The Most Famous Male Style Icons
The Most Famous Male Style Icons

The Most Famous Male Style Icons

D.G. Hewitt - September 15, 2018

The Most Famous Male Style Icons
Beau was the ultimate dandy of his day, but his style was fueled by debt. Wikimedia Commons.

12. Beau Brummell was the most fashionable dandy in all of Regency England, even if he racked up huge debts in order to look great

George Bryan Brummell was better known by the affectionate nickname “Beau”, especially among his friend, who included the Prince Regent and many of the most influential men and women in Regency England. In his day, Brummell was famed for his fine sartorial style, his witty and pithy sayings and for his unparalleled network of friends and connections. What made him even more remarkable was that, though rich, he was by no means fabulously wealthy, and his dandy style was largely funded by credit.

Born in 1778, Brummell followed the usual path for boys of the minor aristocracy. After being schooled at Eton – where, famously, he redesigned the uniform – he went to Oxford University before going into the army. It was here that he met the future King George IV. The two became firm friends and, thanks to his royal connection, Brummell rose quickly through the ranks. Within three years, he was made a captain. But when his regiment was sent from London to Manchester, Brummell immediately resigned, horrified at the thought of life outside of the fashionable capital.

It was as a civilian that Brummell really started to make his mark. He took lodgings in Mayfair, the most fashionable part of the city. Wisely, he avoided gambling and drinking, instead spending most of his money on fashion. He declared he needed five hours a day to get ready and eve boasted of cleaning his boots with champagne. Men admired his fine sense of style and many copied his dress, as well as his other ‘vain’ habits such as shaving and bathing on a daily basis.

For almost a decade, Brummell lived beyond his means. His debts were forgiven, or simply politely ignored, due to his friendship with the Prince Regent. When the two fell out over a social quarrel, however, Brummell’s world came crashing down around him. He was forced to flee to France to avoid debtor’s prison. He died alone and impoverished in a French asylum at the age of 61. However, he is remembered as the original dandy, and his flamboyance, as well as his way with words, have been immortalized in numerous books and plays, as well as with a statue in London’s high fashion quarter.

The Most Famous Male Style Icons
The Duke of Windsor was a dapper dresser, but not much of a ruler. Daily Mirror.

13. The Duke of Windsor might have been a poor King of England, but he was arguably the best-dressed Brit of the past century

As King Edward VIII, he sat on the throne of the United Kingdom for less than a year. These days, he’s best known for his 1936 abdication rather than his brief reign – and for good reason. When he stepped down in order to marry a twice-divorced American socialite, he caused a huge scandal and even threated the very foundations of the monarchy. However, he got out and lived a long, quiet life as the Duke of Windsor, one of the most stylish men in the whole world.

As the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne, Edward was the most eligible bachelors in all of Europe. He was not only rich and handsome, he was also impeccably dressed. This was no accident. Rather than being dressed by others, he took an active role in designing and tailoring his outfits, and he knew exactly what styles made him look good. He opted for zippers instead of buttons on his trousers – a style that was copied by many upper-class men in the 1920s, as did his insistence on breaking the mould and having cuffs on his pants – and he made British fashion, and in particular Scottish tweeds and Fair Isle sweaters, incredibly popular.

As Duke of Windsor, he had a passion for stripes and other patterns. He was one of the first high-profile men to pair different styles of clothes, plus he showed many shorter men how to dress well. He was famously quoted as saying that, rather than being put on Earth to rule, “I was in fact produced as a leader of fashion, with the clothiers as my showmen and the world as my audience.” Modern fashion critics agree, and the Duke of Windsor regularly tops lists of the best-dressed Brits of the 20th century.

The Most Famous Male Style Icons
Lord Byron was a style icon of his time, with both men and women copying his look. Wikimedia Commons.

14. Lord Byron was not just a famous poet, he was also the ultimate dandy, helping create a new sense of masculine style

The Romantic poets, who dominated the English literary scene at the start of the 19th century, were a flamboyant bunch. But none were as over-the-top as Lord Byron. An original dandy, he was a respected writer, politician and adventurer. Thanks to his quick wit, and his unique sense of style and perfect dress sense, he was a true celebrity of his time, and seduced both men and women as he travelled extensively throughout Europe.

According to one of Lord Byron’s lovers, a certain Lady Caroline Lamb, the poet was “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. But still, people couldn’t help but be drawn to him. Much of this was due to his unparalleled sense of style. While many men sported facial hair at the time, Byron was always clean-shaven. What’s more, he also ditched the wax and powder and let his hair flow long, free and natural, a look that scandalized many, but was soon being copied in prestigious universities and the most fashionable parts of London.

Numerous portraits were done of Lord Byron, each helping to add to his legend. He became famous for his fashion sense, and above all for his open-necked shirts and silk robes. According to his friend, the fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Byron was the “most handsome man” in the word, with “his eyes the open portals of the sun…his forehead passing from marble smoothness into a hundred wreathes and lines and dimples”.

Lord Byron’s early death, at the age of just 36, undoubtedly helped add further to his legend. Since he died, alone and in agony, in a small town in a remote part of western Greece, he never had the chance to grow old and unfashionable. He will forever be remembered as the ultimate English dandy.

The Most Famous Male Style Icons
General Burnside’s facial hair became more famous than his political career. Wikimedia Commons.

15. Ambrose Burnside’s facial hair has been copied by everyone from the Kaiser to the King

Ambrose Everett Burnside was a soldier, businessman, inventor and politician. For many, however, he was simply a facial hair pioneer. After all, this was the man who gave the world sideburns. Even to this day, men around the world follow Burnside’s lead and craft their beard like he did. Indeed, over the years, his distinctive style has been copied by everyone from Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany right through to Elvis Presley.

Of course, it’s likely that Burnside himself would have preferred to have been remembered for his other notable achievements. The Indiana native, who was born in 1824, graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1843 and then served south of the border. After a largely-unsuccessful spell in business, he re-joined the army and led Union troops as a general in the Civil War. After that, he went back into business, mainly in the railroad sector, and then into politics.

It’s not clear when exactly Burnside started developing his iconic style of facial hair. However, his sideburns were prominent in photos taken while he was in political office. He served three terms as the Governor of Rhode Island, from 1866 to 1869, and then one term as a Senator. Throughout this, he sported his sideburns – indeed, some observers noted that, since they were almost purely white, his whiskers made him look much older than he actually was.

Burnside died in 1881 at the age of just 57. By the time of his death, the facial hair style he sported was still called ‘burnsides’. Many men, especially those who regarded him as a Civil War hero, copied the look, keeping their chins smooth while joining the hair from the ears to the mustache area. Within a few years, however, the syllables were reversed, giving us the term sideburns, which is still used to this day.

The Most Famous Male Style Icons
King Charles II started wearing wigs to hide his hair loss, and he started a fashion craze. Wikimedia Commons.

16. King Charles II’s vanity made wigs the must-have fashion item of 17th century London

At some point in the 1650s, King Charles II started losing his hair. Even though he was still in his 20s, it’s possible that he was just balding prematurely. However, it’s far more likely that he was actually suffering from syphilis. Afraid that he would be mocked, he tasked his courtiers to find him the best wigs money could buy. Satisfied with what they brought him, Charles started wearing a wig every day – and a new trend was born in England.

However, Charles was not the first monarch to inspire his subjects to start wearing wigs. Across the sea, King Louis XIV of France had done so a few years before. He too suffered from syphilis and wanted to cover up some of the most obvious symptoms. The Sun King as he was known reputedly hired 48 wigmakers and kept a huge collection of hair pieces. Eager to win his favor, French nobles started wearing wigs, too, even spending large sums of money on pieces made by the same specialists that supplied the court.

In England, as soon as Charles stared sporting a hairpiece, aristocrats started following suit. It even became fashionable among the wealthier members of the middle classes, despite the fact that a new wig cost the equivalent of a week’s wages. Unsurprisingly, people used the fashion craze to show off. Over time, wigs became bigger, more flamboyant and more perfumed. The term ‘bigwig’ was coined to describe someone who was able – and indeed willing – to spend a large sum of money on a wig they didn’t even really need.

Even when both Louis and Charles died, the fashion for wigs refused to go away. In fact, it endured for another 100 years. This is because many people realised that, as well as being trendy, wigs were practical, too. Unlike real hair, they could be taken off and deloused – a big advantage in a time when almost everyone was infected with headlice.

The Most Famous Male Style Icons
Nelson Mandela’s shirts were widely copied in 1990s South Africa. Wikimedia Commons.

17. Nelson Mandela made Indonesian shirts a massive hit in his native South Africa

In the 1990s, men across South Africa started sporting a new kind of shirt. It was known as the ‘Madiba shirt’ or ‘Mandela shirt’, in honor of the freedom fighter, then President, who made the style so popular. Even now, Nelson Mandela’s formidable legacy can be seen everywhere in his native country, including in the clothes its people wear.

Upon being released from prison in 1990, Mandela worked for reconciliation, not revenge. Four years after being freed from the island prison cell he had called home for 27 long years, he was President of South Africa. World leaders wasted no time in congratulating him, with many sending him gifts. The leader of Indonesia sent Mandela a brightly-colored shirt made from batik cloth, a popular garment in the Asian country. The elder statesman was delighted – and he adopted that type of shirt for his everyday dress.

Over the years, Mandela wore hundreds of different versions of the shirt. Some were patterned to celebrate South Africa’s rich flora and fauna, others in bright colors. Sometimes he wore them to greet national leaders, eschewing the usual suit and tie. He famously even wore one for his 90th birthday party. By the late-1990s, Mandela had become a style icon and bright batik shirts were being sold – and worn – right across the newly-democratic country.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Did Hitler Invent the Hitler Moustache?” Slate Magazine, May 2013.

“The Wardrobe of Winston Churchill.” The Rake, January 2018.

“Prince William, Harry and Phillip don the majestic Windsor Uniform.” Daily Mail, May 2016.

“Garibaldi Shirt.” Victoriana Magazine, June 2014.

“Ambassador in a hat: The sartorial power of Benjamin Franklin.” Early Americanists.

“Fury’s fashion people: Louis XIV, the power dresser.” The Independent, July 2013.

“How the Duke of Windsor became a style icon.” The Gentleman’s Journal.

“Science and celebrity: Humphry Davy’s Rising Star.” Science History.

“Ambrose E. Burnside and His Sideburns.” George Washington University.

“Why Did People Wear Powdered Wigs?” Lucas Reilly, Mental Floss, June 2012.

“Indonesia: Mandela the batik fashion icon.” BBC News, December 2013.