Why Are We Still Calling White Tank Tops "Wife-Beaters"?

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What do you call a certain kind of a white sleeveless shirt? You know the one. Maybe you saw Miley Cyrus wearing one in her "Wrecking Ball" video, or Wolverine ripping through one in X-Men. Some may just refer to it as a white tank top, synonymous with an undershirt. For many others, it's a "wife-beater." 

Source: MTV

Seen on everyone from rappers like Nelly and Eminem to middle school girls at camp and teenage boys flexing their muscles, the wife-beater has become an inescapable part of our basic clothing culture — and so has its problematic name, as part of our everyday vernacular. 

This is, in short, fucked up.

"It was so OK to beat your wife until so recently that today we have a kind of shirt named after it," comedian Louis C.K. exasperatedly said in his Saturday Night Live opening monologue in 2015. "There's a piece of clothing in our culture affectionately nicknamed after beating the crap out of your wife. And for some reason this is offensive to nobody." 

Sounds about right, Louis. So why do we still call it that?

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Let's start at the beginning. Way back in the medieval era, when knights and lords and queens ruled the European land, there was such a thing as a "waif beater." Sometimes when in battle, a knight would lose his clothing, leaving only his chainmail undershirt intact. That man, left abandoned on the field and certainly ready to be speared, was called a "waif beater," with "waif" referring to an abandoned person and "beater" as in he's about to get beat. 

The connection to sleeveless shirts may be a total coincidence, but linguists do cite these medieval origins for the phrase "wife beater," to refer to an abusive spouse. The first use of "wife beater" was seen in the New York Times, for example, in 1880, to describe a man who had beat his wife. 

A medieval knight.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

So when did it become synonymous with a man's white undershirt? It seems the association of male anger with white tank tops built slowly over the course of decades, starting around the mid-20th century — with a viral news story, of course.

In 1947, a man named James Hartford Jr. was arrested in Detroit for beating his wife to death. In the stories about his arrest and trial, which went national, there was a picture of Hartford in a scraggly and stained white tank top; beside the picture, articles would refer to him as "the wife-beater."

Around the same time, Hollywood steeped in further the link between male rage and white tanks. Post-World War II, filmmakers became transfixed with films about violent, abusive and outright dangerous men, and the tight white tank top became a regular onscreen occurrence. Think A Streetcar Named Desire. Think Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Think Bonnie and Clyde.  

In each of those films, as the men started to get increasingly heated or upset, their go-to move was to rip off their shirts — only to reveal a white, sweat-stained undershirt. 

Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Warren Beatty
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Even as they started popping up in almost every gangster movie, the shirts still hadn't earned the name "wife-beater" and were still referred to as "undershirts." It seems to have taken until the late 1990s for the term to actually take root. 

In 2001, Valerie Steele of the Fashion Institute of Technology, told the New York Times she first started hearing "wife-beater" referring to the tank top in the late 1990s. Jesse Sheidlower, then-principal editor of the Oxford English Dictionary's American office, also told the Times the term emerged around 1997, in what was a confluence of rising "rap, gay and gang subcultures."

Those subcultures came together in a pop culture vortex over the course of the '90s, with fashion and popular entertainment birthing a new clothing staple. As for fashion, popular rappers like Snoop Dogg commonly wore undershirts, as did fashionable women with their oh-so-'90s flared jeans — picture Kate Moss in her Calvins.

In the same era, movies like Goodfellas and TV shows like Cops — in which men wearing white undershirts made regular appearances when being arrested for beating their wives — were becoming pop culture staples, as was hip-hop music as America's prevailing musical genre.

"Maybe in college I started using it as slang for any white, sheer, ribbed sleeveless shirt," Andy McNichol, a 24-year-old New Yorker, told the New York Times in 2001. "It's a colloquialism.'' 

Simply put, our generation created the wife-beater.

Source: Tumblr

Why we still say it: Since 2001, the term has been cemented in our sartorial vernacular. Wife-beaters popped up in in movies like Inglorious BasterdsTV shows like The O.C., rap songs from men like Eminemacademic books and even Pamela Anderson's autobiography. For years, it has been seen, heard and read by most of us — mostly without controversy.

Just take several recent comments by fashion insiders. In a conversation with Who What Wear in 2015, Nasty Gal founder Sophia Amoruso said she "wore a wife-beater, Dickies and skate shoes, all with a studded belt" to her first job interview. In January, a stylist told Vogue, "I would always put the girls in some variation of a customized wife-beater and pair of customized jeans." As recently as February, a Vogue writer described a runway with "supermodels sporting ball skirts and wife-beaters" (emphasis ours).

But persistent though it is in colloquial speech, there is a counter-conversation happening. Retailers already see them as unacceptable. Walmart, for example, calls them "white ribbed tank tops" and Target simply calls them tanks, perhaps having seen what happened in 2006 when a store did use the term "wife-beater." (eBay, for what it's worth, is still a fan.) 

And online, while the term is still being used... 

... others are speaking up. 

While our generation has sparked a debate over changing terms like "real women" or "plus size," the conversation about wife-beater seems to have barely peaked — until maybe now. With so many people now cognizant of domestic abuse, questioning how normalized its become in our society (hello, NFL) and ready to take action, this may be the time to start the debate.

Turns out we're the generation that brought this fashion term into the world. We might also be the ones best equipped to send it packing.

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