Words For Your Enjoyment: Wife Beaters

Alas, greetings to you and yours on this hereth day doth referred to as such. Friday!

Hath sadness but opposite, WFME’s resident fat dude suggests this week’s topic and asks thee a question: “Why are some undershirts are called “wife-beaters.” I mean, do people who wear them really beat their wives? Or are they just trying to show off a fake tan?”

Aah, a question that deserves an answer.

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.

We’ll go with the third definition.

First, we must address the origins of said “wife beater” shirts. Whether or not you know it, 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.

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.

From there, everything snowballed. From then on, men wearing dirty tank-topped undershirts were referred to as people who were “wearing wife-beaters” and the lexicon stuck from that point forward.

At least, that’s the history of it all.

As for whether or not people who wear “wife-beaters” actually beat their wives or just wear them to get a great tan (as fat dude asked above), I think we can safely determine that based on what we see on television and what popular culture tells us — YES.

People who wear wife-beaters have a much higher chance of BECOMING wife-beaters.

The lesson, of course is this: if you are standing in Sears looking at a rack of wife-beaters and you wonder to yourself, “If I were to buy this shirt and wear it out on my driveway while spilling goopy quesadilla cheese all over it, would that encourage me to physically attack my wife?” — walk away. Walk away as quickly as your little legs can take you. Because the connecting of the dots is right there in front of you:

You buy the wife-beater.
You wear the wife-beater.
You will most likely spill food on your wife beater.
You’ll wonder why your wife can’t get the stain out of your wife beater.
You’ll wander around frustrated at the stain on your wife beater.
You’ll ask your wife why she couldn’t get said stain out of your wife beater.
She’ll tell you to “grow up and clean your own crap yourself.”
You’ll get mad.
She’ll call you a name.
And the rest, my wife-beater wearing non-tanned friend — is history.

And not the cool, interesting Middle Ages kind.

10 comments on “Words For Your Enjoyment: Wife Beaters

  1. Hilary - May 13, 2005 at 8:16 am -

    This may be a little off topic, but what’s your take on women who wear wife beaters? My sister is a huge fan of the inexpensive tanks.

  2. Pauly D - May 13, 2005 at 8:27 am -

    Women in wife-beaters, well, that’s another story altogether.

    And I think we all know what that means.

  3. C(h)ristine - May 13, 2005 at 10:54 am -

    fascinating — thanks for the history! i was going to ask the same question as Hilary — and must wife beaters be a white tank top? i wonder if pink negates the whole definition.

  4. Hil's Sister - May 13, 2005 at 1:18 pm -

    I wear a wife beater almost everyday. I love them, you all should try them. They are so cheap and comfortable, and allow for a great tan!!!

  5. Hil's Sister's Biggest Fan - May 13, 2005 at 1:21 pm -

    Hil’s Sister is soooooooooooooooooo right. She is the coolest person ever. Do whatever she says. (Although she does sport them in multiple colors.)

  6. casey - May 13, 2005 at 3:17 pm -

    And my question would be: what is the equivalent husband beater?

    Is there a defining article that I–were I to even have a husband–should be walking away from?

  7. fat dude - May 15, 2005 at 2:27 pm -

    great post. hard hitting issues. whoever the guy was to suggest this topic is a pure genius.

  8. Fritz - November 11, 2005 at 12:05 pm -

    I wear a beater as an outer shirt all the time and at work whenever I can. I am a laborer and it is great in warm weather.

  9. Meme_Magic - September 30, 2017 at 1:38 pm -

    Hey, I know this post is from a long, long time ago, but I just came across it because I was interested in the etymology. I’ve been trying to find any source for the “waif beater” claim and was having no luck. I keep on finding other sources referring to this original post. I was wondering if you remember your source on the “waif beater” claim. Thanks and this was an interesting read!

  10. Anonymous - January 17, 2018 at 2:27 pm -

    In Scotland, particularly in Dundee “Wife beater” refers to Stella Artois beer. Wife beater refers to Stanley kowalski a character in A Streetcar Named Desire who screamed out his wife’s name “Stellaaaaa!”.

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