Measure of a Man author JJ Lee discovers memories in a well-tailored suit
JJ Lee is fiddling with his new hat. He’s sitting on the patio of the Art Gallery Café, talking to the Straight about his memoir, The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit (McClelland & Stewart), and musing on clothing as a form of narrative. “Through its shape and colour and texture, everything you put on is a story of who you are,” he says. “It’s actually one of the primary aesthetic struggles that we go through every day, so much so that we don’t even notice that we’re doing it.”
Lee is also making suggestions about how to write the opening of this article, what literary devices to employ. His assertiveness is hardly surprising. He is, after all, an accomplished fashion columnist, art critic, and broadcaster. Locally, he has contributed to the Straight, the Vancouver Sun, and CBC Radio, and he knows his way around a catchy lead. The hat he’s scrunching and tugging at is grey wool, a woman’s variation on a fedora. One side of the brim is turned up, the other down, and there’s a flash of pink ribbon on the band. “I like the feminine nature of the hat,” he says. “I’m going to throw it in the wash and see what happens to it.”
Throwing things in the wash—most notably, the secondhand suits that he buys at thrift shops—is often the first step Lee undertakes when he’s altering clothes to fit him. That shrinkage treatment includes the vintage Joseph Abboud sports jacket he is wearing at this interview. Its autumnal shades are matched with a blue-and-white striped shirt, a polka-dotted navy bow tie, and skinny, grey tweed trousers. By rights, this combination should be ghastly. Instead, it reads as stylish and self-confident. Pulling again at the hat, Lee adds, “You’ll have to comment on my sartorial bravery—that I’ll wear women’s clothes as easily as I’ll wear men’s.”
And, yes, again because Lee is a journalist, he understands how to make a segue, even from the feminine side of dressing to the masculine. Most especially, to the business suit, the garment that functions as the central metaphor of his memoir. “What people forget is the multiplicity of masculinities that can be portrayed through a suit,” he says. In The Measure of a Man, Lee weaves remembrances of his childhood and youth in Montreal together with accounts of his enthusiasm for the ways clothes speak and his apprenticeship at the legendary Modernize Tailors in Vancouver’s Chinatown. As well, he constructs an idiosyncratic history of the men’s suit, from the crotch-revealing design of medieval armour to the velvet doublet and silk pantaloons worn by Oscar Wilde to today’s snug-fitting jackets and pants, influenced by designer Hedi Slimane. Most significantly, however, he describes his struggle to alter his father’s last suit to fit himself.
Central to that struggle is Lee’s account of his father’s downward spiral, from a successful young restaurateur to a violent and bankrupt alcoholic, estranged from his family and his career. The story is often harrowing, and Lee’s cutting, stitching, and reshaping of his father’s suit is a conflicted undertaking, an attempt, it seems, to confront and perhaps even control the past. But the past is inalterable. In the end, he tells the Straight, “I couldn’t even control the suit.”
Still, this particular garment works well as a proxy body, a surrogate dad whose embrace Lee might slip into from time to time. “The suit has its own liveliness, its own form,” he observes. He’s speaking generally but also specifically. “You really do get a sense of the person who was there inside it. It takes his shape, it has his scent, even his DNA.” Lee hasn’t subjected his father’s suit jacket to the usual wash or dry-clean. Hasn’t wanted to.
In his book, Lee skims over his undergraduate degree in studio arts from Montreal’s Concordia University and his graduate degree in architecture from the University of British Columbia. His painting and design education, it seems, has been “re-engineered” toward understanding the way clothes are made and what they signify. “I have a good eye,” he asserts. “Objects speak to me.” He sets the grey hat back on his head, turns up the front brim, and suddenly looks like a cub reporter in a 1930s movie. “Still,” he says with a laugh, “there’s always going to be slippage between what you see and what its meaning is.”