In The Measure of a Man, Vancouver fashion writer, broadcaster and erstwhile tailor's apprentice JJ Lee chronicles the evolution of the men's suit, with fascinating tidbits on some of its innovators, such as Beau Brummell, Oscar Wilde and King Edward VIII.
But this is not your average history lesson. Lee, who recently made the non-fiction short list for a Governor-General's award, also tells a very personal and yet universal story about a son's quest to understand his father's life, and their relationship.
"There are thousands, perhaps million of suits in young men's closets, waiting again for a tailor's touch to reconcile, when possible, the trace of the father to the body of the son. And then there is the touch, the over-familiar yet comforting hand that pats down the shoulders and smoothes the back when a man puts on his altered suit for the first time. The soothing contacts slips and melds into the reverie: I am wearing my father's suit. And the customer may not know it, but the tailor touches him in a doting, gentle manner he may not have felt since childhood."
That paragraph, appearing about halfway through Lee's book, sums up the why of his book, which Lee fleshed out from a CBC Ideas documentary of the same name. The how is a cleverly executed weave of joyful and difficult personal memories cut from the very fabric of his father's last suit as he alters it to fit his slighter frame, with the intricacies of men's clothing design, construction and etiquette.
JJ Lee's father, John Hing Foon Lee, was sent to Montreal from China at the age of four to live with his grandparents. John Lee grew up never knowing his father or mother, and left school and home at 13 feeling he had a lot to prove. He did this by working his way up in Montreal restaurants, from busboy to host to manager. If clothes make the man, John Lee's wardrobe screamed success, with made-to- measure suits, complete with cufflinks, daring patterned ties and aviator sunglasses.
JJ loved to play in his dad's closet, touching and smelling the suits, he loved the tie-knotting lessons, but more than anything else he loved the reassurance of being close to his father, of lying watching TV with him, wrestling with him. What he didn't love was his father's descent into alcoholism, his cruel treatment of JJ's mother, the subsequent breakup that resulted in occasional separation from his mother and three siblings, and the downward spiral his family experienced because of his father's self-destructive behaviour.
So, JJ Lee did what many sons do when they can no longer trust or rely on their fathers: He found a surrogate. Bill Wong, the aging owner of Modernize Tailors in Vancouver's Chinatown, and master of the dying art of made-to-measure suits (not to be confused with bespoke suits). The first meeting between master and apprentice took place, not coincidentally, a few months after John Lee's death at the too-young age of 52.
JJ, the eldest son, had followed his father to the West Coast after the end of his parents' marriage, but ultimately the two became estranged. His childhood longing to be just like his father had turned into his great fear that it might happen. He needed his space to become his own man, a process fraught with confusion and despair – his father may have taught him about suits and ties, but he wasn't that great about helping him with direction and focus. John Lee had fallen from the heights of the restaurant business to life as a whisky-dependent encyclopedia salesman.
"I didn't want to see him any more or watch his slow decline. He never did anything to change course. What's worse is that I thought his failures were contagious. I feared if he was in my life, he would drag me down with him. And so I spent the next decade pretending I no longer needed a father."
At the story's end, he steps into his father's reworked suit, with no better understanding of his father life, but with a greater mastery of his own.
This beautiful, cleverly executed story gets to the very heart of the complexity of the first and most basic masculine bond, and how even through disappointment, abandonment, anger, confusion and pain, a son can still love, honour and protect his father.
Carla Lucchetta is a writer and essayist for TVO's The Agenda with Steve Paikin. Her book, Lonely Boy: Sons Writing About Their Absent Fathers, will be published in 2013.