wife-beaters

The Ridger/Karen writes, in a comment on my “scrimmage t-shirt” posting, about A-shirts:

“Wife-beater” is a name that is far more offensive to me than the ethnic-slur ones. I find it astonishing that it’s become so mainstream.

Indeed, offensive. It manages to be a slur on women and working-class men (implicitly, working-class men of Italian descent) at the same time.

I was pleased to discover A-shirt as a term for the garment in question. Unfortunately, hardly anyone else knows it, which undercuts the virtues of its clarity and inoffensiveness. Since singlet and vest are unavailable for me as an American — the first has only historical uses for me (think doublet and hose), and the second refers only to an outer garment that is part of a three-piece suit (but can can be worn without the suitcoat) — for widely known terms, I’m pretty much stuck with the offensive wife-beater and the potentially confusing sleeveless t-shirt,

The problem for me is that I take sleeveless t-shirt to be a fully compositional expression, so that it refers to something that counts as a t-shirt, but lacks sleeves. Such garments are not uncommon (sometimes the armholes are ragged, as if the sleeves had been torn off — producing a garment that is studiedly rough), and sometimes the effect of sleevelessness is achieved for ordinary t-shirts by rolling the sleeves up, to show off the biceps and provide a place to stash a pack of cigarettes (a decidedly working-class masculine presentation).

So sleevelessness (in this sense) is just one of many variations on the basic t-shirt themes. There are also V-necked t-shirts, t-shirts with pockets (I have a lot of those), t-shirts in colors other than the canonical white (I have a lot of those, too), t-shirts in fabrics other than the canonical 100% cotton (not only synthetics and blends, but also fancier fabrics like silk), mesh (rather than woven-fabric)  t-shirts, and, yes, the cut-off t-shirts of my previous posting. All of these belong to the TS category (customarily referred to by the expression t-shirt).

The question is whether A-shirts belong in TS as well. For me, they don’t, and some sources, in their definitions of the slang term wife-beater, seem to agree (though these two sources go off in different directions):

Online Slang Dictionary: a sleeveless undershirt

Merriam-Webster Online: a man’s white tank top

These sources, and some others, converge on a picture of the canonical WB object (referred to, by some people, as a wife-beater, or — see below — just beater): it’s white, 100% cotton, ribbed, sleeveless, and neckbandless, of a woven fabric; and it’s a garment (a piece of clothing, intended to be worn on people’s bodies), covering the entire upper body, worn as an undershirt, by men. (Note the mixture of properties of the form of the referents, functions of the referents, and contextual factors.) That’s the center of the category, but the category takes in lots of other things as well; one or more of the characteristics of the central members of the category can be dispensed with (objects in the category can lack the ribbing, can be colored, can be worn by women, can be worn on their own, rather than as an undershirt, etc.).

But at some point we leave this category and travel through unclear territory, only to end up in another category (recall Labov’s famous discussion of CUP, BOWL, and related categories). For me, wife-beaters and tank tops belong to separate categories WB and TT (though I’m not at the moment clear about how the categories are distinguished), but together WB and TT constitute a larger category (call it AS), which is opposed to the category to which t-shirts belong (call it TS); and AS and TS together constitute a still larger category (call it US — the category name is meant to suggest undershirts, but it’s just a label and not a definition) , from which dress shirts, blouses, sweaters, turtle-neck shirts, and other upper-body garments are excluded.

The next question is what conventional expressions pick out these various categories. It’s a fact of life that not all culturally conventional categories have conventional ordinary-language labels. And it’s a fact of life that fairly often the same label is used for a category and for a larger category to which it belongs. So it seems to be for some people and TS versus US: many people use t-shirt to label both, so that the expression is ambiguous, and when it’s important, things in the AS subcategory have to be picked out by some other label, and sleeveless t-shirt seems to be the most common choice (even though it has its own problems; see above).

This is the usage of Alice Harris (Alice Harris the fashion maven, not Alice C. Harris the linguist and scholar of Georgian and Udi, among other things), in her glossy coffee-table book the white T (HarperCollins, 1996). [The book has wonderful photos and a compact and often perceptive critical text, though some people will be annoyed by the Wired-style layout and typography.]

[While I’m on the topic of pop-cultural clothing analysis with good pictures, let me recommend two further books in this vein: James Sullivan’s Jeans: A Cultural History of an American Icon (Gotham Books, 2006) and Graham Marsh & Paul Trynka’s Denim: From Cowboys to Catwalks: A History of the World’s Most Legendary Fabric (Aurum, 2002).]

Harris traces the path of t-shirts from their origins as functional clothing for men (worn by the working class, sailors, and athletes) through their elevation as masculine sex symbols and on to their democratization: adopted by young people of both sexes, eventually all over the world, picking up uses as media for expressing text and images, and then becoming casual wear for everyone, and even fashionwear. In his introduction to the book, Giorgio Armani lists what he sees as their symbolic appeals: a “sense of cleanliness”, their “unabashed sex appeal”, and their value as “anti-status symbols”. (Jeans traveled a similar path, though different in detail, from working men’s clothing through democratization via young people and on to clothes for everyone, even fashionwear.

Back now to wife-beaters (the garments) and wife-beater (the expression). Here’s a piece originally from the L.A. Times (reported on here):

Wife-beaters go fashionable

December 12 2002
The sleeveless undershirt has gone from trashy to trendy, but not everyone finds its new name funny, writes Booth Moore.

When a word or phrase that’s been floating around in the culture finally lands in the Oxford English Dictionary, it has transcended the zeitgeist. Homer Simpson’s exasperated “d’oh” made the cut last year. So did “retail therapy” and “boy band”.

According to Jesse Sheidlower, North American editor of the dictionary, an unusual definition of the phrase “wife beater” is now a contender for lexicographic immortality.

The phrase no longer would strictly refer to a man who beats his wife; its definition would be expanded to mean a white, ribbed-cotton, sleeveless undershirt that is a wardrobe basic these days for movie costumers, rap stars and models.

In the popular imagination, the shirts are associated with the Stanley Kowalskis and Tony Sopranos of the world: anti-elitist, macho lugs who sit in front of the tube in their underwear and slap their wives around, hence (presumably) the name.

Although the style has been around for more than a century, in recent years there has been a boom. The shirts have shown up on bad boys Tommy Lee, Kid Rock and Snoop Dogg and on femme fashion plates Madonna, Britney Spears and Gwyneth Paltrow. Calvin Klein makes them. Even Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana have offered versions of the scoop-neck tops.

The desire to look trashy isn’t hard to explain (they’re sexy on the right body and showcase well-toned biceps). What’s mysterious is how such a potentially offensive phrase managed to slip into the fashion lexicon so easily.

The undershirts are often referred to in music and film. Rapper Eve sings about how good she looks in her “wife beater with a bangin’ tan”. And in 8 Mile, Eminem mocks rival rapper Papa Doc for wearing one of the shirts, calling him “Snoop Dogg in a bra”.

“Everyone wears them, especially hip-hop artists,” said Susan Bauer, director of fashion programming at MTV. “But I was told by an executive not to use the word, so we just take off the ‘wife’ and call them ‘beaters’.” [another solution to the problem of labeling the category WB]

Part of the appeal of the term may be its political incorrectness. James Doolin, of Dallas, sparked a media firestorm after launching a website that sells the shirts, embroidered with the words “wife beater”.

The site has a “Wife Beater Hall of Fame”, with photos of Ike Turner, John Wayne Bobbitt, Mike Tyson and others, and it offers a discount to customers who can prove a domestic violence conviction. The discount, says Doolin, is a joke, but he defends his business concept, saying that the term has transcended its literal meaning to become a symbol for all rebellious, antisocial behaviour.

But not everybody is laughing. Karin Willison, a psychology student from Los Angeles, has a counter website that sells T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “wife-beater beater” and a drawing of a woman punching a man.

“It’s intended to be humorous,” she said. “I don’t advocate violence either way, but if people are buying shirts that say ‘wife beater’, women are going to fight back.”

Sheidlower, who says “wife beater” will probably soon be in the dictionary’s online edition [the on-line OED has been unavailable to me all day, so I can’t say whether wife-beater is in there yet; but if not now, then soon], says fuss over the phrase is media-made: “People who use this word are not using it to put anyone down.”

Well, yes, that’s not their intent, but even people not influenced by media hype might still reasonably object to the word. Offense and offensiveness are complex matters.

8 Responses to “wife-beaters”

  1. meg Says:

    I propose a further possibility and/or complication: “t-shirt” for the thing with sleeves and “undershirt” for the thing without. This didn’t work during my childhood, when all the dads wore white (short-sleeved) t-shirts under and never without their collared shirts. But nowadays the men of my acquaintance wear sleeved t-shirts both ways, so that “undershirt” loses its hold there. The sleeveless kind — WB — still strikes me as marked strictly as an undershirt, so that when it’s worn as the only shirt, the wearer is wearing only his undershirt (oh, transgressive!).

    I’m not entirely sure whether that’s my own idiosyncratic usage or that of my friends and family. They’re an untrustworthy bunch, though, so perhaps I should take sole responsibility.

    [(amz) Undershirt for WB just wouldn’t work for me. since I’ve been wearing t-shirts as undershirts for decades now. I just rooted through my drawers and found a small stash of WBs, most of which I seem to have moved from Ohio 12 years ago, and most of which a colored (and were used as workout shirts), though there are a few ribbed white ones in there, so I must have worn them as undershirts at least on occasion.

    But then I’m scarcely your typical guy. I have lots of friends who wear t-shirts as undershirts, but then my circle of friends aren’t exactly in the mainstream.

    I suppose I should start looking at guys wearing collared shirts that are open at the neck. T-shirts worn as undershirts are then easily detected. Maybe I could do a surreptitious survey, though staring at random strange men in public places could, I guess, get me in trouble.]

  2. David W. Fenton Says:

    I may have missed it somewhere in the discussion, but “a-shirt” is surely short for “athletic shirt,” no?

    [(amz) Possible, but I doubt it. I’ve been assuming that A-shirts, like T-shirts and I-shirts, are so-called from the shape of the letters. In the case of A-shirts, the A is upside-down, its legs corresponding to the “straps” on WBs and TTs.]

    I was trying to think if I’ve heard “athletic shirt” term for anything but an undershirt, and I’m not sure I have. The athletic shirt form factor when worn as an external shirt was always referred to as a “tank top” where I grew up, but nowadays, that term seems more associated with women’s clothing. And, of course, when actual athletes, like basketball players or runners, wore the same type of shirt, it wasn’t called anything in particular, so far as I can recall.

    Of course, all the usual caveats about personal experience and so forth…

    [(amz) Good grief, it turns out that the usage of people who make things they call “athletic shirts” is all the map. For some, they’re just t-shirts (suitable for working out in or playing sports in) — what some would call “jerseys”. For others, they’re “athletic t-shirts”, t-shirts with team logos (or in some cases, business logos) on them — jerseys again. For at least a few, they’re WBs (ribbed and white, even).

    As far as I know, serious basketball players just call their A-shirts (WBs or TTs) “shirts” in the context of playing. Anyone call them “basketball jerseys”? I dunno.

    And there’s the question of what you ask for in a store when you want to buy a basketball shirt. (Football shirts and soccer shirts are t-shirts. Baseball has uniforms.) Maybe you don’t ask at all, just look for what you want. I know, men hate to ask.]

  3. arnoldzwicky Says:

    My OED is once again available. From the draft addition of November 2004:

    wife, n.

    wife-beater n. U.S. colloq. [apparently associating such a garment with men who commit domestic violence], a man’s sleeveless cotton undershirt or vest; (also) a shirt for women designed to resemble this.

    1993 Crazy Stanford Law Students on Acid–True Crime!! in alt.drugs (Usenet newsgroup) 18 Nov., Pee-Wee had the emaciated body of Tolkien’s Gollum and sported brown khakis and a *wifebeater tanktop. 1994 Boston Globe (Nexis) 28 Sept. 35 Bowling shirts are in, wife beaters are out. 2000 M. GLADWELL Tipping Point 207 White teenage girls in Los Angeles dressing up like Mexican gangsters with the look they called ‘the wife beater’a tight white tank top with the bra straps showing. 2003 Wired Mar. 106/1 The young racers sport wife-beaters and military buzz cuts.

  4. The Ridger Says:

    Huh. I would have said “Basketball jersey” but perhaps that’s not as widespread as I had assumed. For me, a “jersey” is any sports shirt except the baseball ones that button up the front like a “real” shirt, and so are baseball “shirts”. But football, basketball, hockey, track & field – all “jerseys”.

  5. davek Says:

    You might be interested to know that in the UK, the term “wife beater” also designates strong European beer (usually referring specifically to Stella Artois).

    And a “tank top” is a sleeveless woollen V-neck pullover, usually worn over a shirt or T-shirt.

  6. The Ridger Says:

    Wow. I only know Stella Artois through the commercials I see at the local indie theater. “Wife beater” is NOT the image their ads give you.

  7. Golden State Rufskin tit « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] for another posting, to come, on (men’s) underwear terminology (see, most recently, here and here), I now offer you a draft poem inspired by one of the images I started with. The image will come […]

  8. Underwear gods « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] AZBlog, 5/2/10: Wife beaters (link) […]

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