A Gentleman Doesn’t Call It a “Wife-Beater,” and He Also Shouldn’t Wear One

Sensible answers to the questions of modern manhood.
July 9 2014 4:44 PM

Brandos vs. Gables

Should a gentleman wear an undershirt? T-, V-, or A-?

Please send your questions for publication to gentlemanscholarslate@gmail.com. (Questions may be edited.)

I live in a hot, humid climate where even an office drone like me is apt to sweat through his shirt when walking from his air-conditioned car to his air-conditioned office. That's why I find undershirts to be essential. A discreetly colored, properly worn V-neck should be invisible under one’s shirt, but I’ve heard some people claim that the very act of wearing an undershirt is “tacky” and “uncouth.” I try very hard to fool people into not noticing how tacky I am: Are my undershirts giving me away?

Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

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This simple garment is, in its way, the most psychologically intimate piece of apparel in a man’s wardrobe. Our attitudes about its presence or absence indirectly reflect all manner of viewpoints and hang-ups connected to taste, class, ethnicity, modesty, eroticism, and hygiene. Confronted with the quadrennial idiocy of the boxers-or-briefs question, a presidential candidate can answer and smoothly move on to another frivolous query; no one wants to dwell below the belt too long. But to deliver a substantive answer about the undershirt would risk alienating a sizable portion of the electorate. Witness the 219 passionate posts on this 2012 discussion on Styleforum: “Do you wear an undershirt? Why?

At the risk of dignifying fanaticism, I will designate the two sides of this debate as, respectively, the Brandos and the Gables. The Brandos I so dub because every exercise in undershirt semiotics must mention the forced intimacy of Stanley Kowalski revealing his undershirt to Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. The Gables, meanwhile, get their name from the popular myth that the King of Hollywood single-chestedly crippled the undershirt trade with his non-undershirted striptease in It Happened One Night.

The strongest part of the Brandos’ argument promotes undershirts as a means of keeping bodily secretions away from overshirts. Some Brandos also reason that the lushness of their chest hair and the pointiness of their nipples need to be decisively shielded from public view.

To the Brandos, I say, Fine, great. You don’t want to be disgusting, and I don’t want to be disgusted, so do your thing. But V-necks with open collars, and crewnecks with closed collars, please. Especially considering the yellowing accelerated by antiperspirants, I disapprove of the “A-shirt”—the tank top that a gentleman refrains from calling a “wife-beater”—because it does not protect the pits. A V-neck shirt worn under a buttoned-up dress shirt is a bad move. And it is inexcusably uncool to expose the collar of a white crewneck undershirt worn beneath a dress shirt. The peeking T-shirt gives the impression that your mother dresses you—a sorry situation tenderly discussed by the internationally acclaimed style guru Jonathan Franzen. A passage of The Discomfort Zone looks back to the traumas of junior high school:

In 1974, crewneck white undershirts were fashion suicide, but my mother came from a world in which colored t-shirts were evidently on a moral par with water beds and roach clips, and she refused to let me wear them. Every morning, therefore, after I left the house, I pulled down my undershirt until it didn’t show at the collar, and I safety-pinned it to my underpants.

Sometimes the pin came undone and stuck him, but to wear no undershirt at all would have made Franzen “feel too naked.” It’s that sense of a membrane protecting one’s self from his public front that keeps our Brandos and Franzens returning to the hands of Hanes, I strongly suspect.

It is difficult to get a Gable to explain why he should be so fervent in his position. This is partly because it can be slightly awkward to admit that one likes to show off some chest—and almost impossible to confess that one’s sense of undershirts as square or Midwestern or prudish or fussy has a tinge of classism to it. The virility of the item is clearly working-class, as Stanley Kowalski proved. To disdain the undershirt on the grounds that it’s “uncouth” is to turn up one’s nose at the blue-collar shirt sometimes worn over it.

So, I say to the letter writer: Who cares what they think? Your unseen undershirt gives nothing away. You keep it out of sight, and we’ll keep the whole issue out of mind, except when prompted to dwell on the swaddling psychological comfort and mundane eroticism of this sanitary second skin.

What’s the civic obligation to point out a very questionable-looking mole on a stranger? – Joshua Stewart

Thank you for your tweet.

I’m afraid you can’t do this. Only a medical doctor could pull this off; indeed, you might be able to spin the Hippocratic Oath to argue that a dermatologist would be doing harm if he didn’t point out a likely melanoma to a stranger. From the mouth of anyone else, however, advice of this kind is impossible. A well-intentioned intrusion is still an intrusion, so unless you’re alerting the stranger to a physical problem with an immediate solution (“Hey, I think that’s a tick on your arm”) or one of great urgency (“Hey, I think you’re walking around in a state of shock brought on by head trauma”), you must mind your own beeswax.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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