I recall smoking a cigar on the Kowloon waterfront surrounded by literally hundreds of mainland Chinese who were asking for my autograph as they had never seen someone dressed like me in the flesh. Nonetheless, I would not have drawn a second glance at the Penn Club in Manhattan or the Wolseley in London. Was I well dressed? I believe so. One's native dress has always been correct. The rest is just a matter of self-confidence.
Analagous experience: Last summer, I went with some co-workers to a relatively high-end restaraunt in Washington, DC. I was wearing a seersucker jacket, white ducks, white bucks, a powder blue button-down shirt, and a tie that looked something like this
. It was "casual Friday," so I thought I could pull off an outfit like that for office-wear. Anyway, the beautiful young blonde hostess saw me come in, stared for a moment with a couple of waitresses by her side, and said, "I'm sorry - I'm sure you hear this all the time, but my God, you are wonderfully dressed!" I was quite happy with that bit of head-turning, but would Mr. Brummell? If she were Jane Bull, perhaps not. But ... I don't believe it.
Brummel, Byron and many of the elegant set of the times were hardly shrinking violets. They wanted clothes that highlighted their rather immense personalities as opposed to distracting attention from same. They absolutely wanted to be seen, remarked and even idolized for "the men they were", not for their clothes.
I suspect that you are right, Michael. But this too is a point that I've been unsure about. My wife contends that a big personality should have understated clothes because Mr. Big Personality needs no more (metaphorical) shouting about him. While there's something to that, the opposite would not hold. For instance, there is a fellow in my office who dresses like an Alpha-Male, K Street lobbyist "screw you" Washington power lawyer. He is, however, among the mildest, most decent fellows I know. Does a "mild" personality demand compensating clothes? No. If not, then the contention that clothes should tone-down or amp-up one's personality (as necessary) clearly holds no water.
Incidentally, this doesn't get too far with my wife. She - like her mother - believes that anything that distracts attention from YOU is a bad thing. Hence, any clothes that might prompt particular notice are to be distrusted and treated skeptically.
That quote is repeated far too much and distorted out of all context. He did say "John Bull" which is a very ordinary, middle class person. This is not the sort of person Brummell associated with or cared about. He was known for his clothing and wanted people to notice his clothing. When and if he made that comment he quite probably was being profoundly absurd in order to toy with whomever he was speaking to. Literalists have re-quoted it ever since
My understanding was that Brummell was not a member of the high peerage at all and that he WAS dressing and socializing "above his class" so to speak. But I'm sure you are correct regardless that he was not attempting to impress Mr. Bull ... maybe Lord Bull.
It really doesn't matter that much because that quote can no more help a person get dressed than belief in a style formula or that "fashion" is a dirty letter word. Well, it may be a dirty word but only for those with similar minds.
Oh I don't know. A lot of people seem to - consciously or not - live by this Brummellian rule. I know plenty of people who are happy to dress like everyone else and afraid of putting anything on that might elicit much notice. That might stem from a lack of interest in putting energy into dressing well or a fear of being perceived as "different." I do agree, however, that one can't really live by that quote while dressing particularly well given current sartorial standards.