Men in Suits, Women in Lingerie: The Power Dynamics of Lingerie and Gender

If you’re someone who looks at a lot of lingerie on the internet, you’ve probably seen this meme. It’s popular and I often see women repost it with laughing agreement. What I want to talk about all the ways that this statement emphasizes the problematic aspects of lingerie and a power imbalance that we cannot separate from the image of lingerie.

A well-tailored suit is to women what lingerie is to men

Whether or not you looked at this, nodded and reblogged, or just scrolled past it, what stuck out to me was this popular meme says about the power dynamics of men’s and women’s attractiveness.

In lingerie circles, I often hear that lingerie is empowering. I’ve probably even said a variation of that myself. But the necessary caveat is that lingerie isn’t necessarily empowering and can often make the wearer intensely vulnerable.

Clothes are not just pieces of fabric on our bodies– they have different meanings and applications depending on context. Both the context of a piece of clothing in society and the particular context of a situation determines how it can and should be understood.

What is a man in a suit? He is dressed for a formal occasion; his clothing is associated with money, class and business. In society, a man in a suit is powerful and a decision maker: if you look at the President, the members of Congress or Fortune 500 CEOs, you will likely seem them in suits. It’s also attire you wear in public, signaling that you are someone who is deserves respect. It’s impossible, then, to separate the sex appeal of suits mentioned in this meme from the connotation of power and formality.

Here, the woman is headless, just a prop to the man who is fully dressed and given a face and a personality

What then is associated with lingerie? Firstly, it’s not appropriate to show in public. It’s meant to be worn under your clothes, for yourself or shared only with a partner. As powerful as lingerie might make you feel, it’s not appropriate to be worn in a boardroom or to most jobs. Wearing lingerie for your job or in public is seen as attention-seeking or morally bankrupt. It’s so inappropriate that people often report it on Pinterest and Facebook. Lingerie cannot be disentangled from private parts of yourself, whether it be tied to gender, sexuality or practical considerations, which makes it a very vulnerable piece of clothing.

What is lingerie’s power? The power of secrecy? Is it the power of seduction? Whatever it is to you, it’s a personal power, and one that loses all meaning when wearing lingerie is attached solely to the desire of a lover. Lingerie is powerful in context– when detached from the knowledge of choice and agency, it is still a question. Whatever sexual appeal comes from lingerie, it comes from knowledge of a glimpse of something private, someone undressed and even sexually available.

So, when you think about sexiness, must a man be strong and a woman vulnerable? When I look at the meme that says “A well-tailored suit is to women what lingerie is to men,” as much as I love it, I can’t pretend that lingerie not a difficult subject when tied to desire; and one that often leaves women at a disadvantage.

What do you think? How does this comparison sit with you?

  1. Bravo…this is not something easy to try to talk about. Your gentle treatment here keeps it readable and thought provoking. The way our society is set up, makes it look (almost) normal to have this sort of power imbalance between a man and woman…& I don’t want to make a messy fuss here on your post so I’ll leave it at that — but I’m quite pleased that you wrote about this!

    • Thank you so much for your comment! It was hard to strike to balance between criticizing the way society sets up these comparisons and not damning lingerie (like lingerie really had anything to do with it!). I’m so glad you understood what I was getting at.

  2. Excellent! You articulated this power imbalance without being polarizing, which is hard to do given how heated the debate over this subject can get. I struggled with my own feelings about lingerie for years for the reasons you outlined. The moment I decided to wear lingerie that makes me happy — not necessarily someone else — is when I felt liberated and not vulnerable.

  3. Indeed, props for tackling a large and unwieldy subject.

    How about women wearing lingerie under their suits?

    That’s what I go for 😉

  4. Thanks for this challenging, thought provoking post. I will attempt to tackle it from a different angle as well as make it short, something I admit I’m not very good at, and sincerely hope I’m not offending anyone in the process.

    It is very likely that the concept of the picture in question was originated in a straight man’s mind; hence the different takes on power and gender roles that may not resonate very well with lots of women. To better understand my point try and reverse the genders of the characters in it and have a man in his underwear standing in front of a fully clothed seated woman, his crotch more or less the same level of her face. Yes, it screams, “Perform oral sex on me. Now!!!” which is what the advertisers may have viewed as a power play of some sort. I assume they left the woman’s face out of the frame in order to give women the feeling that “it can be you”.

    All and all a pretty crude attempt to get our attention in a way that may backfire for whatever it is they are trying to sell, but they already got our attention which may have been their main goal to begin with.

  5. Tantalizing thought starter, indeed! For many hetrosexual women, a man’s sensual side is visible in a suit, afterall, James Bond did it to us in a tux. To me, it says we have more creative complex minds. Of course if you move to comedy, how many times have we seen love scenes with that suit tie stuck on their head? Kinda makes that suit comment mute!?

    But better yet is this, women who read blogs like this find lingerie appealing to our sensual side. But the statistics show that 20% of all men have a lingerie fetish. With that said, remember that 20% of those well-taylored men have a “pink side” going on underneath THAT suit! (don’t believe me google it)

    So whose is in the power seat? Women. We always have been. Use it wisely.

  6. Personally I have no problem with the whole suit and lingerie aspect because I do not think of the quote as a power issue. i think of it in terms of ‘what turns women on and what terns men on’ Most men are turned on my lingerie. Most women… myself HIGHLY included… are turned on by a well-dressed man. A man in a nice pair of boxers is great too.. but a man in a well-cut suit makes me want to rip it off him in a frenzy. A woman in a well tailored suit is nice too.. but a woman in my favourite lingerie will make me want to rip it off her. For me.. the saying is all about sex appeal.

  7. I have a visceral reaction to this meme. You’re totally right, but I’d make a further point:
    (ignoring the fact that it’s painfully heteronormative,) it assumes that women (who are attracted to men) would rather see men in full clothing than men in underwear. This seems to imply either that women are sexually aroused by suits more than mostly-naked bodies (probably not what they meant) or that women aren’t and shouldn’t be sexually aroused (which is just false).

    Combined with what you pointed out, we get the message: men are sexual subjects but not objects and women are sexual subjects but not objects (plus the incorrect assumption that people are either men or women). Yikes.

  8. Eh? It seems like a silly heteronormative meme. Personally I’m partial to women in well-tailored suits, whether masculine or feminine in style, because they always look so confident. I do agree though that the attractiveness of a suit is tied to the idea that a man needs to be successful to be attractive while a woman merely needs to be attractive and willing.
    Alternatively, I think all the sterotypes around lingerie are a little gross. My girlfriend doesn’t really care much about what I’m wearing under my skirts, so I dislike the assumption that lingerie is always for your (presumably male) partner’s pleasure.

      • Yeah, I think a lot of partners could care less.
        It did get me thinking though, and there’s another meme that compares same-sex marriage to hetero- marriage as being like a bra and a swim top. They’re essentially the same thing except only one is socially acceptable to wear in public.
        Which made me think about the difference between lingerie and swimwear. They’re very similar in design but different in treatment and I’ve rarely heard women say they feel “confident” in swimsuits. So why are swimsuits not associated with a celebration of a woman’s body the way lingerie is?

      • Oooh, excellent point. Personally I think the secret/personal aspect of lingerie (as opposed to swimwear/bikinis) would be a big part of why it is special, but I would definitely be open to other opinions.

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  11. It’s the importance of a suit this meme is emphasizing and not the thinking of women. Why it should be seen as power play or how the women thinking is downsized? If anything is downsized, its that the meme suggests that Men are just attracted to naked girls. and if we go into details, women are attracted to power (according to your article). So should it be the Men who should feel offended or Women?

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