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The Unsettling Etymology of the 'Wife Beater' Tank Top

In this age, you would not expect a piece of clothing to be called a ‘wife beater’. Interesting as it may sound, the white tank top has retained this name for quite some time, and nobody seems offended. We take a quick look at the stereotypes and entomology behind the name.

Let's Go Back to History 

In the medieval era, when knights and lords were kings, there was a ‘waif beater’. However, it had nothing to do with spousal violence. A waif beater was the chainmail undershirt that soldiers wore to prevent penetration from sharp objects. Besides, when knights lost their armour, they remained with chainmail through the battle; they were referred to as waif beaters (meaning abandoned and easy prey for opposing armies). This phrase lost its meaning in the late 1700s, as no knights were fighting in battles. This was also the last time metal tank tops were available and referred to as waif beaters.

Wife Beaters in the 1800s and 1900s 

The exact time mens tank tops became known as wife beaters is not known. However, the word ‘wife beater’ started to be used to refer to spousal violence around 1855. From then on, it was used in articles where a husband beat the wife. While there was no connection found between the tank top and the wife beating, these sleeveless shirts were associated with huge, violent men who would fight at a slight provocation. 

Direct Connection with Wife Beating 

In 1947, there was the first connection between the tank top and the wife beating. A Detroit man named James Hartford Junior was arrested after beating his wife to death. This brutal crime gained media attention, with a special reference to the white tank top that he wore. Newspapers around the country carried a reprint of his beans-stained tank top and the heading, wife-beater’. While the name was used more easily, its use in the story provided a direct connection between the sleeveless t-shirt and spousal violence. While the name wife beater hadn’t taken hold, the tank top went by other names, which gave in to other stereotypes. First, it was a mark of immigrant status. The t-shirt helped identify Italian-American men. It was called a dago tee or guinea tree, ethnic slurs meaning that it was meant to be worn by the poor immigrants. This was clearly shown in the movie Kowalski (although the actor was Polish).

Hollywood Adds a Twist to the Story 

Hollywood has also made a strong link between male rage and white tanks. After World War II, filmmakers showcased violent and dangerous male characters wearing white tank tops. This style was a common feature on people’s screens for several decades. Some of the films that bring this concept into the limelight are Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Bonnie and Clyde. In these films, men get really upset to the point where they rip their shirts, revealing a stained tank top underneath. Interestingly, the tank tops in these movies were fondly known as undershirts and not wife beaters until the name took root. 

Wife Beaters in the 1990s and 2000s 

Wife beaters had become popular in the early 1990s. However, it was less stereotypic than it was in the early 1950s and 1980s. Most people loved it for its comfort, ease of working out in it, and affordability. Men wore it without fearing the wife-beater stereotype. In 1992, Dolce & Gabbana popularised the t-shirt by sending several models wearing it to the runway. Around 1997. The t-shirt caught on with the rising gay, rap and gang subcultures around America and Europe. In 1998, the name wife beater was introduced into the American lexicon. The Orlando Sentinel wrote about the t-shirt in the same year, while the Washington Post gave the t-shirt more popularity a year later. Despite concerns from parents and connotations surrounding the wearers, teens and young adults wore it in large numbers for the ‘alternative rock’ persona it gave its wearers. Several rock bands loved the shirt and the style caught on. Fast forward to the 2010s and later, the name has lost its meaning. It is occasionally used to refer to the tank top but does not have that impact. Most people do not know the origins of the name and do not care. We do not expect it to raise any emotion in discussions and general chats.

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