History of the Tank Top

The tank top has been given a bad rep because of its frequent association with all kinds of nasty and overly macho men. Its unfortunate connection may have been attributed to the many jerks, on the screen and in real life, who have worn them throughout the years. It even got off to a scandalous start. 

However, the growing popularity of the tank top among men and women has transcended its undeserved reputation.

Since its inception, the tank top has been there for us no matter the season, no matter what we’re doing, and no matter where we’re going. The best thing about it is that it us comfortable to wear. 

You can wear the tank top as an outer garment when summer heat would go a little beyond merciful. However, you can also wear it as an undergarment to add warmth or protection to your body.

This sleeveless shirt can be seen everywhere – the beaches, Olympic swimming pools, parks, and basketball courts. Many people wear them while strolling at the malls and going to the movies. It’s also extremely comfortable to wear at home and pretty much elsewhere. It has experienced several cultural shifts throughout the centuries since it was first worn.

The precursor to the tank top

Before the 1920s, it was rare for everyone to show their arms off in public. That is why when 27 members of the British women’s swimming team at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden, brazenly showed off their arms at the competition, it created quite a stir. But not in a good way because their swimsuits were seen as immodest and scandalous. So, basically, the tank top began life as the upper part of that swimsuit ensemble.

Previously, women’s swimsuits were specifically designed for “modesty,” with upper arms and thighs covered. Ridiculous layers of fabric around the waist prevented them from fitting too close to the skin, even when wet. 

But for these elite athletes, it made sense to wear pared-down swimsuits to allow freer and faster movement when swimming, despite the prevailing conservative climate of the early 20th century. And the modified design certainly helped the women British swimming team to win the Olympic gold medal!

Origins of the name “tank top”

Although men were already wearing sleeveless bathing tops during the same era, the British women’s swimming team at the 1912 Olympics made the most significant impact. Swimming pools at the time were often called “tanks,” and these daring Olympian swimming belles brought the connection between the exposed arms and shoulders and the “tank.” And that’s where the term “tank top” came from.

Sleeveless shirts had its first steps towards public acceptance when the Roaring Twenties kicked off a revolution in the world of clothing and fashion. Women began to cut their hair shorter and wore dresses that were a bit more revealing compared to the past fashion trends. People also began to enjoy human contact, although holding hands with your partner in public back then was still considered scandalous!

During the 1930s and the 1940s, tank tops were more commonly worn by men in Hollywood movies. But these characters who wore them were mostly villains who loved to mistreat or abuse women, often physically. Because of this, tank tops were colloquially known as “wife beaters.” And probably, this was where the tank top’s rather unfortunate connection with boorish, monstrous husbands, rogues, and overly macho men began.

In the 1951 film A Streetcar Named Desire, lead actor Marlon Brando was seen wearing a white sleeveless shirt. But his character there is seen as a villain (he even sexually abuses his sister-in-law at the end of the movie).

Fast forward to the 1970s, where tank tops had become an everyday piece of clothing. Both men and women were wearing them in public with no qualms at all, thanks to the massive changes in fashion and clothing and the considerable influence from popular movies and television shows.

Many people would wear one of the popular 1970s fashion ensembles: a tank top alone or a tank top under another piece of clothing (such as a leather jacket), complete with a pair of loose-fitting pants.

The popularity of the tank top even exploded during the 1980s. One big factor is the surplus of tank tops from the West German army that led to the popularity of the Bundeswehr tank tops overseas.

The 1990s saw the rise of the simple fashion trend, and people would prefer to go out wearing the simple, casual ensemble of a tank top and a pair of jeans or shorts. This classic style has continued to the present day. Tank tops exposing the midriffs were also popular during the 1990s. One example is the British all-girl group The Spice Girls wearing tank tops that showed off their toned abs.

Tank tops have continued to be popular up to this day – they have indeed come a long way from being a subject of scandal to being a widely accepted and popular piece of clothing.