Reinventing the Humble Tank Top

The first look at Matthieu Blazy’s much-anticipated debut for Bottega Veneta was none other than a plain ribbed cotton tank top. At Prada, a slim-fitting undershirt-style white tank, this one featuring a small triangular logo at the scooped neckline, opened the brand’s fall 2022 show (it’s available on the Prada website for $995). On Chloé’s catwalk, a knit ribbed tank made from “lower impact merino cashmere” was paired with leather pants.

As summer temperatures peak, there’s no denying that this year, the season belongs to this staple. Once a humble undergarment, meant to be hidden from sight, it has stepped defiantly into the spotlight. Men and women alike are embracing its torso-hugging, shoulder-baring, décolletage-highlighting allure.

Stylist Bryant Christopher Simmons, 32, believes that part of the ribbed tank’s appeal lies in its versatility — both the ways it can be styled and the price points at which it is sold. He owns a small haul, ranging from costly versions offered by contemporary labels like Totême and Hanro to cheap versions from Hanes that he cuts so the hem hits right at his waist. “It looks so easy,” Mr. Simmons said.

This spring and summer it seeped into the zeitgeist, its profile rising with the temperatures. When Esquire’s summer issue landed, it did so with the actor Elliot Page on the cover, styled not in some dapper tailoring, but a second-skin Polo Ralph Lauren ribbed tank and low-slung jeans. Back in March, the actress and outré fashion plate Julia Fox cut a white ribbed tank top smack dab down the middle and wore it as a matching crop top and miniskirt, posting a video tutorial on how one could do it themselves. And when, this spring, Justin Bieber donned a hulking Balenciaga suit on the Grammys red carpet, what, pray tell, did he wear underneath? Nothing other than a white, ribbed tank top.

Pop star Gwen Stefani in 1995.Credit…Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
A look from Chloé’s 2022 fall/winter collection.Credit…Yoan Valat/EPA, via Shutterstock

For the nonbinary musician King Princess, the ribbed tank top is a wardrobe essential. “People call me the tank top fairy,” she said, laughing. (She has a habit of handing them out to friends and collaborators.) She described a seminal memory of her mother wearing tank tops — some of which she has since inherited — in the 1990s; now, she wears them most days.

“I feel so powerful when I wear a tank top,” she said, “because of my own journey with my gender. Like, a tank top with a sports bra underneath makes me feel strong and powerful. It’s me at my truest nonbinary form.”

Her preferred tank top is a youth extra-large, so it has a snug fit (she likes the way it restrains her breasts, she said). She typically buys whatever brand is available at the local CVS or Target, and she prefers to wear them with baggy pants. In addition to her mother, she pointed to Fiona Apple and Gwen Stefani as inspirations.

“I was always into rock boys, and then I discovered the women of rock who transcended gender,” King Princess said. “For years, men had taken women’s clothes and turned them into male rock garments, and then in the grunge era, women took them back.”

“I feel so powerful when I wear a tank top because of my own journey with my gender,” the nonbinary musician King Princess said.Credit…Steve Jennings/WireImage

For such a simple piece of clothing — startlingly elementary in its design, merely a fabric tube with three holes — the ribbed tank has accrued myriad cultural associations. Worn in a straightforward, unironic fashion, it can read as either masculine and feminine — easily evoking the hackneyed image of the swaggering brute or a vixen eagerly courting the male gaze. Yet it can also be worn in a way that slyly undermines traditional gender roles, as demonstrated by its popularity among L.G.B.T.Q. people.

“It’s such a great vernacular piece of clothing,” said Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “It has an allure because of this whole macho, Marlon Brando kind of feeling, and then, also, a very strong butch lesbian feeling to it. So it’s vernacular clothing with a strong sexual charge, and that’s somewhat transgressive.”

It also helps that, because it was first intended as an undergarment, to wear it on its own instantly imparts an aura of eroticism. “It makes an outfit look sexy and young but not in a way that’s bourgeois, expensive or uptight,” Ms. Steele said. “I mean, the fact that you’re sweating on it,” she added. “That’s very intimate.”

The tank top made the jump from intimate apparel to an object of desire through the lens of cinema. Here, Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in the 1951 film “A Streetcar Named Desire.”Credit…Mary Evans/AF Archive, via Everett Collection

From Tank Suits to Tank Tops

Tank tops were first popularized in modern Western fashion during the early 20th century as a part of bathing suits for both genders, which, at the time, covered the torso with a sleeveless, low-cut top (the name is thought to derive from “tank suits,” as swimming pools were commonly referred to as tanks in England). Later they evolved into a stand-alone garment; according to Jamie Wallis, director of global communications at Hanes, sleeveless shirts were introduced in 1928 alongside the company’s woven shirts for practical means: to help preserve the longevity of formal, collared shirts.

The tank top made the jump from intimate apparel to an object of desire through the lens of cinema, most famously cemented into the minds of the general public as a symbol of blue-collar virility by Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski in “A Streetcar Named Desire” in 1951. Hollywood has since used it as a sartorial shorthand for a certain type of machismo, from Robert De Niro in “Raging Bull” and Bruce Willis in “Die Hard” to James Gandolfini in “The Sopranos” and Vin Diesel in the “Fast and Furious” franchise. Still, it wasn’t until the sexually liberated 1970s that the tank top transitioned from undergarment to public-facing piece of clothing, so much so that Hanes, during that decade, rechristened it as the athletic shirt, or “A-shirt.”

It has since been embraced by various subcultures, including skateboarders, 1980s punk musicians and rappers, injecting it with a sense of rebelliousness. Its pragmatic appeal for professional sports players has maintained its spirit of athleticism. It’s even had its fair share of controversy, as when, at the turn of the century, it accrued the distasteful nickname “wife beater” — a sobriquet that has, thankfully, fallen out of favor.

Perhaps its plainness is the reason that it has been able to endure for so long and become a mainstay of various factions. Because of this, even the smallest tweaks can have an outsize effect. An in-house historian at Hanes ran through a timeline of such modifications — from nylon-supported reinforcements (1950s) to varying thicknesses of shoulder straps (1960s) to the introduction of colors (1970s). Maybe its adaptability was best demonstrated in the 2004 movie “Mean Girls,” when the character Regina George, a cruel yet popular high schooler, is the victim of a practical joke when two enemies cut holes in her ribbed tank, right over the breasts. The trick backfires, of course, when the rest of the student body follows suit, assuming it’s the latest trend.

In the fashion industry, its appeal is clear — it harkens back to the hierarchical pre-Internet days of the 1990s, its popularity no doubt calling to mind that faraway era — notably the sensual minimalism of Calvin Klein and the aloof anti-fashion of Helmut Lang.

Prada’s fall/winter 2022 ready-to-wear show.Credit…Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

‘Reinvent, reinvent’

“For me, the ribbed tank has always been associated with elegance and sensuality,” the designer Willy Chavarria said. In addition to overseeing his own namesake men’s wear label, Mr. Chavarria is a senior vice president for design at Calvin Klein, and often uses the ribbed tank in his work as a way to explore archetypes of gender and sexuality. “I like to play with hypermasculine notions from a queer persecutive,” he said. “The masculinity and sex appeal of the ribbed tank is timeless.”

Mr. Chavarria, who is Mexican American, also riffs on its strong ties to Chicano culture. “There’s a strong level of sensuality in Latino culture and sexuality in queer culture,” he said. “I think the masculinity that Latino culture has imbued into the white tank was adopted by queer culture, which then played on extreme forms of masculinity and femininity.”

Additionally, it is an essential part of the American proletariat uniform which, as recent catwalks demonstrate, fascinates designers of high-end labels looking to subvert stereotypical signifiers of class and social status.

“The incorporation of the tank top in postwar Hollywood films allowed for an aestheticization of manual labor shortly prior to the decline of working-class men’s role in the U.S.,” said Francesca Granata, an associate professor of fashion history at Parsons School of Design. “Luxury brands have historically recuperated items of clothing connected to the working class, most recently with Balenciaga doing so while trying to provide a social commentary in the process.”

Because of this symbolic malleability, younger generations are able to freely use the ribbed tank as a blank canvas onto which they can express not just aesthetic concerns, but their hopes and anxieties about gender and class. “Young people around New York are wearing it a lot right now, often cropped, and in ways that destabilizes gender binaries and ideal body types,” Professor Granata said. “In its tightness and body-revealing quality, it lends itself to being embraced by the body-positivity movement and worn by a range of body types.” To prove a classic piece is always ripe for reinterpretation, a new breed of intrepid upstart designers like Dion Lee, Sandy Liang and Elena Velez, are reworking them in fascinating ways with twisting straps, asymmetrical silhouettes and cutouts.

Hollywood has used the tank top as a sartorial shorthand for a certain type of machismo, including in the film “Die Hard” starring Bruce Willis.Credit…20th Century Fox
The Bottega Veneta fall/winter 2022 show.Credit…Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times

Customers are responding. Evi Berberi, a representative for Lyst, the global fashion search platform, said that since April, searches for tank tops had gone up 184 percent, continuing a trend that has been on the rise since last quarter. White, she says, is the prevailing color while the top associated search keywords were “ribbed,” “cropped” and, “asymmetrical.” From March to June, the fashion resale marketplace Depop had a 33 percent increase in searches for “ribbed tank tops” and a 44 percent increase in listings for that item, said a representative for the company.

“Today there’s a terrific rebirth of sexuality and gender identification,” Mr. Chavarria said. “While there are garments in the world that are known to be specifically male- or female-presenting, the kids today just have fun mixing it up. I think the ribbed tank still has an identity associated with its history that makes it sexy and stylish for even today’s generation.”

And while all this pontificating may very well be true, it also undercuts a simpler, emotional truth powering this trend. The ribbed tank top, for all its associations, is sexy, easy, versatile and effortless. “It’s very cool, it’s very chic,” Mr. Simmons, the stylist, said.

When friends see an actor or a person on the street wearing baggy pants and a tank top, they’ll often text the image to King Princess. “They’ll say, ‘It’s giving you,’” she said. “Which is very sweet and I find flattering. Everyone should feel confident in what they wear: Clothes are armor.”

“I think it’s iconic,” King Princess said of the tank top’s enduring appeal. “I do think that basic wear — like a good T-shirt, a good tank top, a good pair of jeans — these are the things that have been endlessly reinvented. That fascinates me, to take a silhouette over time and reinvent, reinvent.”

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