The History of the “Wife Beater”

I was inspired by Louie C.K.’s SNL monologue from last Saturday to write about an article of clothing worn by many with quite an unpleasant name. The article in question is known as the “wife beater.“ (If you’d like to watch Louie’s hilarious thoughts on it, you van watch the video here). The “wife beater” seems to be a term that we as a society have embraced as acceptable, so I wanted to look into its history. Surprisingly, there isn’t much written on the meaning of the term and how it came about when I did a searched Google. I was only able to find one source, and this is what they had to say about 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 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.” (from

So my question is, in 2014, why haven’t we done away with this terminology? According to this source, they revamped the phrase in the 1700s when “waif beater” was no longer relevant, so why hasn’t 21st century society done the same? The word is clearly offensive but is used colloquially. And furthermore, why do people want to use the term? Why would you willingly choose this phrasing over saying “tank top” or “undershirt?” It’s no secret that there is a lack of sensitivity and respect for domestic violence victims in this country (see last post), so I think doing away with this term is a step in the right direction.

So today, in the name of gender equity, I pledge to ban “wife beater” from my vernacular. Who’s with me!


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