Wife beater (noun and slang): a white, sleeveless, close-fitting man’s undershirt, often worn as an outer shirt. The writer of this story can clearly picture the puzzled look on all your faces. Who, in their right minds, would name a piece of clothing a ‘wife beater?’ While this lexical boo-hoo is bound to invite ridicule aplenty, diving into its origins is enticing, nevertheless. From a barbarous killing to a 50s Hollywood star serving as the flag bearer of the term, there’s a provoking explanation for this name. Keep reading to know more:
Tracing Its History
News to no one, the phrase ‘wife beater’ does have an unfortunate and horrific history. Back in 1947, newspapers published the arrest photo of James Hartford Jr., a Detroit resident who had beaten his wife to death. Readers throughout the nation gasped at his image wearing an undershirt soiled with baked beans and labelled ‘the wife beater’. Charged with murder, Hartford Jr.’s A-line undershirt later became permanently affixed with his gory title.
Pop Culture Traces
The ‘wife beater’ tank then appeared four years later on Marlon Brando in a 1951-released film, A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando slaps his wife Stella while also sexually abusing his sister-in-law wearing a white sleeveless top. People were quick enough to put 2 and 2 together and thus, Brando’s portrayal of a blue-collar man who batters his wife solidified the association between A-shirts and violence and thus the fashion term was born.
A Fashion Statement
90s and 2000s sitcoms as well as music videos witnessed a monumental surge in propelling this clothing item into the mainstream arena, thanks to the celebrities embracing the white tank. From Eminem to Tupac, various hip-hop artists chose to don this skimpy fit, redefining the original essence associated with it earlier. It’s now considered a unisex piece of clothing and is usually layered with shrugs and blazers.
The Queer Connect
The wife beater switched between queer micro-aesthetics much like its path through popular culture. The silhouette was an ideal display for hard-earned muscles to match up with the ’80s fitness craze. Butch lesbians broke the link between masculinity and a male body in the 1990s by claiming characteristics associated with men, such as wife beaters and cut hair. Queer icon and Queen front-man Freddie Mercury was also seen fashioning the wife beater quite often, when on stage.
Context is of paramount importance when casually using this term in conversations, especially if the friend group is inept at separating their Gaultiers from Gabbanas. Many argue that its usage in today’s day and age is redundant and tone-deaf, and we agree to quite an extent. Misogyny and abuse-laced undertones can’t be tossed around to flaunt one’s vocabulary panache. While the etymology just borrows from history, maybe it’s time to let it go. Can we just go ahead and call it a ‘white tank top’? Simple and unproblematic, isn’t it?