Sun’s Out, Guns Out: The Resurgence of the Tank Top

Man wearing a sleeveless undershirt
Image credit: Grisha Chernigowsky on Pexels

Whether you know it as a vest, a tank top, a singlet, or by one of its many, often unsavoury names, one thing is certain: few garments have had a shakier reputation historically speaking than the sleeveless undershirt.

The humble tank — so called after a swimming pool or ‘tank’ with which this all-round athletic garment was associated when it first rose to prominence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — has always had a tough go of it in popular culture. You can blame Clark Gable if you’d like. When the actor removed his shirt in a scene in It Happened One Night (1934) to reveal a completely bare chest, sales of vests tanked overnight.

Before this, a sleeveless undershirt had long been a standard piece of men’s underwear. These being the days before central heating or air conditioning, a man’s vest was typically hard at work alternately insulating or absorbing depending on the climate. But when Gable revealed his bare chest to Claudette Colbert and scores of moviegoers, suddenly everyone involved had reason to reassess their long-held beliefs about what best to wear — or not wear — with their briefs.

It was thanks to the advent of the T-shirt around the same time that undershirts made a comeback, but the sleeveless A-shirt (as it’s sometimes known) has never quite recovered. While there has certainly been a good deal of cinematic sex appeal associated with the garment in Mr Gable’s shirtless wake — cf. Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire, Bruce Willis in Die Hard, Vin Diesel in the Fast & Furious franchise, et al. — associations with the real-life equivalents have continued to take a hit.

Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo wearing a tank top
A tank-topped Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo
Image credit: Yoni S.Hamenahem / CC BY-SA 3.0

The so-called ‘muscle shirt’ has any number of negative frat boy connotations, while the cringe-inducing ‘wife-beater’ not only conjures unwelcome images of domestic violence but has also been linked to brutish stereotypes of Italian Americans and working-class men going back at least as far as the 1970s. This was in no way helped by the shirt’s popularity among gang members in the American Southwest region since the ’90s.

Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list of groups associated with wearing tank tops. They have found a place in hip hop, punk, and skating subcultures, among others, in addition to being popular choices with any number of very well-dressed women, members of the Queer community, and aughts-era heartthrobs (shout out to Chad Michael Murray, Ben McKenzie, and every boy band from your youth). 

Nevertheless, it seems fair to say that there has been enough bad press over the years to put an irrevocable dent in the reputation of sleeveless shirts across the board.

Vintage crowd wearing vests and shouting
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

And yet…If you’ve paid attention to your Instagram feed or looked at pictures from this summer’s Pitti Uomo 102 or just seen some sartorial types kicking around your neighbourhood or local beachfront recently, you may have noticed a considerable uptick in men wearing tank tops. 

The look de jour, in keeping with the Sopranos-style leisurewear takeover of menswear since the dawn of Covid-19, is to pair a tight-fitting tank with a knit shirt, a camp collar, or really any season-appropriate shirt choice. They even go well with a lightweight blazer or a summer suit — extra points if you add a nice silk scarf or a necklace. And, if you’ve been admiring these outfits from afar as I have, frankly, it’s hard to deny how good they all look.

I’m enamoured enough of the whole vibe that I’ve already fished out all the tanks I had kicking about from my youth — I watched a lot of The O.C. back then, we needn’t dwell on it — and have since added a few more to various wishlists and shopping carts too. Then, just as soon as I’ve done a few hundred crunches to shake the last of my pandemic-era gut, you can bet I’ll be busting out these bad boys for public consumption. Because the tank top is back, baby! Ryan Atwood, eat your heart out.