I'm a native English speaker (from Ireland) and to this day I'd hesitate in saying "wife-beater" when referring to a sleeveless shirt. It seems to be much more common in the U.S.

Where did this term come from and why? Another answer here gave conjecture that apparently it's from how people are dressed as they are arrested on the TV show "Cops" and/or men who commit domestic violence, but I find that really unconvincing to lead to such widespread usage while also not maintaining the negative connotation.

And how is it so commonly accepted without implying the more literal meaning? I just don't understand how it became natural usage and something people ultimately say without needing to clarify or lose a straight face.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Commented May 21, 2017 at 3:06

2 Answers 2


Three 1970s sources show that literal wife-beaters were already associated with wearing (just) undershirts by then.

Wife Beating: The Silent Crisis (1977) says:

Conventional wisdom depicts the wife beater as a lower class, beer-drinking, undershirt-wearing, Stanley Kowalski brute

New Woman (1978) says:

Conventional wisdom depicts the wife beater as a lower class, beer- drinking, undershirt-wearing brute

Wife Beating Law and Society Confront the Castle Door Gonzaga Law Reviews (1979) says:

Contrary to what many believe, wife beating is not confined to the poor, "beer-drinking, undershirt-wearing . . . brute."

So this stereotype was already solidly in place by the 1970s, well before the TV show "Cops".

In the 21 August 1995 article Fashion Ground Zero in New York Magazine, Dany Levy describes checking out the fashion of kids at Lollapolooza, and begins with:

Heidi, a stick-thin blonde who cites Archie Bunker as her biggest fashion influence, is wearing what she refers to as her "wife-beater tank," a simple Hanes job dramatically splattered with mud ("$4.99 at Woolworth," she asserts, sticking out her boobs)

It seems to me in this early example that the author is a little uncomfortable with the term, but since this is a girl or woman saying this about her own shirt, and this was 1995, it didn't easily imply a literal meaning.

There was a 23 June 1998 article Teen Slang for Undershirts ('Wife-beaters') Causes Stir about the term in the Sun Sentinel. So it was frowned upon to some degree.

  • I think you're hinting at something important. A Streetcar Named Desire is the likely cultural touchstone that makes this correlation immediately understood by those in the 70s.
    – rich remer
    Commented Dec 1, 2023 at 3:39

As for the literal meaning issue, since you are describing a shirt there's neither explicit nor implicit reference to violence. If you were to pick up a stick and call it a wife-beater, there's implied violence. That's the difference.

  • 5
    This seems more fitting as a comment than an answer.
    – Stevoisiak
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 5:23
  • 1
    It answers "nd how is it so commonly accepted without implying the more literal meaning?" Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 5:28
  • 1
    That's just the nature of idioms -- once they acquire a common meaning, the literal meaning tends to be ignored.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 20:34

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