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Beau Brummell and Casual Friday

There's nothing casual about this guy -
1805 caricature of Beau Brummell
by Robert Dighton

My husband works at an engineering agency in the decidedly relaxed city of Portland, Oregon. The lower floors of his office building are home to a software development firm. Apparently, the laid-back style of the high-tech folks is causing a bad case of clothing envy among the engineers. So much envy that my husband’s boss had to remind employees of the agency’s unofficial dress code.

Baseball caps, hoodies, shorts and tank tops, along with sandals and Crocs (a shoe company whose motto is “come as you are”) – all regularly worn by the high-tech workers – are off-limits to my husband and his colleagues.

And the engineers are allowed to wear jeans only on Casual Fridays, and then only if they don't have meetings scheduled with anyone outside the agency. Ties aren’t mandatory, but a collared shirt (for the men at least) is. 

My husband says there's been some grumbling, but overall the dress code, with the all-important exception for Casual Friday, has been accepted.

Now, the whole concept of Casual Fridays would have been hard for people in Regency England to fathom, for several reasons. For one thing, clothes were more expensive and individually hand-made, not mass-produced in generic sizes, like the clothes we wear today. Most people had fewer garments than a lot of us do in our stuffed closets, and they had less variety in their wardrobes.

During the Regency, people, especially the well-to-do, tended to be more formal in their speech and dress. What you wore proclaimed your class, social status and in many cases your occupation.

A young Byron in the Regency version of casual dress.
(Portrait by Henry Pierce Bone) 

 “Casual” in the early 19th century could be defined as Lord Byron wearing a shirt with an open collar instead of a high collar and precisely tied cravat. Alternatively, “casual” could refer to an aristocratic woman receiving select visitors at her home in a gorgeous, loose-fitting dressing gown that didn’t require wearing a constricting corset underneath.

Today, it’s common to see people going about town dressed as though they just got up from sprawling on the couch watching TV or doing chores around the house. Some restaurants have to actually implore their customers with a posted policy to put on shoes and a shirt before entering their establishments. And church-goers who once wore their “Sunday-best” clothes to church now think nothing of attending services in casual pants and T-shirts.

"The Reluctant Mistress" by Raimundo Madrazo

Now, there’s nothing wrong with the casual trend – it’s just another step in the evolution of fashion. For all I know, folks in the Regency would’ve loved to have an alternative to long skirts (for women) and starched cravats (for men). Though I doubt Beau Brummell, that prim and proper arbiter of Regency fashion (I blogged about his influence on fashion here) would have countenanced anything less than utter neatness and perfection in dress, no matter what century he lived in.

And yet, there’s a backlash developing in some quarters to contemporary casual dress, despite its comfort and convenience. I think it’s because some people like to dress up, and formal clothes give them more of an opportunity to express themselves than casual wear does.

For example, since 2011 there have been semi-annual Dapper Days at  Disneyland in Los Angeles, the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, and even once a year in the fall at Disneyland Paris. Participants forego park amusement attire like shorts and tank tops in favor of suits and dresses, complete with hats and gloves. Dapper Day is not a Disney-sponsored event, and Dapper Day enthusiasts also enjoy dressing up for other “elegant outings” to places like the LA County Museum of Art. (If you’re interested, you can get a schedule of upcoming events at the Dapper Days website.)

And the Wall Street Journal reported a few years ago that some companies are abandoning Casual Fridays to make way for Formal Fridays. On Formal Fridays, women leave their sensible slacks at home and wear dresses, even formal prom dresses, and male employees ditch their Dockers and polo shirts to wear a suit and tie, or, for the particularly enthusiastic, a top hat and bow tie.

I think Beau Brummell would approve.

Just how intricate and cumbersome were the clothes of yesteryear? Here’s a video of an 18th-century woman getting dressed, or rather, being dressed by her maid. Although the clothing styles of this period, with the stiff V-shaped stomachers pinned to the dress bodice, were out of fashion by the Regency a lot of the same dressing details – layering, pinning, and lacing – would also be necessary for the Empire-waisted Regency gowns. 

Like me, you might wonder if women could put these clothes on by themselves, without any assistance. But in the video, you’ll notice the maids are dressed in a similar style to their mistress, and they certainly wouldn’t have had attendants to help them get dressed. The maids must have learned how to don these clothes alone, or perhaps they helped each other in the morning rush to get ready for the day’s work.

Finally, I can’t resist a clip from a 1960s San Francisco band who called themselves The Beau Brummells. I like to think that their hit song, Laugh, Laugh, captures the reaction the real Beau Brummell would have had if someone had suggested Casual Fridays to him.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


  1. It's so much fun to read about how fashion trends have changed over the years! It is nice that nowadays we have more opportunity to relax in casual clothes, but sometimes I wouldn't mind an excuse to pull out my prom dress again! When I was in architecture school we would sometimes get dressed up on Fridays, it was a fun tradition :)

    1. I agree, I love reading about fashion! I'm just glad dressing up in formal wear today is a lot easier and more comfortable than it used to be.


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