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How the ‘Wife Beater’ Tank Top Became A Marker of Class, Ethnicity and Domestic Abuse

You’ll likely be seeing more of these starting this weekend (and probably for the next three months thereafter):

The “wife beater” is among the most iconic staples of the American male’s wardrobe — the very thing that made Marlon Brando a star. But did you know it was born in Southern Italy? Or was it Chicago? Or maybe during the Middle Ages? Either way, as Louis C.K. noted before the fall, it’s a shirt we’ve somehow equated with domestic violence. For that very reason, I wanted to see how the T fit into the broader ecosystem of contemporary men’s fashion — especially in an era when nearly everything is labeled as problematic, nothing more justifiably so than a shirt that conjures up images of spousal abuse. And so, I spent the last week burrowing down a wife-beater wormhole, asking anyone I could find for their take on the shirt-underneath-the-shirt with the unfortunate nickname.

Here’s what I found…

1) The history of the wife beater begins on January 19, 1935, at the Marshall Field’s State Street location in downtown Chicago when Cooper’s Inc., a wool sock company founded by Samuel T. Cooper, introduced the world to briefs. Previously, men’s underwear consisted of one-piece singlets, long johns and union suits. Cooper’s “jockey” briefs did away with the leg sections and offered men the kind of support they’d previously only been able to attain with a jockstrap. The innovative undies were a hit — 30,000 pairs were sold within three months — and Cooper renamed the company “Jockey.”

2) Once the briefs were born, a corresponding top was needed. So Cooper introduced the equally popular “A-shirt” (short for “athletic shirt”), a lightweight, sleeveless cotton tank top. “We have customers in their 80s who have been wearing our A-shirts all their lives,” explains Kendra, the manager at a Southern California Jockey outlet store. “Their dads wore them. Their sons wear them. And now their grandsons do, too.” Soon, other brands, including Hanes and Fruit of the Loom, developed their own simple tanks and the A-shirt became ubiquitous among American men.

3) As Michael in the men’s department of a local L.A. Bloomingdale’s tells me when I ask him to specify the difference between tank tops and regular undershirts: “On the East Coast, men usually opt for crew necks in the winter for added warmth and A-shirts in the summer.” But, he adds, because the primary job of the undershirt is to intercept sweat before it permeates the dress shirt, many guys with excess underarm sweat (like me) opt for crew necks year-round (also me).

4) One theory of how the pejorative wife beater joined the lexicon: In 1947, Detroit-native James Hartford Jr. was arrested for beating his wife to death. Local media reported on the murder ad nauseam, always including the arrest photo of Hartford in a blood-stained A-shirt along with a caption reading, “The Wife Beater.” It didn’t take long for the crime to become synonymous with the shirt.

5) Concurrently, on the other side of the pond in sweltering Southern Italy, frugality and Italian machismo converged to transform the men’s tank top from underwear to outerwear. Men who only had a limited number of shirts would reserve them for Sunday Mass. Instead of going bare-chested the rest of the week, they’d wear simple, inexpensive tank tops to cover the essentials (their nipples et al). In the U.S., those newly-emigrated tank-top-wearing men — Italian or otherwise — came to epitomize the immigrant “Guido”: macho, poor and rough-around-the-edges. As such, the “wife beater” assumed a couple of other popular nicknames: “Guinea Tees” or “Dago Tees.”

6) Brando famously depicted one such greaseball in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). In it, his character, Stanley Kowalski — poor, Polish and uneducated — constitutes the prototypical wife-beater-wearing wife-beater. Up until then, though, Americans were only familiar with square male leads like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart in gray pinstriped suits, says John Bak, an American history professor and Tennessee WIlliams Scholar at the University de Lorraine in France. Basically, they’d never seen a specimen like Brando flexing his bare guns before. It was indelible sight. So indelible, in fact, that it’s conflated with the actual “wife beating” in the film. Because, as Bak explains: “[Brando’s] not wearing it when he strikes Stella at a poker party, nor when he eventually rapes her.” Instead, he’s wearing a bowling shirt and mechanic’s uniform, respectively. Still nobody remembers that, and thus, an alternative theory on how the term wife beater came to be.

7) In this regard, the wife beater is almost always blamed for a crime it didn’t commit. “When I think of the most horrific, egregiously abusive behaviors I’ve seen, it’s usually people who need to be in control — CEOs, doctors and cops,” says mental health counselor Laura Streyffeler, author of Wife Beater Shirt Optional: There Is No Dress Code for Domestic Violence. If anything, she adds, the wife beater conveniently allows these other abusers to hide in plain sight. “Because their partners are wearing shoes and polo shirts and not ‘wife beaters,’ they think their partner isn’t be capable of domestic violence.”

8) As sociologist Kristen Barber explains, the reason it isn’t considered feminine for men to wear revealing white tank tops is because they’re borrowed from working-class masculine culture — similar to the “lumbersexual” look. At least on that count then, they give middle- and upper-class men a blue-collar, masculine sheen and authenticity. “The term ‘wife beater’ associates working-class or blue-collar men with misogyny and domestic abuse,” she says. “It’s tongue-in-cheek use separates men in terms of class, with middle- and upper-middle-class men positioning themselves as more socially progressive and inherently different from their blue-collar counterparts. Yet appropriation of the ‘wife beater’ allows white-collar men to borrow associations of ‘real’ — i.e., laboring — masculinity on the weekends. Even if their muscles are usually gym-born as opposed to resulting from manual labor.”

9) Tug Samarreta (aka “The Undershirt Guy”), the self-proclaimed “world’s undershirt expert,” says he wore A-shirts well into adulthood. Their lack of protection for underarm sweat, however — combined with being more visible under lighter color shirts and limited variety of fabric blends, weights and neutral colors — led him to pivot to one of a “plethora of better-designed undershirts that combine all the best characteristics of ribbed tank tops with the benefits provided by undershirts with sleeves.”

10) “We call them vests,” explains British fashion expert Jay McCauley Bowstead. “There remains a peculiar squeamishness on the part of many cultural commentators to garments that draw attention to the masculine physique, especially in British and American contexts; these people are basically Puritans and sexists in my view.”

11) In Ireland, they’re called “singlets.” In France: “marcel.” In the Philippines: “sandos.” In India: “banian.”

12)Men of Reddit, why do some of you wear wife beaters under your shirts?” asks lady_chelsea. “As far as functionality goes, they seem like the equivalent of crotchless panties.”

  • Mrbojangles9591: “Being chubby, I have found that if you wear a wife beater that is a size smaller than your shirt, it actually kind of slims down the tummy.”
  • Sophophilic: “It makes my shoulders feel wider than usual in comparison to my torso because it doesn’t compress everything.”
  • Aberrant_arsonist: “It prevents nipple pokage. Trying to show off your physique while your nipples are standing proudly erect is a futile endeavour.”
  • Radiatron: “Warmth, baby. Plus, it adds a cool feeling of wearing a bulletproof vest underneath my shirt.”
  • TheBucketMaster: “I work in a fabrication shop so I sweat alot and have my arms above my head often. My regular undershirt sleeves would bunch up around my shoulder/armpit and was really uncomfortable.”
  • “C” in Cali: “I like to think that a wife-beater makes me look daring, individualistic and unconventional. Like a day’s stubble, a leather wristband or a California shell necklace, it makes for a tasteful ‘bad boy’ look when you and everyone else knows you’re not bad at all.”

13) As for my Facebook friends, when they wear wife beaters, they do so mindfully. “I call them tank tops rather then the pejorative,” says Scott. “It’s gross, but they’re great for exercise, especially yoga.” Moses agrees: “In downward facing dog, a normal sweaty T-shirt gets up your nose.”

14) Wife beater-clad protagonists have been a mainstay ever since Brando in Streetcar, their ribbed white tee offering connotations of vulgarity, crassness and/or criminality. For instance: Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967); James Caan in The Godfather (1972); Paul Newman in The Sting (1973); Sylvester Stallone in Rocky (1976) John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (1977); Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980); Stallone again in Rambo (1982); Kevin Bacon in Footloose (1984); Bruce Willis in Die Hard (1988); Nicolas Cage in ConAir (1997); Ed Norton in American History X (1998); Vin Diesel in The Fast and the Furious (2001) Channing Tatum in Step Up (2006); Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man (2008); Henry Cavill in Man of Steel (2013); Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine (2013); Matthew McConaughey in True Detective (2014); and perhaps most famously (non-Brando division), James Gandolfini in The Sopranos (1999).

15) The most famous wife-beater-clad females: Linda Hamilton in The Terminator (1984); Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider (2001); and Miley Cyrus in the video for “Wrecking Ball.”

16) In addition to “A-shirt” and “Guinea Tee,” the wife beater is also known as a “muscle shirt.” In 1992, when introducing its first menswear collection, Italian design house Dolce & Gabbana sent a throng of muscled male models down the catwalk, beginning the fashion establishment’s decade-long infatuation with the muscle shirt.

17) “How do muscle shirts boost your confidence?” asks Monsta Clothing Co., a clothier for the musclebound. “Wearing a muscle shirt is its own accomplishment and a right of passage only the fittest can enter. When you walk into the gym in a tank top for the first time, you will feel yourself glow with pride having worked hard to get to the place where you can wear anything. You will be on top of the world.”

18) That’s because it’s such an unforgiving piece of clothing, says Erynn Casanova, professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati and author of Buttoned Up: Clothing, Conformity and White-Collar Masculinity. “It’s interesting that it’s categorized as a working-class garment,” she tells me, echoing Kristen Barber. “Rest assured, middle- and upper-class men are wearing wife beaters, too. They just hide them under other clothes since they’re considered emblems of those at a lower end of social hierarchy, evidenced by 1990s hip-hop culture.”

19) Specifically, as Complex editor Jian Deleon notes in “A History of Style Trends Started by Rappers,” “DMX was the archetype of the angry, roughneck rapper of the late 1990s and wore a simple wardrobe of tank tops, baggy jeans and boots, which was adopted by everyone from Snoop to Tupac.” Cameron, a fashion consultant at STAG — “provisions for men” on Abbot Kinney in Venice — adds that the wife beater also became a staple of street fashion and Cholo culture around the same time.

20) Separate, but (sorta) related: In the Middle Ages, when knights would lose their armor and continue to fight nobly despite having nothing but a chain-mail undergarment to protect themselves with, they were referred to as “waif beaters” — waif, meaning an abandoned individual — heroically beating off certain death.

21) Still others — like Jesse Sheidlower, the principal editor of the Oxford English Dictionary’s American office — believe the pejorative wife beater was born in the 1990s. As he argued in the New York Times in 2001, the association between “wife beater” and an undershirt surfaced in 1997 thanks to a combination of rap, gay and gang subcultures, along with the TV show COPS, which often showed men in filthy A-shirts being arrested for domestic violence.

22) Mark-Evan Blackman, chairman of the menswear design department at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, remembers hearing “wife beater” used when he was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s. It referred to the shirts worn by “pumped-up Italian guys in pizzerias,” he told the L.A. Times in 2002. “The stoves were 150 degrees, these guys were lifting weights and they had a virile appeal.” Everyone wears them, added Susan Bauer, director of fashion programming at MTV, especially hip-hop artists. “But I was told by an executive not to use the word in the workplace,” she told the Times in the same article. “So we just take off the ‘wife’ and call them ‘beaters.’”

23) I duck into John Varvatos in West Hollywood to get a designer take on the muscle tee. Hillary, a salesperson, says that thanks to rappers like 50 Cent, the wife beater became a defacto hiphop uniform in the early aughts. These days, though, she considers it strictly an undershirt, similar to a woman’s bra.

24) “American Apparel Fine Jersey & Ribbed Classic Tanks are no-risk wardrobe pieces that let you dress with confidence,” explains Sabina Weber, vice president, brand marketing and creative services at Gildan, the Canadian brand that bought American Apparel last year. “We call them ‘tanks’ or ‘muscle tanks.’ Never would we use the term ‘wife beater,’ though.”

25) Despite its problematic name, the “wife beater” moniker persists. Efforts to rename the shirt, led by the “This Is Not A Wife Beater” campaign, were launched in 2015 by Australian feminist Alisa Draskovic. “We’ve renamed the singlets ‘respecters,’” she explained. “It’s a way of not only drawing attention to the term ‘wife beater,’ but also getting people to come on board and promote respect and respectable relationships.”

26) Or we could just follow Ned Flanders’ lead and call them “wife blessers.”