The tank top is a simple garment: it’s made from sometimes-ribbed fabric, cut with a U-shaped neckline, and terminating in two shoulder straps (that may vary in width). It’s close to flawless, as design goes, and deeply practical in warmer months. And for a while, that’s exactly what the tank was: simple, practical, a little sensual but nothing crazy. There’s a reason it so often serves as the sober counterpoint to a pair of statement pants, or as a layering tool under an unbuttoned button-down. But thanks to a new band of bold designers, the humble tank is now taking its long-awaited—and seriously decorative—place at center stage.
It’s hard to say exactly when the tank top began to stretch past its historical limits, but Australian brand Dion Lee’s Spring/Summer ‘20, featuring both sheer and second-skin tank tops, marked a sea change. At Madonna’s recent Pride Week party at the Boom Boom Room, it seemed that every partygoer donned one of the designer’s signature tanks (or a knock-off). In Lee’s world, tank tops are architecturally warped, sensual, and exciting. “I have fun with how I dress and I love dressing up, feeling sexy and provocative,” Lee says. “The human body and skin are beautiful, so I find ways to highlight the beauty of our anatomy.”
That might be an understatement. Lee’s versions of the tank show off the body such that every sit-up is visible. Some renditions reject the classic two strap setup, instead swooping a single strap around the neck to lend a cheeky emphasis on the wearer’s pectorals. Others are equipped with hardware to add a bit of edge. At the designer’s most recent show, shearling-collared tanks secured to a strip of leather gave off a fabulous BDSM vibe. “The brand subverts masculine and feminine codes,” Lee explains. “We celebrate body confidence.” And the tank is perhaps the strongest tool in his arsenal.
Other designers have been riding a similar wave. Y-Project recently sent their own updated version of the tank top down the runway. Though less sexy than Lee’s, the tank offers a bit of a whimsical touch with its asymmetrical, flappy neckline. K.ingsley, a small New York-based brand, reimagines the tank by adding even more straps (some totaling four) that geometrically wrap around the shoulders and neck like a kaleidoscope. Some of designer Kingsley Gbadegesin’s designs show off, even more, featuring a cheeky open back and a nice show of a wearer’s midriff.
So what ignited this revolution? It’s simple, I think: men needed a new way to feel sexy, and the tank delivered. Something that felt more aggressive than a basic t-shirt, but struck the right balance between understated and over the top. They also came at the right time, with people eager to dress up again—and gender-based style guidelines feeling more outdated than ever. In this way, the new wave of tanks draws from nothing so much as womenswear. “I have been designing womenswear for many years, and I try on my work to make sure it feels good on me,” says Lee. “When I buy clothes, I don’t make a distinction if it is womenswear and menswear. Gendering clothing is antiquated.”
Fang Guo started his brand, FANG, earlier this year with a similar idea in mind. “Women have always embraced their bodies. Toxic masculinity keeps men hiding theirs,” Guo says. “With FANG specifically, I wanted to encourage men to become in tune with their bodies.” To do so, Guo uses cashmere and bows—high tea at the Plaza than a night out at some exclusive club. Guo’s tanks reject the garment’s history as a hyper-masculine garment, instead privileging a more feminine side. “For my inaugural collection, I used traditionally ‘femme’ elements such as pussy-bow, spaghetti straps, asymmetric designs that reveal body parts to tell people that it’s okay to not portray one single image of the contemporary male experience,” he says. “Everyone has the right to feel how they feel and dress how they want to dress—it doesn’t define their entire being.”
This much is clear: the tank top’s makeover is ultimately a part of the ever-changing definition and look of menswear. We’ve been tracking this shift for a while, sure, but what makes the tank top’s new look particularly exciting is the way it leads men to rethink their relationship to clothing and their bodies. With no longer an excuse to cop out from baring a bit of skin, it’s time for men to ditch simplicity and finally get sexy.