Recently a worldly friend and I were discussing flooring. Ah, she said, if you have lino it must be the right kind of lino. If, like me, you are saucer-eyed at the idea of right and wrong kinds of linoleum, you are not among the fashionable. And if, in the 18th century, you did not lay on the right kind of candles – wax, not tallow – for entertaining fashionable company, you would not be among the beau monde whose world is ably explored in Hannah Greig’s fascinating study.
Avoiding a biography of style-setters, she focuses instead on what it meant to be part of the beau monde, which she sees as a powerful group anchored by rank to the aristocracy, but not quite the same as the titled rich: the beau monde was an elite within an elite. To be fashionable, one had to spend money on things approved by other people of fashion: the right address and the right furnishings and carriages; the right clothes, especially for appearing at court; the right sort of jewellery. Take diamonds, the best friend of ladies – and lords, who sported them on shoe buckles. A fashionable young lady about to marry would have family jewels reset, and perhaps add to her lustre with new purchases, gifts or loans from senior relatives. The origins, settings and display would be recognised by the fashionable world, and the significance of her adornments understood. Big was not always beautiful, and beauty – a term much favoured by the beau monde – proves not to have been fixated on physical attributes but on attractiveness made powerful by social cachet.
Fashion was so desirable that people faked whole identities to get in and errant women were punished by exile from it
Neither expensiveness nor taste in themselves create fashion, and to be a dedicated follower of fashion in any part of the 18th century, early, middle or late, was hard work. The fashionable had to go at the right times to the right places, to see and be seen in the right company. At the theatre and opera, social performance among the fashionable audience was noted by diarists every bit as much as the performances on stage. But mingling was highly selective. At Vauxhall (or Ranelagh, depending on which pleasure garden was most in fashion), the beau monde kept themselves visibly separate from other users. Since the growth of fashionable places has been taken to encourage a communicative public sphere in which greater social mixing was possible, the ways in which fashionability acted as a filter is an important corrective.
The book’s discussion of the term “beau monde” is split off into an appendix. Why? It looks like intellectual apartheid, as if language couldn’t or shouldn’t be part of history proper. Although so many words for fashion come from Paris – ton, beau monde, à la mode – the author stays firmly in London, explaining how the rhythm of Parliament dictated social seasons and gave a political colouring to fashion. If Whigs had more glamour, especially in the trend-setting times of the Duchess of Devonshire, nonetheless Tories were just as important in forming smart sets – and just as adept in snubbing and shunning. Fashion was so desirable that people faked whole identities to get in and errant women were punished by exile from it. How fashionable society shed some of its glitter and evolved into Victorian society makes a beguiling ending to a story of conspicuous consumption that was simultaneously a subtle web of visible display and invisible social power. If you remember Michael Heseltine being dismissively described by Alan Clark as a man who bought his own furniture, you will find Greig’s thoughtful account of its 18th-century equivalent a great read.
The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London
By Hannah Greig
Oxford University Press, 368pp, £25.00
Published 26 September 2013