The concept of a capsule closet — a wardrobe made up of a versatile collection of basics like black T-shirts, white button-downs, and little black dresses — is nothing new in fashion. But this year, a new wardrobe essential is leading the pack and, in the process, turning from a trusty staple to a fashion summer must-have: the white tank top.
In one of the most talked-about fall 2022 runway moments, Prada showed an assortment of white tank tops embellished with the house’s triangle logo on models like Kaia Gerber and Hunter Schafer. Then, there was Bottega Veneta, which transformed the ribbed white tank top into leather versions, and Acne, which gave the sleeveless piece the high-fashion treatment with oversized trousers.
Today, you would be hard-pressed to find the Loewe white tank top from the spring 2022 collection, as the item has quickly become the It top for the season.
While the humble tank top has never truly left the fashion trend cycle, amid the return of Y2K fashion and the rise of genderless fashion, the versatile staple is experiencing a centerstage moment. Celebrities like Kendall Jenner, Kim Kardashian, and Vanessa Hudgens have all been spotted recently wearing white tank tops, paired with '90s-inspired mom jeans and cargo pants; Bella Hadid has styled the basic tank with everything from knitted shrugs to off-the-shoulder tops.
“[The white tank top] is so classic. It's timeless,” says Mark-Evan Blackman, assistant professor of fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “[Today’s] designers have used the item as a backdrop to bring forth their vision in a very contemporary time.”
To back up, the first white tank top was designed in the 1910s as a men's undergarment, meant to be worn underneath shirts and while swimming. Between the 1920s and 1940s, the white tank top started to be worn as outerwear during World War I and II, when, according to Blackman, men “got in the habit of wearing undergarments as clothes.” Still, until 1934, the tank top was “never seen in public,” according to Blackman; the first time the article of clothing became visible to the masses — in a scene in It Happened One Night in which actor Clark Gable took off his shirt to reveal a white tank top underneath — “audiences were scandalized, but sales skyrocketed.”
Fifteen years later, the white tank top had become a common item in men’s closets, on and off the screen. “Male Hollywood icons, like Marlon Brando and James Dean, were wearing them, and they were being embraced by the public,” he says. (These media depictions also gave rise to the controversial term “wifebeater,” due to the fact that the item was often shown in scenes where men physically abused their wives.)
Given the history, Blackman finds designer fashion’s recent interest in the utilitarian piece of white fabric ironic; while you can still find affordable versions of the look in big-box stores, it’s not unusual to find $300 styles in high-end retailers. “People who are wearing them fashionably now are still referencing something that is 70 years old,” he says.
The contemporary popularity of the white tank top reached a new level during the '90s and early 2000s hip-hop era, and embraced by women thanks supermodel Kate Moss’ off-duty looks which often included white tank tops, paired with denim skirts and minimalist trousers. (The latter inspired designer Calvin Klein to feature the model wearing the item in the brand’s ads.) The white tank top further solidified its place in the '00s pop culture lexicon when it appeared on the covers of many of the era’s album covers, music videos, and red carpet looks. Take, for example, Beyoncé, who wore a halter-neck version in the “Crazy In Love” video in 2003, and Jennifer Lopez, who donned a cropped bedazzled iteration at the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards.
In 2022, the prioritization of comfort over style could be one of the main reasons why brands and designers have embraced the white tank top as a must-have. “People are willing to buy them for tremendous comfort,” Blackman says. On the runway, the item appeared alongside equally casual pairings that deepened the collective desire for effortless fashion, as we step out of our pandemic cocoons.
“It’s a contemporary statement piece,” says Blackman.