My book review for JJ Lee’s “The Measure of a Man”was originally posted on the Blind Hem, an on-line fashion magazine.
With his debut non-fiction novel, The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, A Son and A Suit, JJ Lee divulges his family’s most secretive past, while exploring the history of the suit. Woven together with elements of nostalgia and loss, the narrative is raw and real despite the author’s claims that his memories are vague.
The novel begins by JJ Lee pondering his father’s suit. He inherited the suit after his father’s death, and it was badly outdated: the mass produced version striving to recall the design elements of a 1980s Georgia Armani. As he slowly and hesitantly begins to unstitch the suit to tailor it to his own body, Lee describes the appeal of Modernize Tailors, Vancouver’s last Chinatown tailor shop, where he had been taken on as an apprentice, and divulges in to historical research about the suit and men’s dress in the way only the most avid of apprentice tailors can. Lee contrasts these historical snippets with an almost fetishistic view of men’s dress that makes the reader swoon:
“Lapels can be – should be – kinky, dangerous, sleek, potent. To wit: if someone touches your suit sleeve, you’re onto something good; if he or she strokes your lapel, the deal has been sealed. Hail a taxi and have all three. All men deserve beautifully rolled lapels.”
JJ Lee conveys the same sexiness in the suit that had men from a generation or 2 ago, moving away from the garment. JJ chose to rework this particular suit out of purely personal reasons: ”I have a confession to make. My father’s suit compared with the suits he owned in the past, doesn’t deserve the time and effort I am going to put into it.“ The suit’s history is explored in the book as an ode to the art of dress for men. Man’s most iconic item of clothing, he traces the suit’s origins in replicating battle armor, through to the era of Marlon Brando who was key in replacing this wardrobe staple with tight, sex-alluding jeans, and the then undergarment, the T-shirt.
His desire to connect with the owners of a Chinatown tailor shop is alluded to being a sort of substitute for the sartorial knowledge download he valued and felt the absence from his father-only proves his authenticity and his developing authority in this subject. JJ Lee was a well-dressed lover of the shop who had found a way to convince the owners to let him hang around under the fluffed-up title of “apprentice”. He whole-heartedly commits to learning the trade, and is not successful in the way he wanted.
JJ Lee’s full emotion over the love and loss of the Tailor shop is moving. His identity and his passion were mixed up in a place that he had no right to declare: He didn’t know how to sew. Nonetheless, he develops a personal relationship with the tailors, that points directly to JJ Lee’s unresolved family issues, and that ultimately led to this book.
The personal nature of working with this memento of his father’s life is mixed with deeply unspoken memories while he attempts to tailor his deceased father’s suit his own body. These personal narratives tell his family’s history in Montreal; through his father’s alcoholism and abuse, to his father’s absence and ambition to succeed in the Montreal restaurant scene, JJ Lee described the impact of father’s strong personality on his siblings and his mother. Lee is aficionado for fine tailoring and men’s suits, but the book moves beyond just aesthetics, even proving how clothes disguise the real man who wears them.
“My father, still in his twenties, would leans against the nicest car he could find – somebody else’s Continental, Chevy SS, or Italian coupe. I always felt he was daring the world to knock him off his perch. No one did. I have no clue what my father was trying to prove, but even then I knew it had something to do with being a man. I remember the tight-cut Glen plaid sports coat with blue checks he would wear with Bermuda blue pants, not as light as sky blue, not as dark as royal. His Bally shoes –and only Bally always. And the way he would pop his hands out of his sleeves to get them clear of the jacket and cufflinks so he could take the first bite with gusto.”
JJ learned from his father that the way you dress, the way you make yourself appear affects your success, and JJ evaluates his father’s specificity in his items of clothing and what he was trying to convey to the restaurant world of Montreal. As if he is constantly comparing the actions or absence of his dysfunctional father to the image of him in full dress, JJ Lee tends to romanticize the father-son relationship like anyone who feels the abandonment of an alcoholic parent, but I think that’s part of the allure of this story-JJ Lee does not hold back. He does not try to make the story seem less painful to himself.
He compares his father’s growing alcoholism, the abuse towards his mother and the eventual collapse of his family with how his father’s attitude towards clothing changed. Lee’s father felt he could not uphold his charade even to those unaware of the interior dynamics of his family: “My father’s wardrobe also eroded. He no longer wore suits or nice shoes. You don’t need calfskin loafers when you’re working a wok and a deep fryer.” The Measure of a Man constantly alludes to the fact that fashion is much more than just clothes, it’s about the people who wear them.