FINALIST - Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction (2012)
FINALIST - Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction (2012)
FINALIST - Governor General's Literary Award - Non-Fiction (2012)
FINALIST - BC Book Prize's Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize (2012)
A son’s decision to alter his father’s last surviving suit for himself is the launching point for this powerful book – part personal memoir, part social history of the man’s suit – about fathers and sons, love and forgiveness, and learning what it means to be a man.
For years, journalist and amateur tailor JJ Lee tried to ignore the suit hanging at the back of his closet. It was his father’s suit. But when JJ decides to make the suit his own, little does he know he is about to embark on a journey to understand his own past.
As JJ cuts into the jacket, he begins to piece together the story of his relationship with his father, a charismatic but troubled Montreal restauranteur whose demons brought tumult upon his family. JJ also recounts his own ups and downs during the year he spent as an apprentice at Modernize Tailors – the last of the great Chinatown suitmakers in Vancouver – where, under the tutelage of his octogenarian master tailor, he learns invaluable lessons about life. Woven throughout JJ’s tale are stories of the suit’s own evolution, illuminating how this humble garment has, for centuries, been the surprising battleground for the war between generations.
Written with great wit, bracing honesty, and narrative verve, and featuring line drawings throughout by the author, The Measure of a Man is an unforgettable story of love, forgiveness, and discovering what it means to be your own man.
There is a suit in the back of my closet. Over the years dust has gathered on its shoulders. I own other, better suits but I hold on to this one because, for me at least, it is special.
The suit attracts and repels me. It came to me under the saddest of circumstances, and I’ve dared to wear it in public only once. I wore it to test myself, to see if it would fit – not only in its cut and dimensions, but to prove to myself I could bear the mantle and wear it without feeling like an impostor, a boy posing as a man. Most of the time I try to ignore it, and so years can go by without my touching it. But even so, I always know it’s there.
Once in a while, I feel compelled to run my hand along its lapels and think of the man who wore it. I see the line of his jaw, his broad torso and its incipient roundness. I see the pores on his fleshy, bulbous nose. I remember the feel of his thick skin and the dryness of his hands, and I wonder if I look like him.
This is my father’s suit.
The coat is single-breasted with a notch lapel. A boy would say it is black; in fact, it is dark navy. I lift the hanger off the rod and turn the suit this way and that in the morning sun breaking through the blinds. When the angle is just right, the colour has more depth than I remember, flashing with casts of royal and cerulean blue. Perhaps it is only my imagination, or a trick of the light.
Even without putting the jacket on, I can tell it won’t fit me, although I have grown heavier and thicker over the years. The chest is too full and the shoulders are too wide. My father was always the bigger man, but the exaggerated proportions are as much a by-product of dated tastes as the measuring tape. The button placement is low and swaying, evidence of Giorgio Armani’s early louche influence on menswear. It has been decades since it was considered stylish to button jackets below the natural belt line (think of the days of Miami Vice
Contemporary fashion dictates the crucial fastening point must be closer to the sternum, far above the belly button. (The higher “button stance” creates the illusion of longer legs.) In nearly every detail – the broad shoulders, the low notch on the wide lapel, the two heavy brass buttons hanging at a low, testicular altitude – the suit is old, outmoded. Why does it matter? If it doesn’t fit, why not throw the suit out and buy a new one?
Outside of a Konica camera he gave me as a wedding present and a pair of metal eyeglass frames I found in his apartment after his death, this suit is the only thing I have from my father. Though I have been tempted to abandon it by the back door of the Salvation Army store down the hill, the suit won’t let me.
A suit is never just a suit.
Excerpted from The Measure of a Man by JJ Lee. Copyright © 2011 by JJ Lee. Excerpted by permission of Emblem Editions, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.