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History Of Tank TopsJuly 2, 2021 at 9:50am
One of the oldest and most scandalous versions of the tank top was not even worn by men. The garment that would eventually evolve into the "Sun Out, Guns Out" top we know today began as a swimsuit upper—and a women's swimsuit, no less! The above members of the women's Olympic swim team caused a stir in 1912 when they opened their arms for the competition.
Previously, women's swimsuits looked like the ones shown above, designed specifically for "politeness." The upper arms were covered and the peculiar extra layers of cloth around the waist prevented them from fitting too close to the body, even when wet. Even in the restrictive environment of the early 1900s, it made sense for elite athletes to take back these big, billowing bathing costumes. Maybe the powers-that-be justify showing off a little extra skin if it means a gold medal!
Although men of the same era were already wearing sleeveless bathing tops, it was the women's team that made the most impact. With the tremendous force of the scam, the tank top exploded at the scene. And as the pool was often referred to as the "tank," these bold Olympians cemented the connection between the classic exposed shoulder and the "tank."
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The tops are associated not with female sporting legends, but with overly masculine men. At the same time British swimmers were showing off their upper arms, it was not at all unusual for men to wear a similar bathrobe to the beach. But it was away from the beach and on hot city streets that the tank top acquired its modern meaning, usually at the expense of newly arrived immigrants.
The historical thread gets twisted around this time. Some sources say that the tradition of wearing a tank top as anything more than an undergarment can be traced to Italian immigrants. These same sources allege that Italian men had some sort of affinity for wearing tank tops outside of their nice shirts, and brought this aesthetic preference with them to the U.S., particularly New York, where they slept in the sweltering summer heat. was able to stay calm. But to me, it seems like a way to perpetuate age-old stereotypes about immigrant men.
This stereotype is especially evident when you consider the completely inappropriate other name for a tank top, "wife beaters."