If ever there was a fashion staple that needed rebranding, it’s the basic men’s white tank — the sleeveless, scoop-neck, all-purpose undershirt known as a ‘wife beater’ or, simply, a ‘beater.’
The beater has been ubiquitous for decades, worn by everyone from average Joes to movie stars to gangsta rappers (and many women too). It’s a go-to top for straight and gay men (and women) alike, and it can make you look like a stud or a repulsive slob.
Most people overlook that name — ‘wife beater’ — or think it’s an ironic holdover from nastier times. But it’s not. It has deep historic cultural associations, and for some beater-lovers today, it’s a deliberate, defiant fuck you to political correctness.
Many, many women are deeply offended by that name and, by association, the shirt too and sometimes the men who wear them. And with damn good reason.
Some academics have speculated that the beater originated in medieval times, when a sleeveless base layer under your battle armour was called a ‘waif beater’ — as if that somehow mitigates the offense.
But the beater became a staple of popular culture in the post-WWII years, as an inexpensive uniform for armies of overheated factory workers. Hollywood later turned it into an instantly recognizable symbol of brutish machismo and male dominance: Brando in Streetcar, DeNiro in Raging Bull; Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde; Bruce Willis in Die Hard; Stallone in Rambo; Ed Norton in Fight Club; Hugh Jackman in Wolverine; Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious … the list is endless.
And no matter how it’s used or repurposed or dressed up with kindly slogans, that name always sticks … and sends a message. A couple of years ago you could buy signature Ray Rice beaters because that was so funny, so meta.
Well, enough already. Kriss Soonik, the wickedly clever UK designer of unique loungerie wear, has answered the call with something called a ‘Boy Beater’. A one-off collaboration with the American lingerie retailer Journelle, her ‘beater’ is actually a ribbed cotton bodysuit with the familiar wide sleeveholes and scooped neck, but with some fetching feminine details — a lace-trimmed bottom, a sexy keyhole opening on the back and Soonik’s signature bow at the neckline.
Soonik has a well-documented knack for reimagining fashion standards, sometimes with a mischievous sense of fun — she turned men’s polo shirts and women’s tennis kit into something suitable for street or bedroom. And she took the same approach to her beater.
“I love taking a classic, popular, piece and giving it a new edge,” she told Journelle. “We’ve given the bodysuit a feminine touch with the lace-bottom detail while keeping the overall look still rough.”
There are no troubling sexist associations with Soonik’s $94 beater, but it does offer the kind of go-anywhere, all-purpose functionality that made the classic men’s beater an enduring wardrobe essential.
And while it won’t do anything to erase the stubborn history of the men’s ‘wife beater’, at least it’s a small gesture of equality. Now, if we can only get these things onto a few badass movie actresses …
The Journelle X Kriss Soonik Boy Beater is available only through the Journelle webshop.
To see what Soonik’s been up to otherwise, below we have images from the playful photo lookbook for her new spring collection, called ‘Caribbean Dreaming’.