The Measure of a Man / J.J. Lee
Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, c2011.
What an interesting read this was! I recently discovered J.J. Lee's radio show on CBC radio, called Head to Toe, all about clothes and why and how we wear them (you can catch up on the podcasts at the Head to Toe website -- really worth listening to, they are short but really well done). It's a perfect show to listen to while I am sewing!
So I also wanted to read this memoir of sorts, a story that is nominally about Lee's attempts to tailor one of his father's old suits to fit him, and in the process, mend his damaged memories of his mercurial father. Lee grew up in a family of four children, and his parents were happy together for a long time. Unfortunately, his father suffered from addictions, and their family life unravelled as he began to drink more and behave violently. Lee, as the eldest son, suffered from this situation in many ways.
Lee's story is gripping, told with love and sorrow intermingled. The reader sees the influence of his childhood on his newly-found passion both for tailoring and for the mentorship of older Chinese men in the tailoring shop he apprentices at in Vancouver. One of the threads of the story is the role that his father's forced immigration played in his development -- he was sent from China to Canada, to live with his grandparents when very young, and had to make his own way in life without parental assistance.
Lee is a professional writer (writing for newspapers and for magazines, as well as online) and that shows. The story is well constructed; moving from childhood memories to present-day ponderings, tying it all to Lee's love of clothes and fashion, using the old suit as a trigger for his narrative flow. It's quite fascinating how all the pieces come together, with the book finally being a more successful recreation of his father than the suit will ever be.
But not just memoir, this book also talks quite a lot about suits, and their meaning in a man's life. Lee discusses how the number of buttons and the roll of a collar can affect the signal that a wearer is giving out -- are you hip, old-fashioned, rich, poor, on the way up or down, old, young -- all this can be read in a suit. He raises the question "What is the significance of a man's choice, or lack of choice, in his clothing?" He also shares stories of tailors and shops, all interesting as social commentary, plus there are a couple of stories included that he has gone on to tell in his radio show.
It's a fascinating melange of personal and professional, and I really enjoyed it. It's elegaic, sad, often funny, and full of much more information than you'd guess from its size. Well worth reading!
For another Canadian memoir of fraught relationships between father and son, rolled up with details of the writer's career path, try musician Dan Hill's I Am My Father's Son.
If it's more on suits and men's fashion you want, try Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed by Richard Anderson, a tailor whom JJ Lee spoke to for his book.