Men’s undershirts have a storied history – tank top undershirts even more so.
From Marlon Brando to a storefront in Chicago to the Stockholm Olympics, from subculture to wardrobe staple, tank tops have come a long way since the early days.
To understand how tank tops fit into your style, it helps to know where they come from and the role they take in modern style.
The Beginnings of the Undershirt
The undershirt began as a rather different garment than we know it today.
In fact, these garments were so different that you might not recognize them as the predecessor of your modern day wardrobe staples.
To understand how the tank top as you know it came to be, it’s important to understand where it came from.
For that, we have to take a look back in time to the union suit.
The Union Suit
The union suit is the start of our story, the undergarment that would begin the slow evolution to the undershirt.
Union suits began as an alternative undergarment for women (as opposed to the gaudy Victorian underclothes otherwise available). As with many fashion trends, men stole the idea in the name of utilitarianism.
It caught on as such a popular and practical undergarment that men often wore it underneath their clothes to stay warm in the winter.
Plus, the design made it easy to go to the bathroom (the union suit didn’t earn its modern nickname “onesie with the flap in the back” for nothing).
As an undergarment, though, the union suit had serious flaws in the summer.
Namely, the undergarment was all one piece. Those heat-conserving qualities became an annoyance in the warmer months.
This is when briefs entered the scene.
Before briefs, men’s underwear consisted of union suits, long johns, and one-piece singlets.
Then, a man named Arthur Kneibler had an idea (and a life-changing postcard).
A friend of Kneibler’s sent him a postcard from his visit to the French Riviera. The postcard showed a man in a short, tight, bikini-style bathing suit. That gave Kneibler an idea.
Fortunately for history, Kneibler was a designer and executive for Coopers Inc., which sold undergarments, hosiery, and socks.
Kneibler designed a brand of legless men’s underwear with a Y-front, nearly as supportive as a jockstrap. Coopers Inc. drew attention to the comparison by calling the new line jockey shorts.
Jockeys debuted in Chicago in Marshall Fields department store on January 19, 1935. The store sold all 600 packages of briefs they had on hand that blustery winter day. Within three months, they would sell 300,000 more.
In February 1935, they patented the now ubiquitous underwear brief.
The A-Shirt and Factory Workers
With the runaway success of briefs, Coopers Inc. needed a corresponding shirt.
So, they designed the “athletic shirt”, or A-shirt for short.
The premise was simple: a light, sleeveless cotton tank top (or, what we would recognize as a tank top today).
At the same time, workers in factories were pushing toward a similar premise. In those days, factory workers wore jumpsuits to work to keep themselves safe.
Unfortunately, these suits were unbearably hot in the summer. So, workers began cutting them in half to stay cool in the summertime.
The U.S. Navy
But the popularity of tank tops and t-shirts as we know them today can be credited to the U.S. military–specifically, the U.S. Navy.
Near the turn of the 19th century, companies were beginning to sell “bachelor undershirts”, the top half of a union suit as its own individual undergarment.
In 1905, the Navy helped cement the popularity of the t-shirt by making it a part of their official uniform (just in time for World War I). At that time, all American servicemembers were required to wear t-shirts underneath their uniforms at all times.
For many soldiers, it was a habit that stuck around once they returned home.
Desire and Rebellion
However, the t-shirt as we know it today didn’t become a piece of clothing on its own until two major Hollywood names redefined how t-shirts were meant to be worn.
First was Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando in this film is iconic, amoral, loud, and lusty–a dramatic redefining of the archetypal American male. Brando in Streetcar, riding around on a motorcycle in a t-shirt, recast the American man as a bad boy.
No longer was the accountant the guy who got the girl. Now, the American man was a swaggering rebel, loud and uncaring of social convention.
Remember, up until this point, t-shirts were worn exclusively as an undergarment. To walk outside in just a t-shirt would be no better than striding out the front door in your underwear — especially a shirt like the heat-shrunk one Brando wore, looking as though it was painted on.
So, Brando spending the entire film in a t-shirt was a strong political statement.
Then came James Dean, a man whose clothes summed up the 1950s, the first decade in which young people’s clothing was distinctly different from that of their parents.
James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, striding around devil-may-care in a t-shirt, was an even stronger political statement than Brando. It wasn’t just that the American man was a rebel who wore an undergarment like a regular piece of clothing.
More than that, wearing a t-shirt became closely identified with young rebelliousness. Young people were more revealing than ever before, flying in the face of their parents and social convention.
What About Tank Tops?
So, where does that leave the t-shirt’s close cousin, the tank top?
Tank tops as undergarments began life as swimsuits, first appearing in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. In that competition, 27 women wore short-sleeved swim costumes ideal for fast, free movement.
They weren’t all that different from men’s swimsuits of the time, actually. But because they were worn by women, the suits were viewed as shocking and immodest.
Nonetheless, the freedom of movement provided by sleeveless shirts caught on with men and women alike.
It was fine to wear a “tank top” while swimming with your family or performing hard physical labor.
But in polite society? Not a chance.
The “Wife-Beater” as a Class Marker
This is where a complicated piece of cultural heritage comes into play. Specifically, the wife-beater as a term for men’s tank tops and its class associations.
Most historical theories on the topic connect to one James Hartford Jr., a black man from Detroit who was arrested in 1947 for beating his wife. Stories about his arrest and trial made national news.
One photo, in particular, showed Hartford in a stained white tank top. Beside the photo, newspapers often referred to him as “the wife-beater”.
And since it was 1947, not long after the official end of World War II, Hollywood was rapidly becoming transfixed by a certain kind of man: violent, abusive, and dangerous.
And so, in the late 40s and early 50s, Hollywood released a bevy of films (A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Bonnie and Clyde) with a similar trend. In each of these films, when men got increasingly upset, their go-to move was to rip off their shirts, revealing a white, sweat-stained tank top.
The term wife-beater fully joined the American lexicon in the 1990s, in a pop culture vortex of rap, gay, and gang subcultures.
Film staples of the time regularly featured gangsters and men arrested for beating their wives, all wearing the same signature white tank top.
Men’s Tank Tops Today
Men’s tank tops today have come a long way since their original image.
These days, tank tops are just as often associated with muscle shirts and gym bros as they are with a negative cultural heritage.
But they also have another, more sophisticated use: as an undershirt for a dapper work outfit.
What Tank Tops Accomplish
There are several reasons to wear an undershirt.
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. Unlike a sleeved undershirt, tank tops cover the essential parts while still keeping your arms well-ventilated.
Plus, tank tops grant you more freedom of movement in your arms, which helps you feel more comfortable.
If you’d like to learn more, check out this guide that outlines 5 rules of how and when to wear an undershirt.
When to Wear Them
If you wear an undershirt in the summer to stay crisp and professional-looking, a tank top can a good choice, especially if you tend to wear short sleeves.
The biggest downside of tank tops is that they don’t offer any sweat-wicking or sweat protection for underarm sweat.
However, wearing tank top undershirts can be an advantage if you wear shirts with short sleeves since you won’t have to worry about the overlap between your shirt and your undershirt.
A tank top allows you to stay cool–without betraying the fact that you’re wearing an undershirt.
For more information about wearing undershirts during summer, check out this article, a complete guide to wearing undershirts in summer.
Looking for Tank Top Undershirts?
Tank top undershirts have a longer history than you might expect from one clothing item. Still, when you’re looking for an undershirt, you’re not necessarily concerned with history.
You’re concerned with finding the right undershirt for the job.
For those looking for more information about tank top undershirts, please check out these tank-top related articles.
If you’re curious about wearing certain types of undershirts, including tank tops, under dress shirts, check out my article about wearing undershirts under white dress shirts.