Suits and classes
“Girls like boys in suits”, declares an advert in some store’s window.
So far, so heteronormative. It’s a little unusual in that it positions the girls as picking and choosing from a set of boys (and implicitly rejecting those who aren’t up to scratch – presumably, the un-suited) rather than the other way round, but it still betrays a pretty limited worldview.
It’s limited, but it is true for certain members of the class ‘girl’ – hell, I’m one of them. But I think they’ve misjudged two things here: firstly, while advertising is still full of Buy This And Get Laid, saying it out loud like that is deeply dated. (It reminds me of the “Women say yes to men who say no” campaign against the Vietnam War. No, really.) And secondly, even if the slogan is deliberately retro, I think they’ve missed the boat. The suit doesn’t have quite the same masculinity-enhancing flair it used to. Times have changed.
Once upon a time, the suit was a conspicuous and immediately legible marker of masculinity. And precisely because it was so iconic it was promptly co-opted by women of various stripes, because historically, for women, the appropriation of seen-as-masculine traits and behaviours (in moderation) has been a route to success. The adaptation of masculine dress is a way to facilitate that, a way for female bodies to fit more easily into a masculine space.
You see un-adapted men’s suits on women as well – often on butch women as a way of doing it the other way round, of declaring their female body to be a masculine space. I suspect my experience (coming from an English Literature background where we had a lot more exposure to queer theory and theorists than most people, I think) isn’t representative, but to me, at least, the image of the dapper, besuited butch is kind of iconic in itself.
There are too many women in suits nowadays for the generic ‘suit’ to be read as absolutely masculine, I think. Certain components – collared shirts, ties – still lean much more that way, as do particular sub-varieties of suit (especially the tuxedo). But I’d argue that today the primary significance of the generic outfit is no longer one of gender, but one of class.
Suits are read as middle-class. A decent suit makes you look smart and professional – see also: the Tenth Doctor – and those are virtues that are even today read as profoundly middle-class. (The rhetoric about scruffy teenagers and lazy workers is never aimed at the bourgeoisie, is it?) The suit is also mostly confined to office jobs, and we still have a tendency to think of office-work as middle-class by nature, despite the fact that times have moved on – a lot of shitty minimum-wage work happens in offices now, and so do the machinations of the rich and powerful. The suit-wearing class has massively expanded, but the class-based significance of ‘suit’ hasn’t.
It’s weird, though. Despite the fact that the class divide in Britain (and a lot of places) is wider than ever, aspirational marketing based on class seems to be less common than it used to be. You get small, isolated instances of it in celebrity-fronted campaigns – buy our shit and you can be just like them! – but ads selling, essentially, a ticket on the up escalator are few and far between. You’d think that there wouldn’t be much to choose between “Buy our stuff and get laid, you loser” and “Buy our stuff and be respectable, you prole”, but the former’s all over the place and the latter isn’t. (J points out that getting by with little money can be considered a point of pride, whereas getting by without sex is universally construed as shameful and (if you’re a dude) emasculating.)
Maybe it’s just that even mentioning class anymore is kind of verboten, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that it’s one of the biggest problems in Britain today. Even mentioning the word gets people looking at you like you’ve started singing the Internationale, and Parliament witter on and on about child poverty and benefits scroungers (aside: I am so sick of this particular canard) without ever confronting the issue that the Prime Minister could buy every person in the country a Mars bar and still have change for a house.