Male fashions changed radically from the end of the eighteenth century. Military influence encouraged the adoption of tighter, more tailored coats and waistcoats, but, unlike military uniform, civilian men’s clothes were increasingly sombre in colour. Flowery patterns were rejected in favour of stripes and checks, as the lavish detailing associated with early eighteenth-century men’s costume was thought to be too effeminate and ‘Frenchified’. Instead, British men sought to project an image of rational sincerity typified by the blunt but honest character of John Bull. As well as being more compatible with national character, this image signified an affinity with nature associated with Rousseau’s philosophy, and the more sober appearance helped to cultivate an image of romantic melancholy deemed flattering in a sentimental age. Simpler clothing also appealed to Enlightenment notions of greater equality, especially in France, although British men also began to swap their knee-length breeches for pantaloons formerly worn only by working men.  

Just as women’s fashions became more figure-hugging from the 1790s, male clothing was also designed to present the figure to its best advantage. Although plain, dark colours were increasingly popular, much attention was paid to achieving the perfect cut, and it was in this period that Britain’s tailors acquired their reputation as the finest in the world. As the Taylor’s Complete Guide, published in 1797, pointed out, the tailor’s art was to adapt fashionable styles to the customer’s body shape. Coats were to be tight at the back to emphasise the muscles, while the front could be padded to emphasise the chest. When worn with pantaloons to display the leg, these sleek, tailored suits presented an image of gentlemanly stylishness and elegance.  

The key proponent of more restrained male fashions was George ‘Beau’ Brummell. Brummell befriended the Prince of Wales while studying at Eton, and, having impressed him with his wit and style, was offered a position in the Prince’s personal regiment. Although Brummell left the army in 1798 (allegedly because he refused to be garrisoned in Manchester), he remained on good terms with the elite circle surrounding the Prince. Within this fashionable group, he propagated his principles of simple but perfectly cut clothing and meticulous hygiene, matched by perfectly regulated manners. However, after one too many witty comments at the Prince’s expense, Brummell fell from favour, and was finally forced to flee to France to escape his gambling debts. Despite Beau Brummell’s fall from grace, the style he promoted remained popular, and, in the dignified elegance of the male three piece suit, his influence on fashion can still be seen today.