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The Measure of a Man

Posted: 02/27/2012 11:42 am

Over the past few weeks, the Huffington Post has run excerpts from the five finalist books vying for the prestigious Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. Each of the authors has personally chosen the excerpt for our readers, and in his or her intro, explains the choice. Today is the last excerpt. This week Huffpost readers will have the opportunity to vote for their favorite book in advance of the announcement of the 2012 prize winner on March 5. Stay tuned for details on voting.

Intro from the author:

At the heart of the book, I'd like to think, is a universal experience -- at some point in our lives we will receive a hand-me-down or heirloom garment and it will stir up strong emotions in us.

Now, I have been told more than once that I have a unique perspective to share, that my history as the son of a fine and handsome dresser, as a journalist, broadcaster, fashion columnist, and, indeed, as a tailor's apprentice, has given me an insight into men's suits that few people have.

But I suspect what I went through is not unique at all. I suspect there are millions of closets around the world where someone holds onto clothes from a loved one -- whether it be a suit, a wedding dress, a hat, or an old fur coat -- like I did and still do.

Okay, not everyone decides to hack away at the darn thing, but the idea that clothes are more than a commodity to be tossed away with every new season or trend, that clothes should be well-worn and worn well, and that they can hold personal meaning -- is a simple, fundamental thing. And that's the only way I could have begun the book .

I pull the garment out of the closet and begin to wonder.

Currently the hoarding continues, but in a different way. My family's walk-in closet is filling with the pieces my sons have outgrown. Just the special items: a pair of Emmet's jeans I've patched three or four times; a Superman suit I made without a pattern for Jack when he was two -- his first Halloween costume; denim short shorts that Emmet instructed me to make one summer by cutting off pants legs high up the thigh so he could have legs like Beyoncé (the inseam was less than an inch). He tried to wear his Daisy Dukes at camp but they were quickly banned.

My wife and I call it "the archive," and we plan one day to stow those little bits of memorable apparel in a chest. Perhaps I'll hide among them my bow ties, silk knot cuff links, and a few pairs of English bench-made Oxford shoes. I can only hope the remembrances they inspire are happy ones.

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. 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. 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.

Whether one wears them regularly or not, suits elicit strong reactions. If you are feeling oppressed, you might call your oppressor a "suit." If you choose to face your oppressor head on, you might want to get "suited up." A suit can be a form of armour; it can also be a form of confinement.

But what really gives the suit its power? What makes so many men (and a good number of women too) choose to embrace its ubiquity and authority? What do I want from my father's suit?

Standing between the hamper and the foot of the bed with his jacket in my hands, I sink my face into the wool and breathe in his scent for the first time in years.

In my memory, I am seven and enthralled by my father's suits. I visit them when he is at work. In my parents' bedroom I grab the slatted folding closet doors and fling them open. The suits are hanging in a perfect row, like Spartan hoplites. Flannels. Pinstripes. Grey double-breasteds. Silk and mohair sports jackets with white buttons. Three-piece affairs thumping with the music of Abba and Boney M.

They are made-to-measure and custom. A label hand-sewn into the lining promises it is "Exclusively tailored for John H. Lee." I say the phrase over and over to myself -- a mantra. The wood hangers are stamped in gold letters: A. Gold and Sons. Holt Renfrew.

To me, these suits mean going out into the world and having adventures. They mean being a man, being formidable. They mean cigarettes and Johnny Walker Red and knowing every maitre d' and floor manager in downtown Montreal.

The house is quiet. With my arms spread wide, I turn my cheek and lean into his jackets, and it feels like I am falling into a dense but soft thicket. The suits push back in perfect unison. For a moment I'm suspended in air, and then I slip to the closet floor onto his dirty dress shirts, dragging a couple of the coats down with me. At the bottom, there is the smell of wool and of him, the scent of cigarettes, sweat, and the faint hint of vanilla.

Now, here I am more than three decades later, in my bedroom, still hanging on.

I put the jacket on. In the mirror, I see it is too wide in the shoulders. The lapels make me look heavy and squat. The pant pleats do not help. I feel old and tired in them, as he had become. His failures become mine, as if they have accreted into the wool. But I also see potential. For all its faults, I can see new lines and silhouettes.

I know I can't change my father or the things he did. But maybe with a seam ripper and a pair of scissors I can alter this, his last suit. Yes, it may prove a disaster. I may screw up and this part of him will disappear forever. Maybe that's exactly what I want. But maybe, if I am patient and unravel the threads with care, the suit will give up its story to me. My father's story.

There were times in my life when I believed he was the greatest dad in the world, and other times when I wished the scrape of the key against the lock late at night was only a bad dream. But it wasn't a dream. It was my father.

Wade Davis - Into The Silence
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From the jury: "In this monumental volume, Wade Davis narrates explorer George Mallory's heroic attempt to scale Everest following the Great War. With remarkable new research in previously unexplored British archives and in the Himalayas, Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest powerfully links the devastating carnage and demoralization of the War to the transcendent aspiration of Mallory and his compatriots to ascend Everest. With skill and insight, Davis explores the meaning of this valorous yet tragic climb for post-war Britain and the world."

(Ryan Hill Photo)

 

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