Special image yesterday in ‘The smartest person’: presenter Erik Van Looy shows off his white undershirt, a piece of clothing that is regularly talked about. Where does ‘marcelleke’ come from and why do we so quickly find it marginal? Our fashion editor explains everything, because the simple piece has a lot of symbolism. “The name comes from Édith Piaf.”
Not an everyday image in ‘The smartest person in the world’. Although Erik’s white ‘marcelleke’ was not a coincidental move. A little earlier the quiz question sounded: “Which item of clothing becomes one in America wifebeater named?” We now know the answer.
Does Marcelleke really owe its name to men who beat their wives?
The white underbody goes further back than you think. It has been a permanent part of the wardrobe since the seventeenth century. At least, among farmers and workers. They wore the woolen version as undergarment. One of the factories where the item was produced on an assembly line in the nineteenth century was called établissement Marcel, a French company. Aha, so that’s where that nickname comes from.
Although there is also folklore that provides a different explanation for the name ‘marcelleke’. The French singer Édith Piaf was in a relationship with a boxer who always wore such undershirts. His name? Marcel Cerdan.
As mentioned in ‘The Smartest Person in the World’, the garment is also becoming one in America and Great Britain wifebeater named. “The American actor Marlon Brando has something to do with that,” explains fashion editor David Devriendt. “He played a film role in which he abused and assaulted women. And he also wore the bodice then. The Marcelleke quickly acquired a negative image.”
“That image was reinforced by a mugshot in the news at that time of a man beating his wife. And yes, he also wore the white bodice. The shirt thus acquired a connotation of violence. It became the garment of choice for bad men. The British press would like to get rid of that term, because today such a tank top is no longer a marginal item.”
After the farmers came the rockers and the gays
History also teaches us that. The ‘marcelleke’ was already worn by many people, and certainly not always marginal ones. “In the twentieth century, people switched from a woolen bodice to one in cotton. But in that period it was not customary to parade with bare arms or legs. So it remained a piece for under your shirt or vest.”
“The item was also worn by the general public to the swimming pool in the twentieth century, in the form of a tank suit. Hence the term tank top. And people from the military were also fans.”
That hyper-masculine image only really changed in the 1980s when the gay community appropriated the garment
David Devriendt, fashion editor
Cinema eventually provided a broader breakthrough. “In the 1950s we saw actors like James Dean wearing the bodice. The white bodice suddenly became a hyper-masculine item of clothing in that period. But no one from Wall Street had ever put it on. In the 1980s, the gay community reclaimed the garment. They were not seen as ‘real’ men and so they took that typically masculine item out of context.”
From then on we saw the Marcelleke more and more often in the streets. “The rebellious image was put aside for a while. In the seventies people often wore tight tops, but they wore wide trousers with wide elephant legs. The Marcelleke completely matched that look. And not just the white variant. He suddenly came in all colors, for everyone.”
“Of course, Marcelleke always retained a rebellious side. Think of rockers like Lenny Kravitz or Mick Jagger showing it off on stage. They wanted to highlight their tough side. And in the 90s you often saw it in the hip-hop scene. 2Pac, for example, wore it regularly.”
What about today? “You can even find them for 750 euros”
You read it: the tank top has never completely gone away. Devriendt points out that the garment was often used to express something, to play with gender identities. “Motards or artists want to emphasize their tough side. Part of the lesbian community wears it because they want a masculine appearance. In our current society there remains much to do. The tank top is now also genderless.”
Luxury fashion house Bottega Veneta opened their fashion show with a white tank top
David Devriendt, fashion editor
A simple garment, laced with symbolism. And although characters like Onslow in the British series ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ would like us to believe otherwise, Marcelleke is no longer marginal. “It depends on who’s wearing it and how you’re wearing it. But just about every major fashion house has a tank top in their collection. From Ann Demeulemeester, Prada to Alexander McQueen. It’s booming again.”
Luxury house Bottega Veneta, for example, put the top back on the map. “They opened their fashion show for the winter of 2022 with it. That was a kind of statement from the new and Flemish director Matthieu Blazy who then took over the fashion house. Because a luxury house that scores with a simple top is daring. Last summer, the white tank top from Loewe was already the most popular fashion item of the summer.”
But the prices of those designer tops are exuberant. The one from Loewe will cost you 320 euros and Prada even asks 750 euros for it. Fortunately, almost all brands are jumping on the bandwagon and you can also purchase it for a reasonable price.
How exactly should you go about it? Devriendt: “It is a versatile piece that you can combine endlessly. You can wear it very sporty, but also to a party, with a cool blazer. Demin is a crowd favorite, so he can definitely wear wide-leg trousers. Just like in the 70s. Kate Moss recently wore a flannel shirt over it, also a nice combination. And a Marcelleke also works perfectly with a pencil skirt.”
This simple, white top costs 320 euros but is still the most popular item of clothing in the world
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