AKA: vest, camisole, cami, tank top
How to say it: uhn-der-shurt
- made from lightweight, knit fabric
- usually fitted through the body
- can have sleeves or be sleeveless
- U or V-shaped neckline
- often slightly longer than a regular singlet or t-shirt to create a smooth shape over the hips
- modern versions often have flat or no seams to prevent being seen under the outer clothing
…of the style: An undershirt is basically any garment that covers the top half of the body and is designed to be worn under regular outerwear. People have been wearing undershirts for centuries – the Romans wore a tunic-like undershirt to protect their bodies from their armour and since then the undershirt, in various styles, has been worn for various reasons throughout history.
Prior to the 18th century, undershirts were worn not to protect the wearer, but to protect the outer clothing from sweat and oils. Bathing was not a regular occurrence during these times and it was easier to wear and wash underclothes, thus extending the life of the decorative, often expensive, outer wear.
In the 1840s women had begun to adopt a more active lifestyle and participate in sports, so a woollen undervest was introduced to protect the constitutions of those women who were brave enough to take to the field. By the 1880s, girls schools and colleges were promoting sports like lawn tennis and croquet and under all the fashionable uniforms a woollen vest was worn for ease of movement and comfort (modern bras didn’t really exist at this time). By 1887 women’s undervests were appearing in Sears catalogues and had evolved into Egyptian cotton garments, with silk finishes, crocheted armholes and ribbon decorations. In the early 1900s the undershirts also came in silk and were tight-fitting enough to show of a woman’s voluptuous curves. However, the humble undershirt is not immune to trends and by the 1920s the boyish figures created by the flapper dresses forced the undershirt to follow suit, with styles becoming straighter and flatter to obtain the desired silhouette.
Undershirts remained popular in the 1930s as cotton and rayon weaves allowed the garments to be skin-thin, but by the end of the decade women had begun consider a brassiere as sufficient underwear unless they needed an extra layer for warmth.
However the undershirt did not disappear. Men had been wearing pullover, cotton t-shirt style undershirts since at least the beginning of the 20th century, and apart from a supposed fall from grace in 1934 thanks to Clark Gable (more about that here), the undershirt remained a must have garment for men throughout much of the 20th century. Cotton undershirts were issued to US soldiers in both World Wars and Marlon Brando gave the look a massive boost in 1951 by wearing one in A Streetcar Named Desire.
At this time the cotton, crew neck style of t-shirt started to be worn as outerwear (see my post on T-Shirts for more about this), becoming a kind of underwear-as-outerwear trend that lead to the modern t-shirt; a trend that was to repeat itself several times through the rest of the 20th century. In the 60s the tank top style of undershirt was worn as outerwear by the Hippies, in the 1970s it was worn as a outerwear by Gloria Steinem and became a feminist symbol and, in complete contrast, became synonymous with sex symbols thanks to Brigitte Bardot.
In the 1980s Calvin Klein made the undershirt fashionable in his underwear ads by Bruce Weber, and even Chanel unleashed an undershirt on the catwalk in 1992 (granted it was paired with a black tulle skirt and had the Chanel logo embroidered on the front, but still). This trend continued throughout the 90s and early 2000s with several other designers featuring undershirts in the mens and womens collections.
It could be argued that these runway undershirts were in fact just regular singlets or tank tops, but there is something about the undershirt that lets you know that it is supposed to have something over the top – perhaps it is the slightly too-tight fit, or the slightly too-see-through fabric, or even the slightly too-low-cut neckline. Whatever it is, when worn as outerwear, it definitely exudes the risqué allure of being dressed and yet not (properly) dressed at the same time.
In the 21st century, the women’s undershirt is not really worn to the extent that it was in the past and seems to have evolved into two beings – the camisole undershirt and the shaper undershirt. The camisole style tends to be made from a silky fabric, with thin straps, lace, and a semi-fitted shape, often worn under similarly silky tops or as loungewear. The shaper undershirt is tight-fitting, made from a firm, stretch fabric and is worn by women who want to achieve a smooth shape under tighter fitting clothing. The more traditional tank and t-shirt style undershirts are still available but are only worn for extra warmth, if at all.
…of the name: It is a shirt that is made to be worn under regular clothing, hence the name.
- in 1904 the white, pullover style undershirt was marketed as the ‘Bachelor’s Undershirt’ with the slogan ‘No safety pins — no buttons — no needle — no thread’, and was aimed at men with no wives and no sewing skills.
21st Century Undershirts
While not worn in the numbers that they were in the past, the undershirt (more commonly called a camisole or shapewear) does still exist and has seemed to adapt to fulfil the needs of the modern woman.
Sloane & Tate, Spanx
Carine Gilson, Yummie by Heather Thomson