The Sartorial Blues of Leonard Cohen

It’s the one-year anniversary of Leonard Cohen’s death in Montréal, and the fedoras are everywhere.

 I’m humbled to be included in the city’s innumerous celebrations this week of their favorite man — including a three-hour, star-stuffed tribute concert at the arena and a massive, interdisciplinary art exhibition dedicated to him at Musée d'art contemporain, a visual projection of his lyrics on an abandoned silo at the old port — and am amazed at how tasteful and non-ornamental everything is. There seems to be deliberate effort to cut through Cohen’s distinct aesthetic, straight to the heart of things.

“This was never a sycophantic exercise,” said John Zeppetelli, director and chief curator at the MAC. We were never interested in presenting Leonard’s beautifully cut suits or his fedoras.”

Those suits and fedoras tell a story too, of course, a nod to the status of the Montréal Cohens, and the fact that Leonard’s father Nathan owned a high-end clothing business. “The Freedman Company was known for its formal wear, and Nathan liked to dress formally, even on informal occasions,” writes Sylvie Simmons in her 2012 Leonard Cohen biography, I’m Your Man. “In suits, as in houses, he favoured the formal English style, which he wore with spats and tempered with a boutonniere and, when his bad health made it necessary, with a silver cane.”

Like his father, Leonard wore a suit even on informal occasions. It likely became a tether to his father, a reminder of where he came from even when his poetic indiscretions seemed to betray his upbringing. “I was born in a suit,” Cohen once said. He was buried in one, too.

IMG_3492.jpgCohen's grave on the one-year anniversary of his death. (Justin Joffe for SHIFTed)

As his family belonged North Montréal’s more prosperous Jewish community, Cohen acknowledged that there was a class divide — the city’s downtown Jews were far more radical, socialist and communist in their philosophies. Celebrated Montreal writer was Mordechai Richler among the latter group, and a woman on our Jewish food tour tells us that Richler’s grandfather and Cohen’s grandfather, both of whom were prominent rabbis in their communities, absolutely hated each other. The divide was one of status, and philosophies. For scene, Richler could reportedly be seen on high holidays walking around Outremont with a Wilensky’s Special in one hand — fried bologna and mustard on a pressed roll — and a cigarette in the other.

 It’s to this end that Leonard Cohen’s dedication to wearing suits rings with a sort of sartorial blues. As the man left the city and discovered the world was far more complicated and ugly, even as his ego was destroyed by hungry women and endless world conflict, his suits became a tether back home.

 In the Jewish faith, suits are a right of passage for every young, regardless of class. While we’d always been expected to dress well for synagogue, getting fitted for a suit ahead of my Bar Mitzvah was a particularly resonant memory. The Heritage House, a neighborhood shop that prided itself in fitting young men for their ascent into adulthood, was adorned with polaroids of Bar Mitzvah boys passed, outfitted ar last for the grown-up world.

Klipot suggests that when we look at something or someone we perceive to be ugly or impure, we’re only looking at the outer rind, or the shell. The true essence, the holiness, whatever you might call it, is obscured and hidden beneath the visage.

 Cohen’s fondness for such memories of youth must have been challenged when he saw the ugliness of the world, like went to perform for Israeli troops during The Yom Kippur War against Egypt, witnessing self-justified barbarism at the hands of his own people and suddenly feeling far less gentlemanly. Those fine, bespoke threads made their way into the words of his work, most often as he projected the image of himself as a man always kneeling at the altar of love, sex or song. 

There’s a concept in Kabbalah called Klipot, best captured by Leonard in his seminal song Anthem with its line, “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” Klipot suggests that when we look at something or someone we perceive to be ugly or impure, we’re only looking at the outer rind, or the shell. The true essence, the holiness, whatever you might call it, is obscured and hidden beneath the visage. Leonard Cohen deeply understood this philosophy, and just as his work played on tropes of what was commonly considered sacred versus what was considered profane, the idea of a sharp-dressed man with a head full of unsavory romantic ideas and controversial poetic grievances held up a sort of subversion I like to think he enjoyed immensely. 

“I am locked in a very expensive suit/ old elegant and enduring/Only my hair has been able to get free,” he wrote in the poem, “Flowers For Hitler”. “I comb my hair for possibilities/I stick my neck out/I lean illegally from locomotive windows/and only for the barber/do I wear a hat.”

Justin Joffe
Justin Joffe

Justin Joffe is an award-winning arts and culture journalist whose work has appeared in several outlets including Vulture, The Observer, Noisey, Spin, Flaunt and the print quarterly journal of American Roots music, No Depression. He has recently written the liner notes for the recording of a Leonard Cohen tribute show, out now on the Royal Potato Family label.

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