It's one of those garments which is hopelessly lost in translation when it crosses the Atlantic Ocean1. What Americans (and some Europeans) call a tank top, those in the UK might simply call a vest or singlet (the male version) or a sleeveless top (female), something that's often worn under other layers of clothing. Its name actually derives from the 'tank suit', a functional, yet racy-in-its-day bathing costume, from an age when swimming pools were known as 'tanks'2. In fact, the tank suit now comes as a 'tankini' - a tank top with bikini bottoms - for women who are happy to expose a small amount of midriff, but not ready for the itsy-bitsy polka dot number.
But that's not what this Entry is about.
A Farewell to Arms
Over on the Old World side of the pond, the meaning is different. Commonly made out of particularly scratchy wool, the tank top is essentially a sleeveless jumper or 'sweater vest', not unlike the ones cricket players wear. Germans call it a Pullunder. It's almost exclusively produced in colours such as brown, beige or garish psychedelia, knitted into a repetitive stripy design. Besides the lack of sleeves, the other significant feature of a tank top is an improbably deep v-neck, reaching in some cases down to the base of the ribcage. During its heyday, the tank top was worn exclusively in conjunction with wide-flared trousers and shirts with inexplicably large collars, with the whole outfit hideously colour-clashing.
TV has tended to portray the garment's wearers as either old-fashioned or nerdy. A tank-top-clad delivery boy may be pushing his bike up a steep hill in a Hovis advert, or the wearer may be some unbalanced or indeed pathetic individual, like the Gumbys in Monty Python, Frank Spencer in Some Mothers Do 'Ave Em or Granville in Open All Hours.
Tanks a Million
Although nowadays the preserve of middle-aged history teachers, children's television presenters and civil servants, the tank top was once a truly global fashion trend. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, tank tops were considered by many to be far superior to standard pullovers, and there are many unconfirmed examples of some less fashion-conscious pedestrians actually being assaulted in the street because they refused to tear the sleeves from their sweaters and expose the arms of their no-doubt brown stripy shirt for all to see.
The original trend is believed to be at least partly attributable to Benny Andersson of legendary Swedish pop group ABBA, who shot to prominence at a time when stylists were few and far between in the music industry. The band's inherent lack of fashion sense enabled the sleeveless woollens to rapidly become the chosen attire of teenagers and music lovers the world over, the distribution of wearers spreading ominously across the globe like a cloud of radioactive fallout. Of course, it should be said that while a few unfortunate individuals are still afflicted by the consequences of having tank-top-wearing relatives, their suffering is incomparable with that of the survivors of Chernobyl.
Tanks, but no Tanks
The tank top even enjoyed a brief resurgence in popularity during the mid-1990s, and is still very much a cult fashion item, making the occasional appearance on the catwalks of London, Paris and even Milan, albeit in some significantly modified form. Businesswomen in particular are increasingly using them in situations that demand officewear to be less formal than a suit jacket. It remains to be seen whether the tank top will once again become haute couture, although history has shown a tendency for fashions to be recycled by later generations.
If you feel you have to make a statement, then why not give it a go? Remember, only superheroes wear their vests on the outside...