The Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction recognizes excellence in Canadian non-fiction writing, awarding $25,000 to the winning author on March 5.
Before JJ Lee, a fashion journalist and amateur tailor, became interested in the minutiae of menswear, it was not uncommon for him to wear an ill-fitting suit, like the masses of guileless young men who wander into malls looking for fast-fix formal wear. In fact, Lee, who studied architecture at university, skipped both his undergraduate and graduate convocations because he had nothing to wear.
The final straw occurred nine years ago when Lee wore an inadequate suit to his father’s funeral. What follows is recounted in The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit, an exquisite book, Lee’s first, that weaves together moments from the author’s life that play parts in his sartorial enlightenment—an education that orbits the literal deconstruction of his father’s last remaining suit. As Lee cuts and unravels this dark navy single-breasted piece with a notch lapel, intending to fit it to himself, he looks for clues to better understand—and to resolve regrets with—his often aloof father: a Chinese immigrant who was married with two kids, and working all hours in Montreal restaurants, by the time he was 19. Both tender and painful moments from Lee’s often cheerless childhood are chronicled side by side with the evolution of the suit—from its rebellious beginnings, when “17th-century Protestant clergy [pined] for the days of long robes and modest tunics that covered a man’s legs,” to its rise via harbingers of style, including Oscar Wilde, the duke of Windsor and Giorgio Armani, and its eventual demise thanks in large part to jeans. Key to Lee learning such things as the origins of the vest, buttonholes and the difference between a made-to-measure suit and the bespoke tailoring of Savile Row is Modernize Tailors, the last of the great Vancouver Chinatown suit-makers, where his apprenticeship begins.
Whenever I [knot a tie], it’s like I’m 10 years old again. I am standing in front of the bathroom mirror. My father is behind me and guiding my hands, his hands clasped over mine. To tie a half-Windsor, you loop the tie once around, crossing it through the neck hole, and then you loop it again. The cross and extra loop thicken the knot but not as much as it would on the full Windsor. I suppose an instructional diagram would be very helpful here, but it would fail to convey the heat and thickness of my father’s hands and how I stood up on tiptoe so I could feel the rasp of his chin stubble against the back of my neck. A diagram would say nothing of the crisp frictions of woven silk, or the firm final tug—drawn with a violent mixture of humour and malevolence only fathers can offer—that rocked me onto the balls of my feet. A tie never felt so solid and lush and full and fundamental. It may have been the last moment of close physical contact I had with my father without any self-consciousness.
I wore the half-Windsor with my striped overalls, army boots and shaved head. That’s how I looked when I met Melissa of Melbourne, Australia. She was touring Canada when she walked into the [Vancouver] gallery [where I worked] and into my life wearing blue leggings, Doc Martens, a poodle skirt, and a cotton blouse with lace on the collar. A year later, we were married.
I went back to architecture school and graduated five years later. Kind of.
I never wore a graduation gown or a tasselled cap. No one shook my hand or passed me a vellum scroll with “Master of Architecture” inscribed on it. I didn’t go to my convocation. Even though I knew I had earned my degree, I just couldn’t make myself attend the graduation ceremony. My excuse was a classic: I had nothing to wear.
I did own two suits but they were poor specimens. One was an ugly green suit I had bought for a job interview as a weight-loss counsellor. The other was a grey ghillie suit. It had four buttons; normal suits have only two or three. The pants had denim-styled pockets instead of the slash or seam pockets of more formal dress pants. The suit jacket had a horizontal seam at the back called a yoke; real suits usually have a vertical one. This suit was made of viscose; real suits are supposed to be made of wool. When I bought it for an awards dinner I had to attend at the behest of an employer, I was unaware of these deficiencies, these violations. To me it looked like a regular suit. I had no idea it was a bastard garment, a mutant and a failure, until a woman at the awards ceremony observed (was it sarcasm?), “I like your suit. It looks like something young men would wear in Shanghai.”
I felt as if she had thrown a drink in my face. Her words stung. I’m sure they were intended as a compliment but somehow they felt backhanded. Did I detect an unconscious ethnic slur? What did Shanghai have to do with anything? The reference to my age: was I out of my depth? Perhaps I was the problem. I was unaccustomed to wearing a suit and felt self-conscious. In truth, I was wearing a costume. The suit wasn’t really me.
This was not the way a suit was supposed to work. Later on, in my journey to better understand sartorial matters, I would speak to menswear designer and fashion writer Alan Flusser, who is famous for providing the suits for Michael Douglas’s most iconic on-screen character, the unethical financier Gordon (“Greed is good”) Gekko in the film Wall Street. Flusser had this to say about the novice suit wearer’s most basic demand: “There’s a different mentality between a man and a woman [when it comes to fashion]. A woman dresses to attract. A man dresses to a certain degree to fit in. If a woman goes to a function and another woman is wearing the same dress as she, it’s a disaster. If a man goes to a party and he’s wearing a blue suit and everyone else is wearing a blue suit, he feels pretty comfortable.” My suit was a disaster. At a moment when I needed to fit in, it made me feel conspicuous. I felt a deep shame. I had been betrayed.
As graduation drew closer, I started to imagine the kind of suits my classmates would wear. I could see them at convocation walking across the quad at Green College dressed in a Hugo Boss or a decent Calvin Klein looking ready to take on the future. They were at ease. They wore the mantle of a professional naturally. They were princes.
Graduation day came. Instead of going to my convocation, I went with Melissa and a good friend to celebrate at Hy’s Steakhouse. In the dark-wood-panelled, clubby cavern of Hy’s, we toasted the memory of my father, who had died a few months earlier. Between the main course and dessert, I found myself appraising the room with his restaurateur’s savvy. My steak came on a plank, and the wooden steak knife handle was well-worn–an authentic touch. The rare was medium. My father would have sent it back, but I didn’t complain. His behaviour in restaurants used to embarrass me. In the name of research, he would steal menus, drink lists, cutlery and napkins from other restaurants if he found them pleasing to the eye or to touch. If a waiter made an error, my father would quickly correct him. If a whole fish was being served, he would forbid the waiter to touch it. My father would stand up, usher him aside, and expertly handle the serving fork and spoon in one hand.
I was surprised by how much I missed him. The years of embarrassment, shame, anger and struggle were over. Now, there was only a void. That’s when I formulated a plan. My graduation present to myself would be a new, made-to-measure, custom-detailed suit.
A friend and colleague, Terry Donnelly, told me about an old, rundown shop on the corner of Carrall and Pender, the gateway to the city’s historic Chinese district, and the intersection where Chinatown and downtown meet. Modernize Tailors. He told me they had been there forever and they made good cheap suits. I should give them a try.
In the rain and cold of a December day, I made my way to the shop. When I opened the door, an electronic bell went off. A short, elderly Chinese man appeared from behind a curtain wall of unfinished jackets hanging from a pipe on the ceiling. He shuffled toward me.
“Hello, how can I help you?” It was Bill Wong.
I wasn’t really sure. I asked him if I could look around the shop. He said sure and disappeared behind the jackets. The shop is a long tunnel of hundreds of bolts stacked haphazardly along the walls and on counters that run down the middle. I gravitated to a stack of flannels near the wall of coats. Bill poked his head through and asked, “What do you have in mind?”
I should have said, “The meaning of life.” Instead, I said, “I’d like to order a suit.”
“Okay,” he said, straightening up.
He pulled me in front of a large armoire with three large mirrors and started to measure my chest, my stomach, my seat.
As he stretched the tape to size me up, I talked about Cary Grant. I told Bill I liked the way Grant looked in his films, in Indiscreet and Notorious, and that any man who could win the love of Ingrid Bergman was the role model for me. I wasn’t sure about the suit’s colour because the films were in black and white. Bill stopped me there.
“Anything that you like will look good on you.”
He pulled out a bolt from among the many lining the left wall—a flannel. It wasn’t one of the flannels I had been touching. It wasn’t black, which would have been too artsy. It wasn’t blue. It had texture; it was matte, not shiny. It felt relaxed. It wasn’t corporate, yet in a pinch it would work as a proper dark suit. Charcoal grey = Cary Grant.
“The nice thing about this is it has a white fleck to it. It hides lint much better. You get a two-tone effect and depth.”
This was the beginning of my sartorial education.
Excerpted from the book The Measure of a Man, © 2011 by JJ Lee, published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.