It’s probably one of the most eyebrow-raising names for a piece of clothing ever. I mean, really, we’ve all kind of stopped and gone, are you serious?¸ when we first heard the name.
Wife beater shirt.
It begs a few questions: first, who the hell decided to name it a wife beater shirt, two, why is it called a wife beater shirt, and three, why did we go along with it?
Surprisingly, there are answers for all those questions, although you’re probably not going to like any of them:
Who Named it the Wife Beater Shirt?
Obviously, there wasn’t one person who decided, “hey, let’s start calling tank tops wife beaters now!”. However, the media certainly had a hand in creating a connection between the innocent tank top and a violent criminal in the late ‘40s.
Meet James Hartford Jr.
Detroit native James Hartford Jr. was convicted for brutally murdering his wife with his bare hands. Various press outlets picked up on this story and saw an opportunity to make good money, turning it from shocking local news to a nationwide sensation (which is how things went viral before the internet).
The press used pretty much the same photo of James Hartford Jr.: that of him wearing a baked-bean stained white tank top captioned, of course, “wife beater”. It didn’t take long for the public to connect the shirt with the man, the man to the act, and a name for the entire thing. Heck, even Broadway got involved, basing Stanley Kowalski of A Streetcar Named Desire a Hartford-esque vibe by showing him abusing Blanche Dubois while wearing, you guessed it, a baked-bean stained tank top. And thus, a stereotype was born.
Why Was it Called the Wife Beater?
Hartford Jr. left an indelible mark on the public psyche, thanks to his brutal crime and his disheveled appearance in the press, but was he really the cause for the term?
To be fair, the term ‘wife beater’ had been around since at least the 1850’s, albeit used primarily as a description for men who, well, beat their wives. The term didn’t really turn into a pejorative term for tank tops until the 1940’s-1950’s onwards, when Hollywood started portraying violent, lower-class men in sweaty tank tops being abusive towards their wives: think back to Bonnie and Clyde, or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Practically every single one of those films portrayed a thuggish, working-class immigrant being somehow abusive (or, at the very least, threatening) towards a woman.
Often, these men will be of immigrant descent, an early case of negative stereotyping in media. In fact, prior to it being called a ‘wife beater’, those kinds of tank tops were referred to as ‘dago’ tees, or ‘guinea tees’, both of which were racist and pejorative terms against Italian-Americans and Italian immigrants, further lending credence to the Hollywood connection to the term.
Why Did We Go Along With It?!
Simple: everyone was doing it. It didn’t help that the shirt was very much practical: it was inexpensive, comfortable, easy to find, easy to wash, and versatile. That it was called a ‘wife beater’ didn’t really bother everyone because everyone else thought, well hey now, I’M not a wife beater, so it’s ironic!
It’s actually strange how the term ‘wife beater’ escaped scrutiny for decades, with Dolce & Gabbana even releasing a line of(overpriced, in my opinion) wife beaters in 1992, with muscle-y handsome models strutting them on the runway (ironically, most of these models were immigrants too).
By the late 90’s, rap and hip-hop culture became synonymous with the tank top, reflecting the shirts lower-class origins. Even the gay subculture, which had been using a variation of the tank top since the late 70’s, became attached to the term, thanks to more exposition by the media.
A Cultural Rebranding
Thankfully, by the mid-2000’s, people were starting to question the term and whether or not it was appropriate, let alone inoffensive. Of course, various clothing lines used the name ironically, with many 2000’s teens (myself included, unfortunately) using the term in a mocking sort of way. But everyone grew up and realized the implications of calling it a wife beater soon enough.
With the terms sexist, classist, racist, and misogynistic origins coming to light thanks to the internet, we as a culture have started rebranding the wife beater and reverting it back to other terms like undershirt, tank top, muscle tees, or, heck, just t-shirt is fine too.
Of course, referring to the shirt as a wife beater doesn’t automatically mean you support wife beating or are a wife beater yourself; however, from a sociolinguistic perspective, it does continue to reinforce the stereotypes that it represents; poor people beat their wives, immigrants are usually poor, therefore, immigrants are evil. In a way, it’s passive agreement to this, and that needs to change, because we are better now as a society.