Reinventing the Humble Tank Top (2023)

The first look at Matthieu Blazy’s much-anticipated debut for Bottega Veneta was none other than a plain ribbed cotton tank top. At Prada, a slim-fitting undershirt-style white tank, this one featuring a small triangular logo at the scooped neckline, opened the brand’s fall 2022 show (it’s available on the Prada website for $995). On Chloé’s catwalk, a knit ribbed tank made from “lower impact merino cashmere” was paired with leather pants.

As summer temperatures peak, there’s no denying that this year, the season belongs to this staple. Once a humble undergarment, meant to be hidden from sight, it has stepped defiantly into the spotlight. Men and women alike are embracing its torso-hugging, shoulder-baring, décolletage-highlighting allure.

The stylist Bryant Christopher Simmons, 32, believes that part of the ribbed tank’s appeal lies in its versatility — both the ways it can be styled and the price points at which it is sold. He owns a small haul, ranging from costly versions offered by contemporary labels like Totême and Hanro to cheap versions from Hanes that he cuts so the hem hits right at his waist. “It looks so easy,” Mr. Simmons said.

This spring and summer it seeped into the zeitgeist, its profile rising with the temperatures. When Esquire’s summer issue landed, it did so with the actor Elliot Page on the cover, styled not in some dapper tailoring, but a second-skin Polo Ralph Lauren ribbed tank and low-slung jeans. Back in March, the actress and outré fashion plate Julia Fox cut a white ribbed tank top smack dab down the middle and wore it as a matching crop top and miniskirt, posting a video tutorial on how viewers could do it themselves. And when, this spring, Justin Bieber donned a hulking Balenciaga suit on the Grammys red carpet, what, pray tell, did he wear underneath? Nothing other than a white, ribbed tank top.



(Video) The Reinvention of the Tank Top

For the nonbinary musician King Princess, the ribbed tank top is a wardrobe essential. “People call me the tank top fairy,” she said, laughing. (She has a habit of handing them out to friends and collaborators.) She described a seminal memory of her mother wearing tank tops — some of which she has since inherited — in the 1990s; now, she wears them most days.

“I feel so powerful when I wear a tank top,” she said, “because of my own journey with my gender. Like, a tank top with a sports bra underneath makes me feel strong and powerful. It’s me at my truest nonbinary form.”

Her preferred tank top is a youth extra-large, so it has a snug fit (she likes the way it restrains her breasts, she said). She typically buys whatever brand is available at the local CVS or Target, and she prefers to wear them with baggy pants. In addition to her mother, she pointed to Fiona Apple and Gwen Stefani as inspirations.

“I was always into rock boys, and then I discovered the women of rock who transcended gender,” King Princess said. “For years, men had taken women’s clothes and turned them into male rock garments, and then in the grunge era, women took them back.”


Reinventing the Humble Tank Top (1)

For such a simple piece of clothing — startlingly elementary in its design, merely a fabric tube with three holes — the ribbed tank has accrued myriad cultural associations. Worn in a straightforward, unironic fashion, it can read as either masculine and feminine — easily evoking the hackneyed image of the swaggering brute or a vixen eagerly courting the male gaze. Yet it can also be worn in a way that slyly undermines traditional gender roles, as demonstrated by its popularity among L.G.B.T.Q. people.

“It’s such a great vernacular piece of clothing,” said Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “It has an allure because of this whole macho, Marlon Brando kind of feeling, and then, also, a very strong butch lesbian feeling to it. So it’s vernacular clothing with a strong sexual charge, and that’s somewhat transgressive.”

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It also helps that, because it was first intended as an undergarment, to wear it on its own instantly imparts an aura of eroticism. “It makes an outfit look sexy and young but not in a way that’s bourgeois, expensive or uptight,” Ms. Steele said. “I mean, the fact that you’re sweating on it,” she added. “That’s very intimate.”


From Tank Suits to Tank Tops

Tank tops were first popularized in modern Western fashion during the early 20th century as a part of bathing suits for both genders, which, at the time, covered the torso with a sleeveless, low-cut top (the name is thought to derive from “tank suits,” as swimming pools were commonly referred to as tanks in England). Later they evolved into a stand-alone garment; according to Jamie Wallis, director of global communications at Hanes, sleeveless shirts were introduced in 1928 alongside the company’s woven shirts for practical means: to help preserve the longevity of formal, collared shirts.

The tank top made the jump from intimate apparel to an object of desire through the lens of cinema, most famously cemented into the minds of the general public as a symbol of blue-collar virility by Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1951. Hollywood has since used it as a sartorial shorthand for a certain type of machismo, from Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull” and Bruce Willis in “Die Hard” to James Gandolfini in “The Sopranos” and Vin Diesel in the “Fast and Furious” franchise. Still, it wasn’t until the sexually liberated 1970s that the tank top transitioned from undergarment to public-facing piece of clothing, so much so that Hanes, during that decade, rechristened it as the athletic shirt, or “A-shirt.”

It has since been embraced by various subcultures, including skateboarders, 1980s punk musicians and rappers, injecting it with a sense of rebelliousness. Its pragmatic appeal for professional sports players has maintained its spirit of athleticism. It’s even had its fair share of controversy, as when, at the turn of the century, it accrued the distasteful nickname “wife beater” — a sobriquet that has, thankfully, fallen out of favor.

Perhaps its plainness is the reason that it has been able to endure for so long and become a mainstay of various factions. Because of this, even the smallest tweaks can have an outsize effect. An in-house historian at Hanes ran through a timeline of such modifications — from nylon-supported reinforcements (1950s) to varying thicknesses of shoulder straps (1960s) to the introduction of colors (1970s). Maybe its adaptability was best demonstrated in the 2004 movie “Mean Girls,” when the character Regina George, a cruel yet popular high schooler, is the victim of a practical joke when two enemies cut holes in her ribbed tank, right over the breasts. The trick backfires, of course, when the rest of the student body follows suit, assuming it’s the latest trend.

In the fashion industry, its appeal is clear — it harkens back to the hierarchical pre-Internet days of the 1990s, its popularity no doubt calling to mind that faraway era — notably the sensual minimalism of Calvin Klein and the aloof anti-fashion of Helmut Lang.


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‘Reinvent, reinvent’

“For me, the ribbed tank has always been associated with elegance and sensuality,” the designer Willy Chavarria said. In addition to overseeing his own namesake men’s wear label, Mr. Chavarria is a senior vice president for design at Calvin Klein, and often uses the ribbed tank in his work as a way to explore archetypes of gender and sexuality. “I like to play with hypermasculine notions from a queer persecutive,” he said. “The masculinity and sex appeal of the ribbed tank is timeless.”

Mr. Chavarria, who is Mexican American, also riffs on its strong ties to Chicano culture. “There’s a strong level of sensuality in Latino culture and sexuality in queer culture,” he said. “I think the masculinity that Latino culture has imbued into the white tank was adopted by queer culture, which then played on extreme forms of masculinity and femininity.”

Additionally, it is an essential part of the American proletariat uniform which, as recent catwalks demonstrate, fascinates designers of high-end labels looking to subvert stereotypical signifiers of class and social status.

“The incorporation of the tank top in postwar Hollywood films allowed for an aestheticization of manual labor shortly prior to the decline of working-class men’s role in the U.S.,” said Francesca Granata, an associate professor of fashion history at Parsons School of Design. “Luxury brands have historically recuperated items of clothing connected to the working class, most recently with Balenciaga doing so while trying to provide a social commentary in the process.”

Because of this symbolic malleability, younger generations are able to freely use the ribbed tank as a blank canvas onto which they can express not just aesthetic concerns, but their hopes and anxieties about gender and class. “Young people around New York are wearing it a lot right now, often cropped, and in ways that destabilizes gender binaries and ideal body types,” Professor Granata said. “In its tightness and body-revealing quality, it lends itself to being embraced by the body-positivity movement and worn by a range of body types.” To prove a classic piece is always ripe for reinterpretation, a new breed of intrepid upstart designers like Dion Lee, Sandy Liang and Elena Velez, are reworking them in fascinating ways with twisting straps, asymmetrical silhouettes and cutouts.

Customers are responding. Evi Berberi, a representative for Lyst, the global fashion search platform, said that since April, searches for tank tops had gone up 184 percent, continuing a trend that has been on the rise since last quarter. White, she says, is the prevailing color while the top associated search keywords were “ribbed,” “cropped” and, “asymmetrical.” From March to June, the fashion resale marketplace Depop had a 33 percent increase in searches for “ribbed tank tops” and a 44 percent increase in listings for that item, said a representative for the company.

“Today there’s a terrific rebirth of sexuality and gender identification,” Mr. Chavarria said. “While there are garments in the world that are known to be specifically male- or female-presenting, the kids today just have fun mixing it up. I think the ribbed tank still has an identity associated with its history that makes it sexy and stylish for even today’s generation.”

And while all this pontificating may very well be true, it also undercuts a simpler, emotional truth powering this trend. The ribbed tank top, for all its associations, is sexy, easy, versatile and effortless. “It’s very cool, it’s very chic,” Mr. Simmons, the stylist, said.

When friends see an actor or a person on the street wearing baggy pants and a tank top, they’ll often text the image to King Princess. “They’ll say, ‘It’s giving you,’” she said. “Which is very sweet and I find flattering. Everyone should feel confident in what they wear: Clothes are armor.”

“I think it’s iconic,” King Princess said of the tank top’s enduring appeal. “I do think that basic wear — like a good T-shirt, a good tank top, a good pair of jeans — these are the things that have been endlessly reinvented. That fascinates me, to take a silhouette over time and reinvent, reinvent.”


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Why is it called wife beater? ›

The term wifebeater reportedly became synonymous for an undershirt after a 1947 criminal case where a Detroit man was arrested for beating his wife to death, and newspapers printed a photo of the "wife beater" wearing a stained undershirt.

Why tank tops are better than T shirts? ›

Tank tops are absolutely the best shirt option on the market today. They cover you up, and let your body breathe. No more fussy sleeves, scratching your arms and armpits all day long. Tank tops will keep you cool and comfortable.

When were tank tops popular? ›

Tank tops were first popularized in modern Western fashion during the early 20th century as a part of bathing suits for both genders, which, at the time, covered the torso with a sleeveless, low-cut top (the name is thought to derive from “tank suits,” as swimming pools were commonly referred to as tanks in England).

Are tank tops back in fashion? ›

The return to the wardrobe of the tank tops is a signal that fashion is back to the 90s. Now combined with basic blue jeans and traditional trouser suits, she looks expensive, stylish and sophisticated. The shirt is worn with white men's shirts and a classic black dress, sometimes it turns into a dress or a short top.

Why do men wear tank tops? ›

One of the biggest reasons is that they trap sweat and prevent stains from reaching your work shirts. And because they wick sweat away from your body, they also help keep you cool. Tank tops are particularly useful for keeping you cool because they're sleeveless.

Why do guys wear wife beaters under their shirts? ›

It was intended as an undergarment, to keep sweat from damaging men's dress shirts. However, for working-class men who couldn't afford enough dress shirts to wear every day, A-shirts flew solo as a cheap alternative to simply going shirtless. The origin of the term “wifebeater” is exactly as horrific as it sounds.

How do you wear a bra with a tank top? ›

If you need to wear a bra with your tank top, choose a strapless or bandeau-style bra if the top has thin straps. Alternatively, try a seamless bra with clear straps that won't stand out under your tank.

Does a tank top make you look bigger? ›

Cap sleeves or anything sleeveless will actually make your arms look bigger! Also, be careful with strapless dresses that cut you across the chest, tube tops and tight tank tops, which can all highlight dreaded back fat.

How can a girl look good in a tank top? ›

  1. 6 Ways to Wear a Tank Top in 2022 (and 3 That Date You Immediately) ...
  2. Opt For Wide Straps Over Thin. ...
  3. Or Try A Luxe-looking Silk Cami. ...
  4. Pair High Neck Tanks With Statement Earrings. ...
  5. Stick With Midi Skirts Instead Of Minis Or Maxis. ...
  6. Dress Up A Plain White Tank With Stand-out Pants.
19 May 2022

Is it OK to wear a tank top with jeans? ›

For a more casual look, pair a tank top with jeans of your preferred style and a blazer. It's a timeless combo that you can adapt for any trend or season. The look works with every style from mom jeans to your favorite skinny jeggings.

Should I tuck in my tank top? ›

It should not hug your torso tightly. In fact, it should hang about half an inch from your body; this will help keep your sweat from showing up in big pools.

How can I make my tank top look cute? ›

THE 6 BEST TANK TOP HACKS (without cutting them!) - YouTube

What do the British call a tank top? ›

List of garments having different names in American and British English.
DescriptionBritish English
Longsleeve knit topjumper
Sleeveless knit topsleeveless jumper, slipover, knit tank top
Sleeveless dress worn over a shirtPinafore, pinny, pinafore dress
Old-fashioned style of apronPinafore apron
15 more rows

Should I wear a tank top under my t-shirt? ›

Tank tops are sleeveless and won't absorb sweat, but they do hide your nipples. These should be avoided because they usually show visible lines through your shirts, and are regarded as casual. The same thing happens if you wear sleeveless undershirts.

Are wife beaters supposed to be tight? ›

It's all about the fit – not too big or too loose. It should be snug across the chest and opening through the body.

How can a guy look good in a tank top? ›

10 Rules For Wearing A Tank Top & NOT Looking Like A FOOL!!!

Should skinny guys wear tank tops? ›

Yes to tanks

There is a myth that skinny guys shouldn't wear tank tops but, in reality, they can look ace. Just avoid cuts that totally swamp you, or are too skimpily cut (although this advice applies to all men, regardless of their shape). Wear with simple, slim-cut shorts.

Do guys still wear wife beaters? ›

But in the years that have passed since the term “wife beater” was coined, the tank top has evolved into an article of clothing more and more infrequently worn by men. As of 2021, sleeveless ribbed tank tops are far more often sported by young women.

Do wife beaters make you look slimmer? ›

Despite the contentious reputation, the wife-beater remains a staple in menswear. The ribbed tanks serve as undershirts absorbing sweat, compressing your figure for a slimmer appearance, and they can hide your nipples from poking through your shirt. They're also worn as a component to complete looks.

Does wearing a wife beater keep you cool? ›

With the right fit, it's snug to the upper torso and covers the important areas without crowding and tightening up in the underarm area like a T-shirt. Its shape means that it doesn't do much to absorb perspiration, but it also doesn't create sweat because of its sleeveless design.

Is it OK to wear a vest under a shirt? ›

Undershirts and inner vests provide comfort while wearing clothes as they provide a layer of protection from unnecessary rubbing and friction of the upper garment. Also help avoid itchiness and skin issues that may be caused by fabric, stitching, seams, buttons, laces, or any such paraphernalia.

What is a wife beater actually called? ›

Instead, "wifebeater" meant a finely ribbed, thin fabric, white, A-shirt, sold in multipacks as a men's undershirt like this. For higher quality shirts like in the OP, say "tank top". For a true "wifebeater" shirt, say "sleeveless undershirt".

What do we call wife beaters now? ›

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."

What is another word for wife beater? ›

Wife-beater Synonyms - WordHippo Thesaurus.
What is another word for wife-beater?
wife beaterbeater
string vestGuinea tee
2 more rows

What is a wife beater called on Jersey Shore? ›

No one ever notices Luigi.) The Mario Brothers quickly solved the Case of the Clogged Toilet. Seems that one of the boys had flushed his wife-beater, although the show kept on bleeping what they actually said: “G—– tee,” which is a slang term for wife-beaters.

What is a tank top called in England? ›

Well, actually, Wikipedia says that "slipover" is another name for sweater vest, in other words a sleeveless sweater that's typically worn over a shirt and which is known as a tank top in the UK.

What is a male tank top called? ›

The tank top named as a wife-beater originated from the image of a brutal man wearing a sleeveless undershirt who looks like he would beat his wife.

Are wife beaters supposed to be tight? ›

It's all about the fit – not too big or too loose. It should be snug across the chest and opening through the body.

Is Stella Artois wife beater? ›

At least since the early 21st century, Stella Artois has carried the nickname of the "wife beater" in the United Kingdom, due to a perceived connection between binge drinking involving the brand and domestic violence against women.

Are tank tops against dress code? ›

Tank tops may be worn as long as they are not low-cut, all undergarments are concealed by straps that are at least 1 inch (2 fingers) thick, and the arm holes do not extend more than 3 inches down the torso.

What is a bro tank? ›

The social connotation of the bro-tank is that the wearer is a well-muscled male often seen as the center of attention at parties and other social gatherings; typically these males can be seen in the untamed environment that is a college campus.

What is a women's undershirt called? ›

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— ...

Can you still say wife beater? ›

The term “wife beater” is a colloquial reference that is now frowned upon by many, but it still remains part of our vernacular, a term still mindlessly used—albeit probably more infrequently today than in the past. Nonetheless, it's time to hang it up to dry.

What is a wife beater in UK? ›

(a kind of sleeveless shirt): A-shirt, athletic shirt, beater, muscle shirt, singlet (chiefly Australia, UK), tank top, vest.

What is a bleep tee on Jersey Shore? ›

The plumbers eventually discover someone has flushed an article of clothing down the toilet, pulling up an absolutely revolting piece of brown-smeared cotton. Everyone keeps referring to is as a [bleeping] tee, and they suspect it belonged to Vinny, since he wears [bleeping] tees.

Why is Snooki called a meatball? ›

In case you weren't lost in the Jersey Shore sauce in the mid-2000s, as I definitely was, Snooki and Deena were lovingly referred to as “The Meatballs” on the show, due to their, er, curvy and compact stature — a silhouette that Cathy Horyn once likened to “a turnip turned on its tip,” in her 2010 Times profile of ...

What does IFF mean on Jersey Shore? ›

After some thorough investigation, however, we've determined that one roommate will never change — and that roommate is king of the I.F.F himself — Ronnie Magro. The I.F.F on Jersey Shore stands for the I'm F—–d Foundation, and nobody is ever more royally f—-d than Rahn.


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