On Thursday, July 24, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, was photographed aboard his campaign plane in Tel Aviv, Israel, wearing black pants, a white dress shirt and a sky-blue necktie that hung just below his belt. But perhaps the most notable part of his outfit was what he appeared to have on beneath it: the ribbed, cotton sleeveless undershirt known, to use the non-politically-correct term, as the “wifebeater.”
Yes, as far as the eye could tell, Mr. Obama was sporting one of those men’s undergarments most commonly associated with real-life Tony Sopranos and Stanley Kowalskis. In popular culture, they’ve long been a symbol of sloppiness, bringing to mind images of sweat, booze and grease stains, and tough-talking guidos with visible armpit hair cruising the boardwalks of the Jersey Shore. It’s conceivable, then, that the candidate’s choice indicated, intentionally or not, his solidarity with the working class. (His campaign had no comment by press time; nor did Republican John McCain’s campaign care to weigh in on 2008’s answer to the boxers-or-brief moment of the 1992 race.)
“It gives a tough image,” said Fred Martin, 25, a quality information specialist at New York Presbyterian Hospital. He was speaking from his office where, on a recent afternoon, he had come to work wearing a dress shirt from Zara, dress pants from Theory, a Coleman necktie, Dolce & Gabbana shoes and a wifebeater from American Apparel ($15 for a pack of two). “Even if it’s worn as an undergarment, people can totally see that you have one on,” he continued. “Part of being sexy is being edgy and being the bad boy. So even if you’re not a bad boy, wearing a wifebeater gives you that implication.”
The garment has been showcased on pretty much every type of male your everyday guy is not, but perhaps secretly wants to be—actors (Brad Pitt, Ed Norton), rock stars (Kid Rock, Tommy Lee), even superheroes (Iron Man; The Hulk). It was a staple of Marlon Brando’s in A Streetcar Named Desire and was worn by the slang-dropping wise guys of the 1996 indie comedy Swingers. And in New York, perhaps inevitably, it has been slowly co-opted by upper-class circles, where it is known as a “fitted tank.”
Joseph Keefer, a manager at Odin, one of several Manhattan boutiques that are now carrying longer and looser versions by designers like Rick Owens and Robert Geller, said the wifebeater look has come back at “two totally different ends of the spectrum.”
“For the more fashion-forward crowd, it’s about the layering effect,” said Mr. Keefer, speaking of a new style of wifebeater-esque shirts that hang below the waist, like a fitted ribbed tank by Robert Geller ($115) that’s flying out of his store. (As of press time, they were sold out.) “Then there’s the group that wears the classic Hanes beater underneath a polo shirt or a button up. Both are coming back simultaneously.”
It’s not hard to find a designer take on your standard, no-frills wifebeater. Dolce & Gabbana makes one for $58 that displays the label’s logo on the chest, or you could go with Emporio Armani’s $20 version with a much thinner cut along the shoulders. Saks Fifth Avenue makes its own ribbed sleeveless tanks for $20 per pack of three, and a three-pack from Calvin Klein, the seminal wifebeater manufacturer, goes for $29.50.
Not everyone, however, is buying into this upscale refashioning.
“It’s a total guido thing,” said Ian Dennis, a 26-year-old who was with a friend perusing the men’s wear department of Bloomingdales on 59th Street on a recent afternoon. “They’re pretty lame.”
Mr. Dennis, who works in finance, said that when it comes to undergarments, he prefers a V-neck T-shirt, which doesn’t as obviously reveal its outline and offers crucial sweat protection in an area where the wifebeater cannot. But what about the beater’s Brando appeal?
“That was, like, 50 years ago, and we’re just not, you know … him,” Mr. Dennis said. He looked at the model displayed on a pack of Calvin Klein wifebeaters before reconsidering. “You know, maybe if I had arms like his, then I’d wear one.”
Lam Nguyen, a buyer at Barneys, agreed that it takes a man with muscles to pull off a wifebeater. “It’s probably one of the most unforgiving pieces in men’s clothing,” he said. “You almost have to have the perfect body to pull it off.”
This hasn’t deterred Mr. Martin, who described his build as tall and slim—broad shoulders, but no bulging muscles, with a size 31 waist. A wifebeater, he said, gives the upper body some definition. “It kind of accents the chest a little. It’s more of a man’s undergarment equivalent to the woman’s bra,” he ventured. “There’s nothing as sexy as a wifebeater.”