Wife Beater Shirt Terminology
Fashion Terms

In the United States and Canada, a sleeveless shirt it is commonly known as a tank top or by its pejorative nickname, wife-beater (sometimes just beater).

This is obviously an offensive name for a category of shirt.

Offensive Aspect of the term:

This particular style of shirt is a fairly common wardrobe item in the demographic that many people associate with wife beating (unfortunately spousal abuse occurs in "every" demographic).  Very often these are the kinds of shirts men will wear around the house when they're trying to stay cool, but can't afford good air conditioning. Generally poor, blue collar workers.  It's a basic stereotype.

In his opening monologue, comedian Louis C.K. talks about the difference between hungry and starving, raising his girls, the unlikeliness of Heaven and the offensiveness of "wife beater" shirts. [Season 39, 2014] http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/louis-ck-monologue/2768583

The actual shirt:

A sleeveless shirt is a shirt manufactured without sleeves, or one whose sleeves have been cut off. Sleeveless shirts are worn by either sex, depending on the style. They are often used as undershirts, are often worn by athletes in sports such as track and field and triathlon, and are regarded as acceptable public casual dress in most warm weather locales.

According to Merriam Webster:

A Wifebeater is a man's white tank top.

What is the origin of the term "wife beater" in regard to shirts?

We do not have absolute certainty on this question.  But here are possibilities:

In 1947 in Detroit, Michigan the police arrested a local man (James Hartford, Jr.) for beating his wife to death. Local news stations aired the arrest and elements of the case for months after the arrest. The news reporting constantly showed a picture of Hartford, Jr. when he was arrested.  He was wearing a dirty tank top with baked bean stains on it.  The news reporting constantly referring to him as “the” wife beater.  This may have been the start of men wearing dirty tank-topped undershirts being referred to as people who were “wearing wife-beaters”.

Another theory is that the term started in prison.  Is has been said that in the old days prisoners ripped the sleeves off tee shirts belonging to those who were in jail for beating women (a crime not looked upon with good light) this was done so all the other prisoners knew that this man was in jail because he beat women hence being known as a wife-beater.

Other stories indicate that the history of the “wife beater” goes back to the Middle Ages.  At that time in history, knights who lost their armor in battles often had nothing but the chain-mail undergarment to protect them.  When a knight lost their armor and continued to fight successfully, they were referred to as a waif beater (waif, referring to an abandoned or lost individual).  Due to the fact that knights who had been abandoned and continued to fight with only the chain mail on their backs, they were given the  noble title or waif beater.  An abandoned fighter, beating their way through battle.  Over the years, it is possible that the term waif beater morphed into the similar sounding "wife beater".

Tank Tops in the Movies:

In the 1950's actors such as Marlon Brando wore this type of shirt in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Marlon Brando Tank Top

In 1988, Bruce Willis wore one in Die Hard.

Bruce Willis Tank Top

Women also wear the shirts terms wife beaters.  For example, Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider.

Angelina Jolie Tank Top

Nicholas Cage in Con Air.

Nick Cage Tank Top

Kevin Bacon in Footloose

Kevin Bacon Tank Top

Hugh Jackman Wolverine

Hugh Jackman Tank Top

The name wife beater is growing more and more popular, raising the concerns of many victims' rights groups that naming a popular article of clothing after an incident of domestic violence desensitizes young people to violence against women.  A wife beater refers to a husband that treats their significant other in an inappropriate manner.  We at Apparel Search strongly suggest you use the term tank top or sleeveless shirt instead.

People that wear shirts that are called a Wife Beater does NOT mean that they beat their wives.  It is only the "name" associated with the shirt that is a problem; not all people wearing them.

Domestic violence (also domestic abuse, spousal abuse, intimate partner violence, battering or family violence) is a pattern of behavior which involves violence or other abuse by one person against another in a domestic setting, such as in marriage or cohabitation.  This is a serious problem in modern society.  You can visit the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence to learn more at http://www.ncadv.org/

Call them tank tops or sleeveless shirts instead.