Not long ago, an acquaintance mentioned that her dad wears “wife beaters.” She was referring to the sleeveless, ribbed undershirt also known as an A-shirt. I myself have used the term before — and I’ve worn the shirt plenty — but this time it stopped me cold. Given the torrent of revelations of abuse against women in the #MeToo era, the name suddenly seemed grossly inappropriate.
We don’t call our pants “child molesters” or our hats “cat mutilators.” We immediately recognise such descriptions as violent and abhorrent. And yet, we somehow overlook the same when we call our shirts wife beaters. How did such a graphically violent term insinuate itself into American slang?
Many cite Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in the movie A Streetcar Named Desire as inspiration for the term. He wears a sleeveless shirt and rages, yells, rapes his sister-in-law and hits his wife, Stella. (In Britain, the Belgian beer Stella Artois is sometimes called a “wife beater,” not the shirt.) Another theory that’s popular in the blogosphere is that wife beater comes from a case, in 1947, of a Detroit man who beat his wife to death. Photos from the time supposedly showed the man wearing a stained A-shirt. But I could find no evidence of this in news archives. He may be a myth. In any case, what these origin stories fail to explain is why, if the term has its inspiration in the mid-20th century, young people waited until the 1990s to embrace it.
Connie Eble, a linguist at the University of North Carolina who studies American slang, surveys her students periodically for neologisms. The first time a student submitted “wife beater” to describe the shirt was in 1996, she told me in an email. After 2007, students stopped mentioning it, she said, not because it had fallen out of use, but because it was then so widely adopted that no one considered it remarkable. Now it’s sometimes shortened to plain old “beater.”In 2001, in an article in this newspaper titled An Undershirt Named; What? an Oxford English Dictionary editor was quoted saying that the term had entered the lexicon in part from rap, gay and gang subcultures. Perhaps. But long before wife beater, the sleeveless undershirt-worn-as-outer garment attracted a malignant sort of attention. In the mid-20th century, some called it the “dago tee” or “guinea tee” — offensive epithets directed at Italian immigrants.
Donald Tricarico, a professor of sociology at Queensborough Community College, told me that the terms hark back to a time when some didn’t consider Italians really to be white. They viewed the sleeveless undershirt as a working-class garment, and someone — or a whole bunch of people — gave it this racialised label as a way to “otherise” Italian immigrants, who were often poor and did manual labour.
Misogyny and racism
Dominique Padurano, an adjunct assistant professor of history at Bronx Community College, speculates that dago tee evolved into wife beater when people realised that overt racism was no longer acceptable. “It’s a way we can still make fun of Italians without saying names like ‘dago’,” she told me.
Yet Italian-Americans are hardly the only ethnicity to favour the shirt. It’s big in the Chicano subcultures of the Southwest. My uncles in Puerto Rico used to wear it, as does my Korean father-in-law. White people wear it too. And these days, so do pop culture icons, like Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Miley Cyrus in her Wrecking Ball video.
In fact, in 2018, it’s difficult to articulate a rule that reliably separates those who wear the A-shirt from those who don’t, beyond a general sense the shirt seems to have been associated with ambiguous whiteness and a blue-collar background.
But is the vilification of working-class men fair? One of the biggest lessons of #MeToo is that men in the upper echelons of society are also capable of violent, coercive behaviour. Consider those accused of abuse: Harvey Weinstein, Eric Schneiderman, the former White House aide Rob Porter and the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Abhishek Gattani. Am I being too literal? But how can we overlook the literal meaning of the words emanating from our mouths? Or, as one young woman told The Times in 2001, when asked to consider what the words meant: “Now that you mention it, I’m like, damn!”
“People aren’t calling it a wife beater because they believe that beating your wife is OK,” Adam Klein, an assistant professor of communication studies at Pace University, told me. But the willingness to casually evoke violence against women implies a strange double standard. “We accept misogyny as cool,” he said, even as we know that racism is unacceptable.
I suspect that some use wife beater as a kind of fashion voodoo — a way to tap into an imagined working-class male virility. Young Brando was “a beautiful, brooding specimen,” wrote the theatre critic John Lahr — “a ruthless man-child with reservoirs of tenderness and violence.” His character eschewed khakis and button-downs for jeans and undershirts. The idea is that you, too, can become dangerous and attractive by donning a sleeveless shirt. Calling it a wife beater is part of this sartorial spell. But must we be so oblivious to the meaning of what we’re saying? Why not call the shirt a “Brando” or a “Wolverine” instead? It’s time to retire “wife beater.”
— New York Times News Service
Moises Velasquez-Manoff, the author of An Epidemic of Absence: A New Way of Understanding Allergies and Autoimmune Disease, is a contributing opinion writer.