The Story Behind the Wife Beater Tank Top

If you own what is officially known as an A-shirt or an A-style tank top, you probably call it by a different name. This type of shirt is much more commonly referred to as a wife beater shirt, a wife beater tank top, or simply a  wife beater . While today that term may be politically incorrect, there is a very interesting history behind the naming of this shirt. Here, we will discuss why it is called a wife beater and how it has evolved as a fashion garment over the years.


How the Wife Beater Shirt Got Its Name

The fact is, there is not a single, agreed-upon story as to why these A-style tank tops are known as wife beater tank tops. There are several stories though about the origins of where the term comes from that span from the medieval times to the 1990s. While each story is slightly different about the exact origins, the idea behind all of them is the same. Over the years, this shirt has become a shorthand symbol in pop culture of drunken, slovenly men who either beat their wives or look like they do. And, while domestic violence is a serious issue, this name for the shirts is referring to a despicable class of men, not condoning what they may do.


The Silent Movie Story 

When Hollywood first started making movies in the early 20t century, they had picture shows before they had the ability to add sound. This is why the first big movies were silent films. To communicate the story and the character traits in these silent movies, Hollywood had to develop a shorthand for different ideas. For example, people with black hats were bad and white hats were good. To denote a husband character who was mean and possibly beat his wife, they would put him in a ratty sleeveless undershirt, which would become the reason they started calling that type of shirt a wife beater tank top. This trend wouldn’t stop when Hollywood started producing “talkies” either. It is a cliché that has stood the test of time in movies.


The Real-Life Story 

It wasn’t just at the movies where people known to be wife beaters were seen rocking the A-shirt. It happened in real life too. There is a famous case and ensuing newspaper picture from 1947 that may have helped give the wife beater its name. That year, in Detroit, a man named James Hartford Jr. was arrested for beating his wife to death. Because of the nature and seriousness of Hartford’s crime, the story didn’t just stay in Detroit, it went national and was splashed on the pages of newspapers around the country. Many of the headlines included the words “wife beater” and Hartford was pictured being walked out of his home after his arrest wearing what else but an A-style white tank top.

wife beater

The COPS Story 

Another pop culture explanation of the wife beater shirt coincides with the decades where these shirts went beyond a simple undershirt and became an actual fashion. In the 80s and 90s, you start to see the wife beater tank tops become more a part of mainstream fashion. From Bruce Willis’ John McClain rocking one in the Die Hard movies to Marky Mark Wahlberg wearing one in modeling ads, these shirts became much more a part of our fashion consciousness. At that time, one of the first reality shows came on television, the show COPS. The show followed real cops as they chased bad guys of all sorts. As more people started getting arrested on TV, the stereotype of wife beaters being arrested in the shirts they would help name proved to be more fact than exaggerated fiction.


The Medieval Story 

So, it seems like the term wife beater being used to describe a sleeveless white tank top started sometime between 1920 or so and the 1990s, right? Well, one more version of where the term comes from actually goes all the way back to medieval times and has nothing to do with domestic violence at all. On the medieval battlegrounds centuries ago, a soldier who had lost his armor and was left behind to be killed or beaten was known as a waif. These waifs who lost their armor would be left with nothing to protect them except a thin, chainmail undershirt. Because of the circumstances, soldiers would find themselves in when this was the only protection they had left, they began to call these undershirts “waif beaters”. Some people believe that the modern term wife beater really comes from this much older term.


Wife Beater Shirts in Fashion Today 

No matter where the term originated, what you need to know about the wife beater shirt today is that is has come a long way from the days it was used to specify the dastardly intentions of a movie character or was found on the back of a terrible criminal. Today, the wife beater is the go-to undershirt of many people and even a fashion garment for both women and men in its own right.


As an undershirt, the fact that the wife beater tank top is thin and form-fitting makes it perfect to wear under your clothes. If you are wearing a baggy shirt you won’t see it and if you are wearing a tight shirt, it makes a nice silhouette underneath. You can open a button or two on a short and still not see the collar or open three or four to let your wife beater show.


As a shirt on its own, everyone from the cast of MTV’s Jersey Shore to Miley Cyrus in her Wrecking Ball video has worn the shirt on its own as a fashion statement. They are comfortable shirts that look good and are especially effective in showing off great arms when worn on their own.



There are a lot of ways that the wife beater shirt may have gotten its name. No matter how it happened, what cannot be argued is how great these shirts are and how everyone should have at least a few in their dresser drawers or closets. If you don’t currently have a wife beater tank top or you need more to freshen up your collection, go to Goza Towels for a great deal on a 3-pack.


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