What is a Muscle Shirt?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A muscle shirt is a type of sleeveless T-shirt that first became popular in the 1960s. As the name implies, the goal of the style is to showcase the physique of especially the male body. To this end, it clings closely to the body and has no sleeves.

A muscle shirt is typically worn by men.
A muscle shirt is typically worn by men.

The neckline of the muscle shirt was and still is very similar in make to the standard T-shirt. The difference was mainly in how the shirt was worn. It needed to be tight to feature the body’s pectoral muscles, and sleeveless to feature the biceps and triceps. The style was initially mostly exclusive to men. In the early 1980s, the shirt became popular for women, not so much to showcase the muscles but to accentuate feminine curves.

In the 1980s, men — especially those who listened to heavy metal, new wave or punk rock — often preferred a ripped sleeve look. Many took the regular T-shirt and cut or ripped off the sleeves. This resulted in a homemade muscle shirt. As in the 1950s, men now might simply roll up the sleeves of a T-shirt to create the same look.

Although the initial muscle shirt was made with cotton, you can find them in spandex as well. This style became popular for men in the mid 1990s. Also, trends in the late 90s often referred to any closely fitting shirt by this name, or reassigned the name to tight fitting tank tops. When women starting baring their abdomens with short shirts, some muscle shirts for men had were cropped also. This trend was popular among men who wanted to show off their six-pack abs, or a muscle bound stomach.

The muscle shirt is really intended for people with muscles to showcase. It is not considered fashionable to wear one that is too loose, or to wear one when your muscles need a little work. Nevertheless, in warm weather, many turn to ones that fit loosely merely because they are more comfortable. Some women even buy extra large men’s shirts and wear them as sleep shirts.

Instead of the simple white T-shirt, the muscle shirt can come in a variety of colors and many have screened printing in various designs. When message T-shirts became popular in the 2000s, these shirts bearing messages were made as well. You can find a wide range of colors, patterns and designs, for relatively little expense.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@BambooForest, I agree. It makes me wish for the early days of the cotton muscle shirt, with or without sleeves, sort of like from Grease of A Streetcar Named Desire; you know, Marlon Brando and James Dean types. The big fashion these days of the huge muscle shirts especially bothers me, because men look like they're wearing sacks or even dresses, whether they actually have muscles or not. I miss the classic white muscles shirts.


@afterall, I think it is like every other kind of clothing these days. Everything that people wear now seems to have originated in a different era, and it all has started running together and being reinvented. Womens' muscle shirts, for example, are nothing like the men's muscle shirts that started the trend, and as the article points out, almost no one wears them to show off any sort of muscle anymore, but merely because it's warm out or they liked the way a certain shirt looked.


I find it funny that they are still called muscle t shirts at times; most people I know merely call these tank tops these days. Either way, muscle shirts generally seem to be used in a very different way than they used to be.

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