Tuesday, September 27, 2011 |
First aired on North by Northwest (24/9/11)
We've all heard the expression "clothes make the man." As the menswear columnist for the Vancouver Sun and fashion columnist for CBC Vancouver's On the Coast, JJ Lee was well positioned to write a book on sartorial style. That's what he set out to do. But as the project evolved, its main focus shifted from the social history of the suit to a more personal subject: Lee's troubled relationship with his father.
"I really did think it would be a book about clothing," Lee told North by Northwest host Sheryl MacKay in a recent interview. His newly published memoir The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit, begins with Lee's decision to have a suit of his father's altered so that it will fit him.
Because it was his father's suit, Lee felt he had to write about the man himself as well. But in the process of summoning memories of his father, he realized that he had suppressed much that was painful. Lee also called on his siblings for their recollections. "It was scary, upsetting, revelatory," Lee said, adding that "what we had was different pieces of the same puzzle."
Lee said that he came to an understanding of what it is to be a man partly through clothing and the example his father set for him as "a fabulous dresser."
Lee recalled being impressed by his father's closet full of business suits and regarded that article of clothing as "a mantle or cloak by which he could enter the grown-up world." What he didn't see as a child at the time was that his father was only 27, hadn't finished university and was providing for a wife and four children in a job that usually belonged to a much older man.
His father's fortunes suffered a reversal, and so too did his sharp style of dressing. He became a cook at his own restaurant and wore shoes splattered with grease. But what saddened Lee most, as a teenager, was how the change in status diminished his father. There were other problems: his father was an alcoholic, and this strained relationships with his family.
Lee calls his book "an act of tailoring," because it stitches together disparate elements--his personal story and the origins of the suit. He sees parallels between the modern suit and the suit of armour, and compares it to the doublet, which was commonly worn by squires and knights in the 14th and 15th century. He also writes of historical figures such as Beau Brummel, whom Lee describes as "the David Beckham of 1812."
His research included visiting tailor shops on famous shopping street Savile Row. The experience reminded him of his own teenage apprenticeship at Modernize Tailors in Vancouver, where one of the proprietors, Bill Wong, became a kind of father figure to him. It was important "to be around an older man who had wisdom to share," he said. Even though Lee came to realize that he wasn't cut out to be a tailor, he values the experience.
The process of writing The Measure of a Man has clarified his feelings about his father, and about his own role as a parent. "I know I'm a father first," Lee said. "It's my major project in life."
Photo of JJ Lee by Melissa Stephens
The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit
by JJ Lee
Buy this book at:
From McClelland & Stewart:
"Taking as its starting point a son's decision to alter his late father's last remaining suit for himself, this is a deeply moving and brilliantly crafted story of fathers and sons, of fitting in and standing out--and discovering what it means to be your own man.
For years, journalist and amateur tailor JJ Lee tried to ignore the navy suit that hung at the back of his closet--his late father's last suit. When he decides to finally make the suit his own, little does he know he is about to embark on a journey into his own past."
Read more at McClelland.com.