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Book Report: Arabian legend, tailored coats revived

Just about the time you think you’ll scream if you’re confronted with another monumental biography, another epic movie, an enigmatic play about T.E. Lawrence, along comes journalist Scott Anderson with a monumental tome, titled “Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of The Modern Middle East” (Doubleday, $28.95).


I approached this 800-page door stopper very tentatively having recently been put to sleep watching David Lean’s epic movie “Lawrence of Arabia” starring the ethereal (I guess) Peter O’Toole and a whole herd of camels. I’ve been reading about and watching Lawrence ever since ninth-grade study hall when I pored over Lowell Thomas’s potboiler “With Lawrence of Arabia” back in 1950.

Yet another, I sighed.

But not to worry. Anderson has speckled this cast with little known associates of Lawrence who are just as enigmatic as he and probably just as important in the creation of the mess we know as the modern Middle East.

In an exciting chapter called “Treachery” I learned of a British aristocrat, German spy, a Jewish Zionist, and William Yale, an American ne’er-do-well and agent of Standard Oil who contributed a great deal to the debacle. If only Lean had included them in his story, even if it made his movie 10 hours long!

*** My grandpa smiled whenever he told the story, which he did many times, sometimes during the same meeting when he got older. The year was 1906. He arrived at the town’s tailor to pick up the suit he had made specially for his wedding on the following day.

There was no suit and Bill the tailor was dead drunk. Those were the days before ready-made suits were available. Grandpa spent the eve of his nuptials cooking coffee and sobering up Bill, who managed to stitch together a fine cutaway with striped trousers.

Grandpa’s experience was a far cry from these days when most grooms drop over to Macy’s and pick up a suit off the rack and head for church or plight their troths in shorts and T-shirts in some mosquito-infested forest preserve.

Or is it?

I just finished a book entitled “The Coat Route,” by Meg Lukens Noonan (Spiegel and Grau, $27), which tells the story of a “bespoken coat,” its creator and its wearer and a whole bevy of folks in between.

“Bespoken,” that’s what they called coats like Grandpa’s before the days of ready-mades. Noonan says that the Bespoken Coat is making a comeback.

As proof she tells us a story about an Australian named Keith Lambert who ordered a custom made coat from Sydney tailor John Cutler. When the last button was sewed, the coat would coast Lambert $50,000.

And Lambert, a prominent wine merchant, isn’t the only clothes horse who hankers for such items. Fellows like Cary Grant and the English royal family have doffed similar items for years, according to Noonan, and the growing trend of young people doing the same has been sparked by actors like George Clooney, who actually wears suits a good deal of the time.

In an introduction the author says that some readers might think paying $50,000 for an overcoat “is obscene.” No kidding!

But Noonan sees it differently. She sees it as the rebirth of the tailor trade and a boon to all manner of Peruvians, Italians, Englishmen and even Vicunas.

Vicunas provide the wool that is finer than any cashmere. And so for years they had to be killed to make them stand still for shearing. Nowadays there’s such a demand for the wool that methods have been developed to shear them without murdering them first. Isn’t that great?

Also London craftsmen are back in business making coat buttons out of Indian water buffalo horn. (She doesn’t say if they throw the buffalo away after they get the buttons.)

When Noonan finally finishes her book she examines her own wardrobe and finds that it’s mostly shoddy stuff made in the megafactories of China. And she feels proud of men like the Australian wine merchant for saving some poor Chinese sweatshop employee from having to throw together something shoddy for lack of a Bespoke Coat.

I’m heading for Tar-jay.


Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Phone him at 715-426-9554.