romance reader would have known I was
lusting to write a Regency. I, of course, was the last to find
out. I've always loved the sparkling wit and charming, elegant
clothes of the early nineteenth century. But I needed to have
my own way with the period. I didn't want country house gentility;
I was looking for something edgier, sexier, more urban.
I opened a book that had sat unopened on
our bookshelves for a decade. The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm,
by Ellen Moers.
Brummell . . . Beau Brummell, the hero of
one of the best-loved historical movies of my childhood. MGM
had mounted it extravagantly. Stewart Granger was handsome,
witty, and urbane, Elizabeth Taylor gorgeous in an absurd powdered
Brummell sparked my nine-year-old romantic imagination;
I was captivated by the hero's style, intelligence, and reckless
disdain for anything safe, boring, or stuffy.
The historical Brummell, according to Moers,
was quite as interesting as he'd been on screen - and far more
original and enigmatic. He understood influence, celebrity,
and image. And he created an entirely new style of male power
Until the late 18th Century, upper-class
European and American men dressed in bright, rather flimsy
fabrics that tended to wrinkle and to accentuate the belly
(check out the portrait of King George III at right: men looked
rather like eggs).
Brummell changed all that. Moers tells us
the "wool, leather, and linen were his materials;" black
and white, dark blue and the palest fawn were his colors. His
exquisitely tailored garments kept their shape and defined
a sexy male silhouette of wide shoulders tapering to slim hips
and long legs. We recognize the look (see image at right) from
a million period movies - and we've come to insist upon it,
at least once a year on Academy Awards night.
"By making simplicity the fashion," Moers
says, "Brummell established a style suitable for any man,
king or commoner, who aspired after the distinction of a gentleman."
Brummell was a commoner; although his father
had become prosperous, his grandfather had quite possibly been
a valet. In an age of revolutions, this man of humble origins
wielded uncommon social power in upper class London. An intimate
of the Prince of Wales and a model for Lord Byron, he dominated
the world of exclusive London clubs. His disapproval of the
cut of someone's coat could spell social oblivion.
An outsider become insider - all because
of the perfection of his manners and costume. If a bold, brilliant
man of the middling classes could do it, I thought, why couldn't
a bold, brilliant - woman?
Reading about male power dressing had opened
my eyes to just how strong - and how symmetrical - the contrast
between male and female costume had been during the Regency
era. Women hid their legs (though their shape might be discerned
through their thin dresses) and exposed extravagant amounts
of bosom. Men wrapped their chests and throats in high white
cravats and flaunted their legs in slim trousers. Upper class
dress was a dance of opposites, a provocative game of hide-and-seek.
But suppose a woman decided to hide her female
body behind a man's high cravat? And suppose she was also audacious
enough to demand the freedom of the late-night London streets
and a measure of social power into the bargain?
Suppose she became a kind of Brummell - with
the power to judge, to ridicule, and to ostracize?
suppose she got away with it? Got away with it, that is, until
the evening she encountered a gentleman who was fascinated
rather than intimidated by her power and magnetism? A man who
made her want to be a woman again.
"Well, maybe I will try a Regency," I
thought. My sort of Regency, with the working title
of of Mr. Knightley Meets Ms. Brummell. Which quite
soon became Almost a Gentleman.
I hope you enjoy reading it
as much as I enjoyed writing it.
NOTE: Moers’ book is out
of print, but I’ve had great luck finding out-of-print
titles at www.abebooks.com.
You can also find out more about the Regency revolution in
male dress from Anne Hollander’s Sex and Suits.
image sources: George III http://www.abcgallery.com/G/gainsborough/gainsborough88.html