Note about this series: I will continue to hazard guesses as to how each term came about before looking it up, so as to see if my associations led me astray or not! As I continue writing about this, I am realizing these terms have very old origins. Watch what happens with the next term!
The “wife beater” is now, I believe, outmoded and not used to describe men’s white undershirts and by association, women’s white undershirt-like tank tops. This term for most people can bring up an instant image of Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowakski in the film, “Streetcar Named Desire”. For sure that must be where this term for such a garment originated:
Woops, wrong again! Here first is the definition: from http://www.pauldavidson.net/2005/05/13/words-for-your-enjoyment-wife-beaters/
“There are three definitions for a “wife beater.” The first, one who harms their spouse with physical force. The second, one who psychologically intimidates or makes scared a person who, in the event of their death, receives half of the current estate. And third — a white, thin t-shirt with no arms, resembling a tank top, which often is easily stained with reheated food items.”
Now see if you know this interesting fact about medieval origins:
” the history of the “wife beater” goes back to the Middle Ages, where knights who lost their armor in battles often had nothing but the chain-mail undergarment to protect them. Now, those chain mail undershirts, if you will, were damn strong — even a sword couldn’t get through. Often, 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 “shirt off their back” (albeit chain mail), they were given this noble title — an abandoned fighter, beating their way through battle.”
The next part of history was also a long time before Stanley Kowalski:
During 1700′s Europe, of course, the phrase “waif beater” no longer had much meaning due to the fact that there weren’t really knights running around fighting battles in chain-mail undershirts. As a result, the phrase was changed to the similarly sounding “wife beater” and used to refer to husbands who treated their significant others in a less than stellar way.
“The trend changed in 1947 in Detroit, Michigan — when 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 — constantly showing a picture of Hartford, Jr. when he was arrested — wearing a dirty tank top with baked bean stains on it…and constantly referring to him as “the” wife beater.”
Now the next question is, is this truly now an outmoded politically incorrect term? And, did Street Car Named Desire have any connection to its use?
Here is an example of someone who didn’t dig deep enough and traced it to the 1970s and the movie Raging Bull andRocky are called to mind. In addition a real celebrity and real wife beater, Ike Turner is mentioned.
This answer dies mention something else, the term “guinea tea” which was also terribly offensive, and does give the reaction to the term and the shutting down of it by NAtional Orgsnization for Women
Here’s something else the term refers to a beer:
“it is a very common nickname for Stella Artois, due to it’s slightly higher than usual alcohol strength (5.2% ABV, compared to the usual 5% ABV). Strong Spanish lagers are often known similarly as “Senorita beater”. These aren’t related to the use for a vest/tank top/singlet/”
That was from Wikipedia. The correct term is now the A shirt, presumably to distinguish it from the t-shirt which was called so due to its T letter shape. It seems that clothes. An either be defined in neutral terms by the way they look, as in, T Shirt, Crop Top, A Line Dress, shorts, skirt, skort (the skirt mixed with shorts having shorts attached to it, jacket or in questionsl cultural symbolic terms.
As I tried to look up neutral seeming terms in an online catalogue I found myself questioning even the word skirt and blazer and saw “romper” which is on style now and conjured up dressing women like children to “romp” around in this garment. We will see if this one is also questionable, ie. could be offensive to a group or groups of weateres…