[Glance over this first.]
The essential shirt is always a summer shirt. Obviously there are other kinds of shirts (those ridiculous, frequently collared and sleeved creations worn by dudes to work, to dates, to the Oscars, to church, to dinner, to the bar, to funerals, to job interviews, to meet the parents, to graduation ceremonies, to weddings, to court, to turn in the rent check, to pick up dinner, to the White House) but none has the allure of the wife beater, which contains all the promise of summer itself. My personal favourite is a scoop-necked, sleeveless Fruit of the Loom white cotton ribbed undershirt with a deep, collarless neckline which was made for my lover in Taiwan some time ago; a decade later it’s still going strong, yellowed pit stains notwithstanding.
I am aware of the dangers of converting personal preferences into rules but, in the spirit of Geoff Dyer’s Financial Times article republished on Slate, “The Perfect Summer Dress (First, It Must Be Sleveless),” here are my thoughts on the perfect (wife) beater.
First, it must have no collar and no sleeves. Obviously. I announced this, years ago, to my lover. “But I have shirts with collars and sleeves,” he said.
“Which ones are those?” I asked.
“The ones with collars and sleeves,” he replied as he slammed his Busch Light down on the Formica. He might, more accurately, have said “those plus collars and sleeves,” as collars and sleeves are an add-on to a shirt–an addition that serves to subtract from the total effect. A wife beater makes an important statement about a man’s right to bear arms.
So less is more–but only to a degree. If the beater is very clean, the wearer is too obviously kinda gay. And then, because the wearer has to make sure the beater doesn’t make him look all gay, he is all the time having to call women bitches and clean his gun, thereby contradicting one of the essential purposes of the wife beater: absolute freedom to scratch one’s balls any time, anywhere. (There is an interesting potential exception to this: the FBI: Female Body Inspector Beefy T is in some ways a sub-set of the wife beater but in order to avoid Mama’s deep dismay, generally has to be accompanied by pants–pants designed to cover one’s buttock crevice to world at large–then the FBI: Female Body Inspector Beefy T stops being a summer shirt and becomes purely a shirt meant to be worn to Wal-Mart or somewhere. In short, it is possible to go to Wal-Mart in a wife beater but it is not always possible to wear your FBI: Female Body Inspector Beefy T as a summer shirt.)
A wife beater always looks best without pants or socks. It is about limbs that are either burnt red from sitting on the porch or from heavy drink. It is an advertisement for the Second Amendment and chest hair (as such it is defiled by any association with salad.) The wife beater is only incidentally white; as such it is far more practical than actually trying to wash the thing. Ideally it is even worn without a belt. In the context of shirts, where everything is collared and sleeved, a belt does not look out of place, but the wife beater makes anything but a bandolier look all uppity.
Although men wear flip-flops with wife beaters there is an essential contradiction between the ill-gotten authority and ignorance implied by the shirt and the floppy, relaxed nature of the shoes. A wife beater looks best either with Doc Martens, cowboy boots, rotted sneakers or a bed of rusty nails strapped to each foot.
It does not require special treatment. It can be crammed into the jump seat of your truck. It doesn’t even have to be worn on the torso, but also works as a cooling headpiece.
Price is irrelevant. You can pay up to a dollar or so, but equally, it can be the kind of thing you get for next to nothing because you beat up your kid brother for it when you were on the way to the liquor store. This is appropriate because, in a sense, it is next to nothing, though it is also all-purpose: as mentioned, it works for going to Wal-Mart, but also huntin’ or offroadin’ and it can then be worn to a kegger–even one down at Cooter’s place–that same night. So a wife beater can serve as a shirt but not vice-versa.
Above all, it must be malodorous. Cleanliness, starch, freshness and so on detract from the grunginess that is the grungy quality of the wife beater. It is the irreducible symbol, the last layer separating the naked fact of a man from a corn dog.
In Garth Brooks’ classic song “Friends in Low Places” there is a wonderful sequence about a man showing up in boots to a wedding: a bunch of scared attendees are awed by the man’s gall at showing up in such sartorial disarray. It seems like a rather gauche thing to do. But the man has the courage to be himself in the face of some skank who once wanted him to put something on over his wife beater. He grabs the skank’s glass of champagne, toasts her, says, “Honey, we may be through, but you’ll never hear me complain.” For he is piss-drunk and rambling at a formal event–and yet still himself. This is the magic of a wife beater. And it is not just simple, it is tacky.