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Tank Tops, Swimsuits, & The 1912 Olympics

The fashion trend known as “tank tops” didn't start off with just men. Would you believe me if I said women might have started the fad? The 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden may have been the catalyst. During these games, 27 women wore these shorter-sleeved bathing suits, as they allowed them to swim faster and move freely in the water. Before short sleeve shirts and tanks began as a fashion statement, they had a much more conventional origin. With time, more revealing clothing such as the modern day tank, would go on to represent stereotypes, masculinity, and sex appeal, while providing comfort and freedom.

The Origin

Back in the day swimming pools were also referred to as tanks. Makes sense right? One may remember dunk tanks from carnivals, state fairs, or early amusement parks. During this era, people started to link the garment with an exposed shoulder top to swimming in the tanks; hence the name tank tops. The evolution of this sleeveless clothing didn't happen overnight. While it became suitable for the beach, swimming pools, or the “tanks,” the top was still viewed as a bathing suit or an undergarment. It still needed time before it was deemed appropriate or acceptable for different purposes.

Negative Stereotypes on Immigrants, Class, and Society

Formal clothing is typically worn for business, important life events, or situations where it's necessary to appear more professional, but these strict rules have loosened a bit. Men started wearing alternatives to traditional undershirts, which allowed them to stay cool while conducting business. In the early twentieth century, undershirts were usually an attached set with pant legs. Uncomfortable undergarments such as union suits and jumpsuits were much hotter and more constricting than the tank tops to come. It was time for innovation in the types of undershirts. Not everyone could afford to dress upscale or to have the appropriate clothing other than the bare necessities.

The term “wife beater” has been thrown around a lot. This term began well before the 1900s, because domestic violence has been documented for centuries, however this name became popularized after a story of a man in Detroit, Chicago literally beat his wife to death. Yup, you guessed it, he was wearing a white vest as an undershirt. The name stuck and continued to be used to describe the lower class.

Immigrants who were coming to America usually wore such “wife beaters”. At this time, it was still considered taboo to be wearing a white undershirt outside in public without a formal shirt over it. Today the use of “wife beater” may even be used to describe the modern lower class working men such as “rednecks” or guys you used to see on the 90s TV show “Cops”. Some of you may even start to hear the theme song playing in the back of your head. Does anyone actually know the real lyrics after “Whatcha gonna do when they come for you…” without Googling it? It would take pop culture icons from film and television to popularize the garment in a positive light that was attractive and trendy.

The Silver Screen

Celebrities often get asked to wear different collections from the latest fashion designers through their movies, tv shows, and/or commercials. Actors who started wearing the rolled up sleeves gave way to the vest undershirt.

Women have also rocked the top. It has a sense of rebelliousness and counter culture due to it's origins and it's great to see everyone alike breaking these outdated fashion rules or societal norms about needing to cover up. Who doesn’t love those karaoke hits with Avril Lavigne’s iconic punk outfits? Of course it can depend on the country, event, age, or things like that, but I’d like to believe that tank tops don’t belong to any specific clique or social group.

With roots in mobility and efficiency, the earlier variations of the sleeveless bathing suit allowed swimmers to swim faster and while providing more comfort. Tank tops may not have been what they are today if the women on the 1912 Olympic swim team weren't bold enough to use them. Change happens slowly, but with some determination it can go on to inspire many to actually make it happen. There is always going to be a time, place, and need for formal clothing, but the tank top is here to stay. If the weather’s nice or if you want to travel and go to a beach resort, keep in mind that you'll probably need a beach tank, a pair of sunglasses, and some sunscreen. Hats off to the 1912 Women's swim team. I mean just look at the stark differences between the women in the center and the rest of the ladies. Even for today’s standards, some people may think this photo is inappropriate or too racy. What's your take?





“History of Fashion 1900 - 1970 - Victoria and Albert Museum.” V&A · The World’s Leading Museum Of Art And Design, Accessed 8 Oct. 2021.

“Swimming at the 1912 Summer Olympics – Women's 4 × 100 metre freestyle relay.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 8 June 2021,–_Women%27s_4_×_100_metre_freestyle_relay#/media/File:Belle_Moore,_Jennie_Fletcher,_Annie_Speirs,_Irene_Steer_1912.jpg.

“Why Do We Call It A ‘Wife Beater’ Shirt? - Dictionary.Com.” Dictionary.Com,, 16 Jan. 2018,



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