The Power of the Suit

The Power of the Suit


The Intertwining Gender and Capitalist Discourse in the “Shameless” Suitsupply Ad Campaign

In 2015, executives at the company Suitsupply responded to the backlash over a series of advertisements recently released named “Shameless” saying, “The biggest controversy is that some people saw some kind of sexism or male dominance in the campaign.”1 Based in Amsterdam, but with locations all over the world, Suitsupply had produced a campaign depicting beautiful, blonde, but usually faceless women with their skirts and dresses pulled down or pushed aside while posed in erotic, compromising positions.2 To appeal to the truism that “sex sells” the well-dressed male models in these ads are usually fully clothed and look only halfway interested in their female companions.3 The executives from Suitsupply claim that they are simply selling suits in an artistic way, and that they are only sexist if people are projecting their own ideas onto the “art.” 4 However, the misogynistic undertones that are used to sell the “experience” of wearing a suit from Suit Supply are impossible to ignore.

In this paper, I will analyze Suitsupply’s “Shameless” ad campaign. Drawing on the chapters on institutions and bodies in Lisa Wade and Myra Marx Ferree’s 2018 textbook Gender, Carol Cohn’s 1993 article on intertwining discourses of “War, Wimps, and Women,” and Joan Aker’s work on capitalist divisions of labor in the 2005 textbook Class Questions, Feminist Answers, I will explain the ways traditional masculine socialization, capitalist and gender discourse, cultural norms and values, institutions, structures, and the course content on the body lead to the creation of the ad campaign. I begin by describing the various cultural and structural phenomena created within capitalist and gender discourse and the way these discourses intertwine to create the “experience” the ad sells. Then I analyze the way the ad caters to men who have received traditional masculine gender socialization as a way to access hegemonic masculinity. Ultimately, I argue that the bodies in the ad serve as a canvas for the intertwining of gender and capitalist discourse in a way that is mutually reinforcing.

Capitalism creates a social structure with organizations and institutionalized cultural norms and values which in turn contribute to overall discourse by creating capitalist discourse. According to Dr. Marisa Tramontano, discourse can be defined as everything said, written or done in relation to a slice of an object of study.5 While discourse is ubiquitous and unbound, social structures are concrete. A social structure is the enduring patterns of relations and ways in which society is organized.6 A specific social structure is made up of many interlocked organizations within which we live our lives.7 These organizations institutionalize culture produced by discourse. Specifically, cultural values, which are the rules that hold up the beliefs about the way we should do things, and cultural norms, which are the ways in which people should act and what the consequences of failure could be.8 For example, within capitalist structure, Suitsupply institutionalizes different cultural norms and values by using them by using capitalist cultural norms to sell suits. Overall, capitalist structures, cultural norms and values, and organizations are all only parts of the general capitalist discourse.

Capitalist discourse positions people with financial success at the top of the social hierarchy. According to Joan Aker, capitalism assumes the importance of competition and inequality based on merit.9 Capitalism also assumes the importance of private property and wealth.10 Therefore, people who are able to compete to the degree that they can accrue a large amount of wealth are successful and powerful within capitalist structure. In this way, the financial success that makes people powerful created and reifies the cultural value of economic dominance within capitalist discourse.

Capitalist discourse creates the cultural norm of profit motive as acceptable. Profit motive can be defined as the desire for financial gain.11 Within capitalist discourse, since economic dominance is valued, it is considered acceptable for organizations, or even individuals, to do whatever possible to accrue wealth. This profit motive might seem selfish or egotistical within other discourses but is acceptable within the capitalist discourse because financial success necessitates it.

Hegemonic masculinity created by gender discourse relies in part on the cultural value of sexual prowess. Hegemonic masculinity is at the top of the patriarchal hierarchy. The idea of hegemony comes from Antonio Gramsci’s analysis of class relations where one group is at the very top of the social hierarchy.12 Hegemonic masculinity can be defined as “the configuration of gender practice” which is dominant over all other forms of masculinity and dominant over femininity within a specific culture.13 In the United States, hegemonic masculinity looks different than it would somewhere else. To an American, a male who does hegemonic masculinity is white, heterosexual, muscular, strong, fit, attractive, a provider, and has sexual prowess over women. These attributes are cultural values that come from hegemonic masculinity.

Men who do hegemonic masculinity enact the gender norm of sexual dominance.  If sexual situations are considered as having a dominant and submissive division of labor, men are the ones who are typically dominant. This dominance is displayed in many ways in sexual situations. Firstly, hegemonic masculinity assumes heterosexuality, so sexual situations involving hegemonically masculine men will only involve a man and a woman. Moreover, since men who do hegemonic masculinity have power and physical prowess, they will be on top of the woman or otherwise physically degrade the woman through positioning. Hegemonically masculine men are also sexually aggressive, so they can choke, spank, or otherwise use violence against women as a way to degrade them and make themselves dominant. Finally, men are usually the receivers of pleasure when they are sexually dominant. Sexual situations with hegemonically masculine men will be centered around the different ways the men receive pleasure, regardless of whether the woman receives pleasure in the process as well. Overall, the men are sexually dominant by using women as objects in their quest to receive sexual pleasure.

Hegemonic masculinity relies in part on the dual cultural norms of financial success and the man as the agent of said success. When considering the gendered social hierarchy, it is split into binary “A” and “Not-A” categories.14 Hegemonic masculinity is in the A category, at the top of the social hierarchy, and all other forms of masculinity and femininity are in the Not-A category. Under capitalism, another gendered value falls into the hegemonic A category: financial success. Capitalism divides labor into private reproductive labor and the public economic sphere, where women stay home and take care of the house and children, and men earn wages.15 This division leads to wage labor being valued more than reproductive labor and men being considered providers of tangible profit. Therefore, hegemonically masculine men are financially successful.

The suits in the ads serve as a symbol for hegemonic masculinity. According to Dr. Marisa Tramontano, a symbol is anything that carries particular meaning that is recognized by people who share the same culture.16 In American culture, a suit symbolizes hegemonic masculinity because it symbolizes financial success and sexual dominance. Firstly, it symbolizes financial success because men traditionally wear suits when they go to a high-paying wage-labor job or when they are the stakeholders, the capitalist owners of the means of production. Therefore, no matter where the man is wearing it, a well-tailored suit implies that they have wealth and a high-paying job. Secondly, the suits are meant to imply a power and dominance that the men also have in their private sexual life over women. Men who access hegemonic masculinity by being successful in the public economic sphere are also understood to be sexually dominant in their private lives. Therefore, the suit symbolizes power through access to hegemonic masculinity.

In one “Shameless” ad, the attractive, fit white man wearing the suit is standing in the hallway of an expensive home. The suit he wears symbolizes his financial success that is also implied by his expensive home. There is a beautiful blond woman leaning against the wall wearing a bodysuit and earrings. Her attractiveness shows that the man wearing the suit is able to sleep with attractive women. Her eyes are visible in holes in her blindfold, but they are closed, as the man rests one hand on her behind and stares at her intently, showing that he is sexually dominant over her.

In a second ad, we see another man who is also attractive, white, fit and wearing a suit. He is standing in a seemingly expensive kitchen behind a kitchen island. Once again, the ad shows that the man is financially successful and otherwise hegemonically masculine. A woman wearing a skirt, heels, and a large necklace is partially lying on the kitchen island on her stomach while sipping from a teacup. The man is standing between her legs with one hand grasping her leg and the other on her back, showing his sexual dominance. His suit both symbolizes his financial success in the public economic sphere but also symbolizes the sexual dominance and power he holds in the woman’s private reproductive domain of the kitchen.

In a third ad, a woman wearing only a thong, a blindfold, and heels has her head to the floor and her hips in the air with a man sitting on a couch behind her staring at her behind intently. This situation implies that the man has some degree of ownership over the woman’s body because she is offering herself to him, and he is able to view her for his pleasure. The home they are both in is expensive and luxurious with large glass windows and expensive furniture. The man is hegemonically masculine because he is attractive, white, fit, heterosexual, and financially successful. This hegemonic masculinity is symbolized both by the suit and the experience of the man wearing it.

A fourth ad features a woman wearing a short silver dress and heels. She lays on an expensive couch with her legs in the air while undoing the pants of the man kneeling between her legs. The man between her legs is attractive, white, fit, and wearing a suit, with one hand grabbing her leg and the other choking her. This situation shows the man’s hegemonic masculinity because he is using violence against the woman as a way of sexually dominating her. He is also sexually dominating her by being on top of her on the couch. Finally, the expensive home, furniture, and his suit all show that he is hegemonically masculine because of his financial success.

The symbol of the suit creates a marketable “experience” in each of the ads. This “experience” is true hegemonic masculinity. It is not just any suit that is pictured but a well-tailored expensive one. It is not any person wearing it, it is an attractive, white, fit, heterosexual, cisgender male. It is not simply wearing the suit but wearing it in an expensive home that the man bought with the same wealth he bought the suit. It is not simply having an expensive home but also having a beautiful woman who wears heels even during sex to dominate through sexual conquest. Suitsupply uses the combination of all these elements to sell the suit not only as a suit but as a way to access hegemonic masculinity. Suitsupply is selling the promise of experiencing hegemonic masculinity like the men in the ads do when wearing the suit. This experience is constructed through cultural norms and values in capitalist and gender discourse and reinforced in structures and institutions. Thus, the experience evidences the intertwining of gender and capitalist discourses. Such intertwining is an example of Cohn’s claim that “gender discourse informs and shapes [capitalist] discourse.”17

Men with traditional masculine socialization want to buy the “experience” the ad creates. In Western societies, people assigned male at birth are socialized according to traditionally masculine ideals in the gender binary. Socialization is a lifelong process of “social teaching and learning.”18 Once someone is assigned male at birth, they are socialized to become masculine. Part of learning to do masculinity is realizing that it is not a monolith. Men quickly learn that there are different types of masculinities, and that some are valued more than others. They also learn that the most valued type is hegemonic masculinity, and that they should always strive to do hegemonic masculinity. Therefore, the ads cater to the anxiety of men who want access to hegemonic masculinity by selling this access through the experience of wearing the suit.

The ads cater to their customers through the positioning of the men’s torsos and of the women’s bodies. Most of the images in the ad campaign conspicuously had the man’s torso facing the viewer. Even in a fifth ad, where the woman is in profile and the man’s head is tuned to face her, the man is carefully positioned so that his torso is facing the viewer, despite its awkwardness. If the man had his left arm taking off the coat of the woman on her right side with his torso facing her, the positioning would be less awkward, yet that is not what was chosen for the campaign. By positioning the man’s torso towards the camera and using the women as props, the ad clearly indicates that the customer is supposed to be a man. Through this positioning of the man as the subject and of the women as one of the objects he is using, the ad employs androcentrism, to cater to the male viewer.19

Suitsupply uses profit motive to excuse selling their product by selling “experiences.” When Suitsupply released the campaign and received backlash, many different journalists started to investigate the company and tried to interview the executives. Vivian Giang at Next Shark found that surprisingly, 70 percent of the senior roles in the company were held by women. 20 When asked about the ads, the two female executives interviewed answered that they since they work in fashion, the ads are a sort of “commercial art form.”21 Suitsupply hides behind the claim that their ads are simply fashion, and that their ads primary purpose is one of creative expression through this art form. This dodge aims to align critics with censors, and misrepresents the function of advertisement: to sell a product, not a piece of art in and of itself. In short, Suitsupply does not care about the controversy surrounding their campaigns because they are only using the ads to make money. The two executives even mention that as women who are both “pretty young” they have been able to “move up” in the company, making them “accomplished.”22 The female executives are thus making a patriarchal bargain, where they support hegemonic masculinity in order to benefit from it.23 As women, they are not able to fully access hegemonic masculinity themselves, but by supporting hegemonic masculinity in the ads they create, they can benefit from the hegemonically masculine value of financial success.

The bodies in Suitsupply’s “Shameless” ads serve as canvases for the intertwining gender and capitalist discourses. The men in the ads embody hegemonic masculinity by wearing the suit and through the actions they take while wearing the suit. The cultural values and norms that contribute to the construction of hegemonic masculinity come from both gender and capitalist discourse. The ads thus institutionalize discourse because they are created within capitalist structure. The ads are gendered in their depiction of culture and are gendering by serving as a fantasy of hegemonic masculinity for men who receive traditional masculine socialization. They work within gender and capitalist discourse to reinforce the dominant western gender ideology. The executives from Suitsupply may claim that the ads are only “art” that people project their ideas onto, but their photographs aren’t blank canvases for the viewer’s imagination. It is important to analyze the context within which the ads were created to understand what they are meant to imply to the viewer and what they are really selling.

  1. Vivian Giang, “We Spoke to the Female-Dominated Fashion Company Behind these ‘Sexist’ Ads,” Next Shark, last modified February 24, 2015.
  2. Giang, “We Spoke to the Female-Dominated Fashion Company Behind these ‘Sexist’ Ads.”
  3. Giang, “We Spoke to the Female-Dominated Fashion Company Behind these ‘Sexist’ Ads.”
  4. Giang, “We Spoke to the Female-Dominated Fashion Company Behind these ‘Sexist’ Ads.”
  5. Marisa Tramontano, “Discourses I,” lecture, New York University, New York, NY, October 22, 2019.
  6. Lisa Wade and Myra Marx Ferree, “Institutions,” Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, 2nd ed. (W. W. Norton & Company, 2018).
  7. Wade and Ferree, “Institutions.”
  8. Marisa Tramontano, “Culture and Socialization I” (lecture, New York University, New York, NY, October 1, 2019).
  9. Joan Acker, Class Questions, Feminist Answers (Gender Lens, AltaMira Press, 2005).
  10. Acker, Class Questions
  11. Acker, Class Questions.
  12. R. W. Connell, “The Social Organization of Masculinity,” in Masculinities, second ed. (University of California Press, 2005), 77.
  13. Connell, “The Social Organization of Masculinity.”
  14. Marisa Tramontano, “Insecure Hegemony: the Cultural Construction of ‘Righteous Retaliation’ in the Hunt for Osama Bin Laden” (PhD diss., CUNY Graduate Center, 2018).
  15. Acker, Class Questions
  16. Marisa Tramontano, “Culture and Socialization II” (lecture, New York University, New York, NY, October 3, 2019).
  17. Carol Cohn, “War, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War,” Gendering War Talk, edited by Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 232.
  18. Marisa Tramontano, “Culture and Socialization” (lecture, First Year Writing Seminar: “Gender and Masculinities,” New York University, New York, October 1, 2019).
  19. Lisa Wade and Myra Marx Ferree, “Inequality: Men and Masculinities,” in Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, 2nd ed. (W. W. Norton & Company, 2018).
  20. Giang, “We Spoke to the Female-Dominated Fashion Company Behind these ‘Sexist’ Ads.”
  21. Giang, “We Spoke to the Female-Dominated Fashion Company Behind these ‘Sexist’ Ads.”
  22. Giang, “We Spoke to the Female-Dominated Fashion Company Behind these ‘Sexist’ Ads.”
  23. Wade and Ferree, “Inequality: Men and Masculinities,” 149
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