AKA: tank top (USA), athletic top, a-top, vest (UK)
How to say it: sing-glit
- tight-fitting through the body
- low-neckline, traditionally U-shaped
- deep armholes
- thin straps
…of the style: The history of the singlet is surprisingly hard to find – perhaps it was worn so commonly that historians just didn’t see the need to record it. Either way, the earliest mention of a top similar to that of the singlet is in the 1800s when a tight, sleeveless style of shirt was favoured by male gymnasts as it gave them the necessary range of movement in their arms, without getting in the way, and kept them cool. The style soon became popular with other athletes and remains a popular choice for athletic activities today.
By the early 20th century men often wore a white singlet as an undershirt to absorb sweat and protect their shirts (they often only had a few, and laundry was a big job so keeping them as clean as possible was important). During the second half of the century Hollywood grabbed hold of this undershirt and many iconic movie roles involve a man in a singlet; Marlon Brando in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ in 1951, Warren Beatty in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ in 1967, Kevin Bacon in ‘Footloose’ in 1984, Bruce Willis in ‘Die Hard’ in 1988 – the list is endless. Initially the singlet signified a man in his personal space, and it was a time when the negative sides of his personality often came out (brute, bank robber etc), but as time moved on it eventually began to signify masculinity and heroism (Police Officer, Rambo, even the latest Superman rocks a singlet) and by the end of the century it was no longer plagued by the negative connotations of the past.
With so much airtime it was inevitable that the singlet would make the jump to mainstream fashion as an outer garment in its own right and this apparently happened in the 1960s, although I couldn’t find out who was responsible for the introduction. By the 1970s it was a popular choice for men and women and has continued to be a dominant style in women’s fashion ever since.
In the 21st century the singlet is as popular as ever in womenswear and is a staple every Spring/Summer season.
…of the name: The term singlet comes from the 18th century when it was used to denote a man’s short, unlined doublet (jacket) – it was made from a single layer of fabric. I don’t know how the term made it into the modern fashion vernacular, but I have seen images of 18th century singlets that do not have sleeves so maybe that has something to do with it.
The term tank top came from the fact that the style was similar to that of a 1920s tank suit, which was a type of bathing suit worn in early swimming pools, called tanks.
21st Century Singlets
Singlets have come a long way since the white, ribbed undershirt – abundantly available in various colours, fabrics and price points, it is now acceptable to wear a singlet to the gym or the red carpet and every occasion in between.
Alexander McQueen, Rag & Bone
James Pearse, Ella Moss