Local Author Book Review: Measure of a Man by JJ Lee

Psst…we have a signed copy of JJ Lee’s book to give away! Instructions at the end of the post.   The giveaway is over – regular reader Pamela Findling won!

Local resident JJ Lee is exactly what I love about New Westminster. He is affable and welcoming, debonair and interesting, and importantly, he takes part in our community. JJ Lee is a CBC and Vancouver Sun mens’ fashion columnist who recently released his first book, Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit. Measure of a Man is a memoir that blends social history of the suit with the often tumultuous relationship with his dad. It is based on a full length radio documentary for CBC’s Ideas.

The book is so lovely to read; at times incredibly witty and wry, and at other times endearing and touching. It also explores themes I wasn’t expecting to find in a book about a suit or a book about mens’ clothing.  I found myself thinking about children who live through less than ideal experiences as they grow up, and I pondered the resiliency of those kids. I asked Lee what he thought. “…when you think about it, how is it possible that a book about menswear, suits, and fashion history, can be so entangled with thoughts and ideas around fatherhood and parenting, but indeed it is. I’d hate to think all children survive their parents’ mistakes. I think literary childhoods tend to be tales of resiliency because that’s the stuff of drama and storytelling. Bad stuff happens in childhood. Those who survive get to write about it.”

Also surprisingly, I found myself learning an awful lot about suit wearing, style, and fashion history while reading the book. Lee seamlessly weaves together anecdotes and discussion about his family and his relationship with his father with incredibly interesting pieces of fashion history and commentary. I should note my personal style isn’t really fashionable, per se; I call it “West Coast Mom Army”  – fleece, merino wool, denim, gumboots, and rain jackets. I buy clothes on technical merit and durability, and then, secondarily, fit and colour. That said, I was inexplicably drawn to the beautiful conversational sections in Measure of a Man about fashion: the sections detailing the impactive and trend setting visionary fashion of Edward VIII, for example, or the incredibly thorough section about a pocket square/ handkerchief, their purpose and folding techniques for them. I also counted no less than five references sprinkled throughout the book to the Always-Sometimes-Never rule, which designates which buttons are opened and which buttons are closed on a suit jacket.

More than once I found myself chuckling with delight, moved from the sheer passion Lee exudes when discussing fashion. Take this discussion about pocket squares (itself only a fraction of a larger and longer section detailing the pocket square), in which Lee writes:

“Why can’t a pocket square be like a face, changing with moods, whimsy, and circumstances? A man with a permanently fixed half-smile would eventually be thought of as insincere, if not mad. So it goes with the pocket square. It requires only the flourish of the hand to give it new life, a new expression. A quick plunge into the pocket, and a quick tug partly out, followed by a glance in the mirror, and the final manipulation is magical. A neatly folded square for the morning business meeting can be transformed into a scrunched rosette by happy hour. Ta-da.”

The history lessons in Measure of a Man got me thinking about my own son and how children’s clothing is generally cheaply and foreign made, and how that might change over his lifetime. The most important thing, says Lee, is that we pass the knowledge on, regardless of how we are related. “Someone needs to teach men one can dress sharply without being a snob or hung up,” says Lee. “Understanding fit and proportion is everything. And it cost nothing. Guys just have to help each other how to do it right.”

Measure of a Man also examines a portion of the formative years of the city of Vancouver with an amazing insight into the legendary Modernize Tailors, an institution on Vancouver’s Eastside. “The tide of history has swung back in favour of dressing up,” JJ says. “Fine tailors will always be needed. They may come from countries all around the world and men who like attentive, well-made clothes will need them all. I do think tailoring needs formal apprenticeship programs in Canada. David Wilkes, who is a great young tailor mentioned in the book, cobbled together enough to educate and train himself. It can be done. But it is rare.”

Interestingly, New Westminster’s BC Penitentiary had a tailoring certificate program for inmates before its’ closure in 1980. From the New Westminster Public Library’s amazing historical photograph collection:

View of the interior of the Tailor Shop at the British Columbia Penitentiary. Photograph is taken looking north on the east side. This type of shop was located in the Industrial Building, shops C-1 to C-4 and Vocational School F-1. This was just one of the industrial trade shops. Inmates could take training leading to apprenticeship certification in tailoring, barbering, auto body, auto mechanics, painting, carpentry, sheet metal, and welding. Equipment from these shops was moved to the new Kent Institution in 1979, in order that inmates transferred from the Pen to Kent could continue their training. The pen opened in 1878, and closed on May 10, 1980. From the New Westminster Public Library Archives. Source: Jim Clawson Accession Number 1582

As a fledgling book author, JJ Lee says he struggled with keeping on task. “Writing is awful for me because I listen to sports talk radio: ‘BMac, Taylor, and Tomlinson, Goldie, whatup! JJ in New West. Here’s my take,‘” he jokes. “I’m very distracted. Also, there’s the internet, so don’t expect War and Peace from me.  I would have never written a book without my editor, Anita Chong. She approached me and encouraged me to explore my relationship with my father, more so than I did in my radio documentary. So, I don’t have the same experience as many aspiring writers.”

On his blog in June, Lee acknowledges his path isn’t really a traditional writer’s path. He posts, “I know it wasn’t fair. I did not slave on a manuscript for years. I did not wake up at 4 in the morning to peck out some pages before the kids woke up. I did not go through the pain of rejection letters. I was lucky.”

“Mind you, I went through an entirely different kind of pain: writing a book proposal – really, what the hell is that?” he jokes.

Lee says New Westminster is very supportive.  “This community can be very kind to writers. It is affordable and safe and that mean’s it can give a writer and his or her family time to take a stab at the risky business of writing for a year or two like we did.”

He cites Queens Park and Moody Park as two of his favourite places and lists the schools as part of what makes New Westminster so great. And like so many of us, JJ Lee lists New Westminster’s inexplicable yin-yang as a draw. “The diversity is rich and it’s simultaneously urban and a small town. Perfect.”

JJ Lee is also in good company here in New Westminster. “I am aware of great writers being in this city. They are ones that I admire immensely. Annabel Lyon wrote a beautiful book. Steven Galloway is a star and it freaks me out to think your barber talks to him every few weeks. But I’ve never met any of them. I just breath in the vapours and hope I pick up some of their mojo… I know my friends like the fine memoirists, Steve Burgess, who wrote Who Killed Mom, and Robyn Michele Levy, who wrote Most of Me – but they’re comrades from CBC.”

Measure of a Man is a great read, and I’d have to rank it as one of the better books I have read this year. It felt like the beauty and creativity of fiction but with the truthfulness of non-fiction. I find it very refreshing to read a book that makes me re-evaluate something I strongly believe and formerly thought was unshakeable. I have spent the last few days since finishing the book thinking about what I’d read and talking about it to others. I found myself thinking of my own father and his style of dress. He was a furnace man, a very physical and hard worker, and  I remember navy blue polo shirts, cheap denim, wool socks and pull on work boots. There’s a scent, too – diesel and smoke and Sunlight powdered laundry detergent, which he used to scrub his hands with after work.

Measure of a Man also left me wanting to learn more about the social history of clothing, an area I’ve never really had on my radar. I asked JJ Lee if he had plans for another book. “I have hopes to write another book but it really depends on readers. Books sales matter. Readers making choices matter. They’ll decide if I get the chance to do it again.”


JJ Lee is active on Twitter and maintains a great blog. He’s available for book clubs too!  Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit is available locally at Black Bond Books (their first order sold out, more coming next week, they tell me) and New Westminster Public Library (hardcopy only so far, e-book coming) or order hardcopy or e-book online.

Or… better yet…. get a free signed copy from us! Tenth to the Fraser is very honoured to have one signed copy to give away. To enter, leave a comment and tell us what piece of clothing you most clearly remember your dad wearing (or any special guy in your life). We’ll draw one random winner next Thursday, October 13th at 2PM. 





16 Replies to “Local Author Book Review: Measure of a Man by JJ Lee”

  1. My dad works in the oil fields so he always wore wrecky jeans and oil-stained work shirts. Oh, and the company jackets with his name on them! But I remember that whenever Mom was able to convince him to splurge and buy new clothes, he'd walk around so proud–it just changed his whole posture. Once, he got this fantastic dark teal microfiber jacket (it was really nice, honestly) and he wore that thing every chance he got.

  2. Awesome.
    My Dad was notorious for always wearing a clean pair of work pants and his ferdora when he went outside.

  3. For me, a checked shirt will forever be equated with physics and falling in love.
    All my adult life I've worked around physicists. Physics is a completely male-dominated profession. When I was in grad school and during my postdocs, there was a pretty distinct uniform amongst the male physicists. It consisted of:
    1. jeans (not new, not well-fitting), and
    2. a checkered shirt. Any kind. Plaid, gingham, whatever.
    The shirt was most important. I remember going to conferences and seeing almost everyone present in some kind of checked shirt. Nary a stripe or a solid to be seen. Most of the men didn't actually seem conscious of this, they just…blended in, I guess.
    My husband, also a physicist (we met in quantum mechanics class…so romantic…), riffed on this during our courtship by wearing one of those checkered flannel lumberjack shirts as his winter jacket. He remains fond of this thing (although no longer employed in The Profession), it's still in his closet, although it no longer fits him (he claims it has shrunk…we all know better…). Aaah. Checked shirts.
    My recent post Citizen Initiatives and Referenda

  4. great piece. My dad is a very well dressed man. We come from a family of tailors so my grandpa, my dad and his brothers always had a sense of style. My father fashion traits while I was growing up were always classy wearing a nice pair of dress pants, stylish shirt and had nicely combed hair (he has a comb in his pocket). He gets dressed up even to go grocery shopping! Sorry I named too many pieces of clothing!

  5. There's a picture of my dad from the 70s: tan suit, red suit, white tie, Brylcreemed hair. Somehow he managed to make all that look very sharp.
    But I mostly remember him for brown socks. One year I asked him what he wanted for Christmas and he said, "Brown socks."
    I'm not sure why, but that became a special thing between us. He had an odd sense of humour and it was both a joke and practical. Some years he would say he didn't need brown socks. One year I think I tried to liven things up with novelty socks, but I most often just bought him nice brown socks.

  6. My Dad wore hats when he drove off in his truck – felt fedoras in winter, straw in summer. In the barn he was more likely to wear a cap.

    One day he let me choose his clothes for him. My suggestions didn't stick. That's OK. In those days, i didn't have much fashion sense either.

    I loved JJ Lee's interview on North by Northwest.

  7. My dad was an ironworker and wore a tan work shirt and pants – the same outfit day in and day out. Although his job was very physical and hard on clothes, he refused to wear jeans. It was like a work 'suit' and it reflected the pride he felt in his profession and and professionalism he wanted to convey, both to his employees and supervisors, as well as his family and friends.

  8. Oh I really love this post. Nice combination of interview and quotations and observations.

    My dad dresses like West Coast Mom Army. But when he worked as a welder he used to wear those thick wool socks and he had to bring them home in a paper bag and take them directly to the basement to sit beside the washing machine, they smelled that bad.

  9. My 94 year old grandpa used to wear one of those felt hats that people used to wear in the olden days. I loved his hats!! He'd wear them with his suit all around town. I know he'd be wearing them still if they sold them at department stores like they used to. He's had to replace his beloved felt hats with baseball caps now unfortunately.

  10. Creative nonfiction is the genre to which this book belongs, which I define as a ‘work of nonfiction in which the author is also a character.’ Great review, Jen – it made me want to read the book. And I say that as someone who’s best friends with a costume designer and has heard many a dissertation on European vs North American men’s suit styling and thought she had nothing to learn. 😉

    1. I also like that JJ Lee mentions in his afterword a few notes about how he edited the book to make a few things more continuous (he combined a few minor events, for example, and described as a single).

  11. I pulled the winner today… and using a random number generator, I actually pulled my comment first. My second pull resulted in Pamela! I'll contact you to arrange delivery of your book.

  12. My dad used to wear all kinds of wacky clothes. I have a photo of him in aqua plaid bellbottoms, a white turtle neck and a big red beard circa 1980. Lately though, he has a uniform. Each day he wears pleated light kakhi dockers and a soft jean shirt, tube socks and boat shoes. If you look in his closet, you will see a stack of identical dockers, a row of identical jean shirts and a drawer of tube socks. He is like Steve Jobs with the same outfit each day.
    While it has been the source of some good natured ribbing, we are all so used to it now, we wouldn't have it any other way.

  13. Ha and you know of course I was reading too quickly and realized I hadn’t commented on anything my father had worn. That’s ok – I don’t have time to read the book right now anyway! While I doubt anyone would have called him a clothes horse, my father maintained an intense devotion to quality clothing his entire life (and if you’ve ever looked at the difference between garment construction in the 1940s versus that of the 1990s, you’ll know what I mean). He used to buy shoes once a decade when Dack’s had its sale – two brown, two black, one pair of loafers and one pair of lace-ups (oh dear, just realized they went bankrupt in 2006). He’d have them half soled once and full soled once and then it was time to buy another four pair. But his funniest clothing attachment was to his socks. He claimed to be allergic to nylon and preferred hand knit wool socks. He had a small female army of us (my mother, me, and two of his sisters) knitting him socks and other than ‘work socks’ he’d wear when chopping wood, wore nothing else. Have to say though – the man never had either a callous or a blister the entire time I knew him – can’t imagine what a pedicurist would or could have done for him. 😉

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