How did a violent term become a piece of clothing?
We’re in a bubbling cauldron of gender issues, and they’re boiling to the surface. To contribute to this heated discussion, we think there’s no better time to take wife beater, the slang term for that ubiquitous sleeveless white shirt, to the dump for good.
Courageous waif beaters in the middle ages
According to the blogger Paul Davidson (whose explanation has been frequently cited but not confirmed), the term traces back to the Middle Ages. Knights wore chainmail undershirts beneath layers of armor. During battle, a knight could lose his outer layers leaving only the chainmail. Though abandoned by his outer protection, the knight would still be a-swinging. Such a hero was given the name waif beater—waif meaning “an abandoned person”—courageously fighting despite his losses. There’s no mention of whether the chainmail undershirt was also called a waif beater.
The heroic knight brings a surprisingly empowering narrative to the wife beater’s origins. But, if the story’s true, that only lasted as long as the knighthood. Davidson explains that by the 1700s (when knights were no longer protecting realms), the term waif beater lost its heroism. It was beginning to transition to wife beater, becoming semantically linked with a violent husband who beat his wife.
Violent wife beaters in the 1800s and 1900s
This literal sense connecting wife beater and “husband who beats his wife” was first recorded in 1855 (according to the Online Etymology Dictionary). And, the same sense made its first appearance in The New York Times in 1880. No connection yet between violence against women and t-shirts, though.
However, in 1947, a brutal crime story went viral and indirectly associated a violent male wife beater with the sleeveless white undershirt. A Detroit native named James Hartford Jr. was arrested for beating his wife to death. Across the country, readers gaped at a reprinted photo of Hartford in a baked-beans-stained undershirt with the caption “the wife-beater.”
Around the same time, Hollywood reinforced this connection between lower class, brutish men and the undershirt. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Stanley Kowalski (while wearing the undershirt) shoves Blanche Dubois to the ground.
The term wife beater shirt still hadn’t taken hold, but the shirt went by other slang names that revealed additional stereotypes. The shirt was a mark of immigrant status. Kowalski (from the movie) was Polish, yet the white tank was often linked to poor Italian-American men too. Slang names for the undershirt at this time were “guinea tee” or “dago tee,” using ethnic slurs to define the shirt as something poor, dirty “others” wore.
Ironic wife beaters in the 1990s and 2000s
The practical reasons for wearing the shirt helped boost its popularity in the 1980s and ‘90s: tanks are inexpensive, comfortable, and easy to work (out) in. Another boost came in 1992, when Dolce & Gabbana sent a militia of muscleshirt-wearing models down the runway.
In a 2001 interview with The New York Times, Jesse Shiedlower, then principal editor of Oxford English Dictionary’s American office, said wife beater started signifying the undershirt around 1997 with the rise of “rap, gay, and gang subcultures.” In 1998—a year after the term’s introduction into the American lexicon—The Orlando Sentinel published an article about parents’ concern with the offensive slang term. One year later, the Washington Post wrote about the “‘in’ shirt with the outre name.”
Teens and 20-somethings dismissed it as a funny term and used it mockingly. But, while they mocked the term, they wore the shirt. For them, the shirt gave the wearer an “alternative rock” or “Calvin Klein waif” persona (there’s that word waif again centuries later).
Wife beater loses meaning
The wearing of the shirt isn’t the problem. But, because the link between the shirt and the wife beater name has become solidified over the past 20 years or so, the layers of meaning behind the words wife beater—both mocking and literal—are lost on a lot of people. The New York Times reported that one graduate student, who’d used the term colloquially for years, was shocked after being reminded what the literal meaning refers to: “Now that you mention it, I’m like, damn!”
For the many others out there who use the term wife beater and think of it like socks or any other neutral word, this image might help: Think what a difficult time ESL teachers have on slang day when they explain the name.
Sexist? Classist? Either way it’s stereotyping
Surprisingly, at least one sociolinguist has remarked that while calling a shirt a wife beater is “outrageous” and “shocking,” it’s not as politically incorrect as people assume. Using the term ironically to call the “redneck,” or beer-guzzling criminal on Cops (stereotypical wearers of the shirt), wife beaters shows political awareness that this violence is wrong. Flipping the term on its head is a way of looking down on others who behave badly.
The problem is, even with the ironic usage, this kind of language gives in to gross (overly-general) stereotypes. It demonstrates classism (if not sexism) and doesn’t move away from the fact that the term can still be fuel for hate. What about the countless perfectly non-violent men (and women) of all socioeconomic backgrounds who wear the tanks? Should they be painted as impoverished, filthy, violent slobs? Of course not!
Dumping the wife beater
Even though wife beater still surfaces (like in a 2016 Vogue article), there’s a resurgence of people questioning its use—millennials. This is in no small part due to the increased exposure of domestic-abuse issues in the media.
While eBay still sells wife beaters, clothing stores like Target and Macy’s offer “tanks” of all descriptions, and Fruit of the Loom sells multi-packs of “A-shirts” (Athletic-shirts). Removing wife beater from our sartorial lexicon won’t make real wife-beating go away. But, for humankind’s sake, we don’t need to call a shirt by that name. Over 600 women every day are victims of sexual and domestic violence in the US. That’s not ironic, that’s real. So, let’s not be ironic about the word wife beater. Let’s take it to the trash.