Keeping It Cool: The Evolution of the Tank Top

As summer approaches and the temperature rises, we turn to the most lightweight and comfortable clothing we can! Nothing keeps you cooler in summer than the versatile tank top. It can be dressed up for work easily with a blazer or worn as casual pajamas.

You might be surprised to know this summer staple has only been around for about a hundred years. Before the 1920’s, neither men nor women showed bare arms in public as it was considered immodest, instead wearing fabrics lighter in weight and color as a way to stay cool.

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The British Women’s Swim Team at the 1912 Olympics. Image credit.

The first time women bared their arms in public was at the 1912 Olympics when the women’s swim team showed up wearing a new style of swimsuit for women featuring shorts that went down to their knees, much like the men’s swimsuits of that era. That year, 27 women in total competed in swimming, and these new swimsuits were quite the scandal at the time.

It was that early swimsuit, though, that offers an explanation for the tank top’s name. The pool was often referred to as a “tank,” so the sleeveless shirts the swimmers wore became known as the “tank top.”

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Swimmers in the 1920s. Image Credit.

Men’s tank tops share a similar trajectory, and the first tanks worn by men in public were swimsuits. But men also wore sleeveless tees as undershirts, but they were not worn out in public in the United States— until Italian immigrants arrived in the 1930s and decided these shirts were the best way to cope with New York City summers.

But it was Hollywood that made the tank top a fashion statement by having men wear them in movies — most famously by Marlon Brando in the movie A Streetcar Named Desire. This changed the public’s perception of the shirt, and it wasn’t long before men commonly wore tank tops in public during the warm months.

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Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. Image Credit.

By the 1950s, women commonly wore sleeveless tops with skirts in public during the summer months, but these were known as blouses rather than tank tops. Audrey Hepburn was commonly seen wearing adorable sleeveless tops throughout the 50’s and 60’s.

The tank top finally emerged as a winning fashion choice in the 1970’s, when athleisure style rose along with a new health and fitness craze. It was this era that really refined the tank top and elevated it into a fashion statement with many variations on the original plain design.

League began designing and selling what we consider to be the most comfortable and flattering tank tops out there in 1991. From our Twisted Triblend Tank for men to our new Clothesline Cotton Tank for women to our Phys Ed High Neck Tank, we believe the tank top has fully evolved.

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Current tanks from the 2018 League Catalog.

Thanks for joining us for this fashion history lesson. Don’t forget to stock up on the best League tanks for summer!

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League’s High Neck Cami. Photo by Skyler Fusco.