New Westminster author and nominee for the Governor General’s Literary Award JJ Lee will talk about his new book The Measure of a Man at the New Westminster Public Library on Thursday, December 1 at 7 pm. Space is limited, so the library is asking people to pre-register at 604-527-4667.
Part personal memoir, part social history of the suit, The Measure of a Man is also about fathers and sons and learning what it means to be a man. When JJ Lee decided to alter his late father’s last remaining suit for himself, he embarked on a journey into his own past. He reveals the heartbreaking tale of his father and recounts the year he spent as an apprentice tailor at the last of Vancouver’s legendary Chinatown tailors where he learned invaluable lessons about life. Woven throughout these two personal strands are entertaining stories from the social history of the man’s suit, the surprising battleground where the war between generations has long been fought.
JJ Lee is the menswear columnist for the Vancouver Sun and broadcasts a weekly fashion column for the CBC Radio in Vancouver. You can also find out more about him and his book on his blog or on Twitter.
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.”
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.”
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.