The History of the Muscleshirt (a.k.a. “The Wife-Beater”)

The A-shirt (also called “wife-beater,” tank top, mariner, singlet, muscleshirt, vest, sleeveless T-shirt, etc.)

If the T-shirt is so called because of its T-like shape, then the more appropriate appellation for the A-shirt would be the M-shirt, since the sleeveless garment more closely resembles the letter “M” than the letter “A.” But in actuality, the “A” in A-shirt is an acronym for “athletic” since sleeveless shirts have traditionally been worn to play many sports, gymnastics, basketball, and track-and-field being amongst the most popular. Considering, however, that sleeveless shirts are a favorite amongst “muscleboys,” and that “M” stands for “muscles” as much as “A” stands for “athletic,” a cogent argument can be made that the name of the shirt should be changed from “A-shirt” to “M-shirt.” But nomenclature aside, sleeveless shirts are today considered by many young men—especially those with well-muscled arms, shoulders, and abdomens—as an essential wardrobe item. Once considered an undershirt, never to be seen by the general public, the sleeveless shirt (or tank top) has become a bona-fide outer garment (even outside the sports world) since the 1980s, partly because of the proliferation of gym-culture. After all, why work hard to develop a sculpted physique, only to have to hide it away behind clothing?

The A-shirt’s origins can be traced to the 1800s, where gymnasts would wear sleeveless shirts so as to enable maximum flexibility. Men’s swimwear of that era, and into the 1940s, also featured the sleeveless design. But it was really in regions of southern Italy, such as Napoli and Sicily, where warm weather, economic modesty, and Italian machismo converged, that the tank top truly began its evolution from underwear to outerwear. In southern Italy, a man with few shirts was better off saving them for Sunday Mass, work, and special occasions. So rather than going bare-chested, he would wear A-shirts: They were inexpensive, comfortable, and covered the bare essentials. For the typical southern Italian man, then, regardless of his physique, the tank top is part of his sartorial culture.

In America, however, the garment was interpreted differently. While Italian-Americans were known for wearing A-shirts as shirts, it was notoriously so. In America, the tank top-wearing man—Italian or otherwise—epitomized the Italian “Guido”: poor, rough-around-the-edges, and bodacious—even if admittedly sexy. Actually, the term “wife-beater” became a part of the lexicon in 1947 when James Hartford, Jr., was arrested in Detroit, Michigan for allegedly beating his wife to death. For months, the local media regularly reported on the gruesome murder and the ensuing court case ad nauseam, almost always showing the arrest photo of Hartford, Jr., wearing a food-stained tank top and referring to him as a “the wife beater.” The crime soon became synonymous with the shirt. And the rest is history….

Hollywood has also played its role in the evolution of the tank top from obscure undergarment into sexy outer garment: Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951); John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (1977); Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (1980); and as recently as Hugh Jackman in Wolverine (2013) and Henry Cavill in Man of Steel (2013).

There are also very practical reasons why tank tops are today being worn as shirts rather than as undershirts. The primary purpose of undershirts is twofold: to protect outer garments from bodily soilure; and to provide warmth. But A-shirts are inadequate at meeting both of those objectives. A man knows that when he wears a standard white T-shirt (with sleeves) as an undergarment, the T-shirt will eventually become stained—from perspiration and deodorant residue—in the armholes. But since standard cotton T-shirts are relatively inexpensive, when the T-shirt becomes sufficiently unsightly, it is discarded—after having served to protect the more precious outer garment from those unsightly stains. But a tank top offers no such protection to the outer garment. And because tank tops are sleeveless, they offer less warmth than standard T-shirts (or, in warm climates, provide unwanted extra warmth without serving to protect the outer garment). So to a large degree, the A-shirt, because of its inherent inadequacies as an undershirt, was always destined for either obsolescence or greatness. Fortunately for young men with beautiful torsos (or perhaps because of them), greatness prevailed. And in 1992, when Italian design house Dolce & Gabbana, in its first menswear collection, sent a throng of muscled male models down the catwalk in tank tops, the official seduction of fashion’s establishment by the muscleshirt was launched.

While, ironically, tank tops have long been a part of women’s outerwear (whether as a blouse or as the inspiration for a dress such as the classic sleeveless shift) with no sexual connotations attached thereto, in menswear—despite men being regarded as the less-modest sex—tank tops as outerwear are regarded as overtly and inherently sexy. Today, from Ibiza to Rio de Janeiro to Manhattan to Cannes to Sitges, once warmer climes roll in, young men across much of the Western World don muscleshirts to show off their “guns” (arms). And for men more reserved, the A-shirt is worn under an unbuttoned shirt, sport coat or denim jacket.

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