An Everyday Machine: The Zipper, Technology and Fashion Change

An Everyday Machine: The Zipper, Technology and Fashion Change

We all know that catastrophic moment when the slider of our zipper derails and ends up on one side of the track, or worse: in our hands. It is equally frustrating when a piece of fabric from another garment or from the surrounding seam gets caught in the zipper’s teeth. In his book Zipper: An Exploration of Novelty, Robert Friedel describes the zipper as a machine – a carefully fitted piece of “metal and plastic that must move in close coordination under our control to exert forces to accomplish a simple but nevertheless sometimes vital task.” As Friedel argues, zippers are perhaps the first machines we all learn to master as a child. We tend to forget about our zippers until they malfunction. This illustrates that the zipper is an invisible but inescapable part of our daily life, and therefore this blogpost is dedicated to that everyday machine.

Invention and Development of the Zipper

To begin from the start: the zipper (also: ‘zip,’ ‘zip fastener,’ or ‘slide fastener’) is a fastening device used in garments as an alternative to other types of fastenings such as buttons, hooks and eyes, or snap fasteners. The first ‘primitive’ zipper was invented in the United States in the early 1890s by the traveling salesman Whitcomb Judson, who tried to patent his idea for a ‘Clasp Locker or Unlocker’ for shoes in 1891. His patent claimed that shoe fastenings were “equally applicable for fastening gloves, mail-bags and generally, wherever it is desired to detachably connect a pair of adjacent flexible parts.” In 1893, this patent was granted, and the Universal Fastener Company was established in Chicago, Illinois.

Whitcomb Judson’s patent for a Shoe Fastening’ (1893)

Judson further developed his idea of an ‘automatic hook-and-eye,’ and renamed the company’s name to the Automatic Hook and Eye Company. One of the zippers that was developed, the ‘C-curity’ fastener (1902), had hooks on one side that were opposed by eyes on the other. It was promoted as a novelty, with advertisements that assured: “A pull and it’s done. No more open skirts… Your skirt is always securely and neatly fastened.” But this zipper did not function as well as promised and had to be perfected.

The ‘modern’ zipper was invented in 1913 by the Swedish-American electrical engineer Gideon Sundback, who concluded that the hook-and-eye model was not suitable for any kind of automatic fastener. Sundback introduced his ‘Hookless Fastener’ – which resembles the metal zipper we know today – and the Universal Fastener Company subsequently changed its name into the Hookless Fastener Company. The first zippers were mostly used in smaller items or garments, such as gloves or handbags. However, zippers did not enjoy a wide popularity at first, as both designers and makers of garments found them difficult to work with, and the zippers were relatively expensive in comparison to the other types of fasteners they had to replace.

Zipper Fashion

It was only in the 1930s that the zipper was gradually accepted as an element of both men’s and women’s clothing. This was stimulated by developments in the manufacturing of lighter metal and plastic zippers. Full acceptance of the zipper however depended upon its appearance in women’s high fashion collections. The Anglo-American couturier Charles James was among the first fashion designers to adopt and convert the zipper into a design feature. His Taxi dress (ca. 1932) featured a long zipper covered with an obvious placket that spiralled around the body.

Charles James, Taxi, ca. 1932, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Always eager to experiment with new materials and technologies, Parisian designer Elsa Schiaparelli extensively used zippers not merely as closures but as colourful ornaments, for instance in her Winter 1935-36 collection. In her autobiography Shocking Life, ‘Schiap’ boasted that what had upset the “poor, breathless reporters” the most that season, was her daring, and as she herself claimed ‘first’ use of the zipper: “Not only did [zippers] appear for the first time but in the most unexpected places, even on evening clothes. The whole collection was full of them. Astounded buyers bought and bought. They had come prepared for every kind of strange button. But they were not prepared for zips.”

Zippered Up Tight: The Magic of the Zipper

Zippers began to appear widely in high fashion collections in 1937 along with the narrower silhouette that was fashionable that year. The Hookless Fastener Company, which had changed its name to Talon Inc. in early 1937, advertised in Vogue’s June 1937 issue: “Sleekness is the thing for summer – Talon fastener is the thing for sleekness”.

And in its 8 November 1937 issue, LIFE reported that “Now Everything’s Zippers.” The magazine commented that in connection to that year’s fashionable narrow silhouettes, fashion writers had invented a new “mumbo jumbo”, as terms such as “pencil-slim,” “molded silhouette” and “poured-in look” had become stock phrases. “Behind them all was the suggestion that by the magic of the zipper, plumpish women could attain a svelte figure”. The article featured a photograph of New York socialite Nancy White wearing a dressy, fox-trimmed ‘Zipper Coat.’ The winter coat was a Lord & Taylor copy of a design by Edward Molyneux, shown in Paris in early August 1937, that was claimed to have started a vogue for full-length zippers on coats and dresses. Therefore, by the late 1930s, the fashion world seemed to be finally ready for the ‘magic of the zipper.’

By Nelleke Honcoop

Sources and further reading:

“Advertisement: Hookless Fastener Co. (Hookless Fastener Co.)”, Vogue 89, no. 11 (01 June 1937): 12-13. ProQuest: The Vogue Archive.

Friedel, Robert. Zipper: An Exploration in Novelty. London and New York: W.W. Norton, 1994.

James, Charles. Taxi, ca. 1932, wool and synthetic, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Photograph © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Accessed 17 February 2018. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/171965.

Judson, Whitcomb. Patent for Shoe Fastening (Patent No. 504,037).Patented 29 August 1893 US504037A. United States Patent Office.

“Now Everything’s Zippers: Style Demand Outruns the Supply”, LIFE 3, no. 19 (8 November 1937): 54-56.

Schiaparelli, Elsa. Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli. [J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1954]. London: V&A Publications, 2007, pp. 87-88.

Tortora, Phyllis G. Dress, Fashion and Technology:  From Prehistory to the Present. Dress, Body, Culture. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Dressing for the Metropolis – Simmel in the City

How does your environment affect the way you dress? Of course, there’s the weather to be taken into consideration.  But what about the type of place that you live? For example, are we shaped – literally and figuratively – by urban dwelling?  Does the city impact not just the type of clothes we choose, but also how we feel when we wear them? Living amongst huge numbers of people, coping with the speed of street-life, the fleeting encounters with our fellow citizens … surely this impacts our psychology, our way of being, and therefore our way of dressing?

These are not new questions, German sociologist Georg Simmel published an essay in 1903 and updated in 1950 entitled, ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life,’ which tackled just such concerns.  At the core he argues, is the constant tension between individuality, and being part of society.  What is at stake is the ways we adapt (or don’t) to these twin desires/pressures.  Of course, Simmel was writing at the start of the 20th century, but many of his ideas remain relevant, and suggest the subconscious issues brought to bear on our daily outfit choices.

Or as Simmel puts it in relation to the ‘psychology of metropolitan individuality’ – which is founded upon: ‘the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli.’ Even crossing the road means experiencing multiple sights, sounds, and encounters with people and machines.

And this must be considered in relation to our brief interactions with other humans in much of daily city life, as well as the money economy that distances consumer from producer.  This means that the counter impulses to be hyper-individual and to assert your sense of self, versus the desire for a protective shield of conformity and anonymity are likely to influence how we dress.  It makes you think again about the ubiquitous male suit – is it in part saving city workers from the ‘violent stimuli’ Simmel identifies as part of urban life? Does it reinforce his argument that city dwellers must react rationally, rather than emotionally – creating a protective sartorial barrier between themselves and the city?

What is produced, he says, is a blasé attitude that tempers the dissonance that surrounds us.  Simmel sees this as a rich site for mental development, despite its problems.  And clearly, the Metropolis is equally rich for the development of multiple fashions as well.  Just as the suit-clad banker assimilates, so designers and wearers can experiment and create in response to the city’s speed and excess of stimulation.

By Rebecca Arnold

You can read Simmel’s essay in full here

 

 

Balenciaga’s Fabrics

 

Upon a recent viewing of the Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion exhibition at the V&A, as well as the focus on shapes and forms, I was particularly interested in the mentioning of Balenciaga’s fascination with fabrics. In the exhibition there featured a couple of displays of fabric swatches and samples, including a huge book with fabric samples. One of the textile boards showed a multitude of fabric choices for a single collection — so many colours, patterns, and textures. The board was used as a marker for the models for the order of the show. Rather than representing fashion and dress predominantly through its shape and overall look like we usually do, Balenciaga associated his designs with their fabric, texture and colour. On the board he detailed where the fabric was made and the name of its wearer, providing almost a personality and identity to the fabric itself.

Rather than starting with a design or a sketch, Balenciaga began with the fabric. As he said, “It is the fabric that decides.” His knowledge and interest for different cloths led him to forge very close working relationships with many textile manufacturers worldwide. In order to create the magnificent shapes of his garments, fabric was the most important aspect. Because of this, stiff materials were often needed to hold the shapes of his designs. After his careful selection of fabrics, Balenciaga preferred to start making instead of dwelling on sketches and designs. Instead, a sketch artist would work on the drawings for him, and Balenciaga would attach a fabric sample to the sketch. In the exhibition, a huge book of fabric samples is displayed in a glass case, offering a tactile tease to us viewers — the beautifully coloured fabrics shone in the display light, away from our grasp. In selecting the fabric first, Balenciaga was choosing the viewer and the wearer of the garments, whose skin these designs would be in contact with. The exhibition also had a replica dress of Balenciaga’s that visitors of the exhibition could try on, all in order to recreate the feeling of enveloping oneself in one of his designs.

Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion is on at the V&A until February 18th, don’t miss it!

By Grace Lee

The G-String King: A book review of Charles Guyette The Godfather of American Fetish Art by Richard Pérez Seves

Charles Joseph Guyette was a fascinating, albeit over-looked, pioneer of fetishistic art practice within the 20th century. He was primarily a costumer who designed fetish-wear specifically for burlesque, strip-tease and circus performances. Working from the 30s to the 60s, Guyette is often considered to have formed the foundation for modern fetish-wear today. In fact, his designs were deemed so scandalous that he was arrested and sent to federal prison in 1935 only to be released a year later and continue to work under various aliases. Guyette was at one point branded the ‘G-String King’ due to the popularity of his garments amongst burlesque performers, as well as being known for his shoe designs that featured 7 inch heels; a height thought to be extreme in the 30s and 40s.

Within his book, Richard Pérez Seves does an excellent job in documenting the hidden life of an extremely important man who paved the way for many fetish-wear designers in the decades to come. The popularity of Gaultier, Mugler and Dita Von Teese ultimately has its roots in the work that Guyette did in uniting the realms of fetishism and fashion to create some truly beautiful images. The book features numerous photographs of Guyette’s designs that depict the artistry and femininity behind fetish-wear as well as the inherent beauty that resides within the female form. Guyette’s burlesque pieces were made with the intentions of strip-tease and undress; each layer ultimately revealing the natural body beneath. Fetishistic clothing, while often seen as a remedy against castration anxiety, can also be seen as a celebration of the nude female figure as it places her within a position of power over her own sexuality —a position she was often barred from. This book perfectly highlights the work of a fantastic designer who needs some much-earned credit.

By Niall Billings

Further Reading:

Richard Pérez Seves, Charles Guyette: Godfather of American Fetish Art, 2017

1965’s Doctor Zhivago’s Impact on Fashion

 

In December 1965 David Lean’s epic adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago was released. Doctor Zhivago is the story of Yuri Zhivago, a physician in Russia, and the personal and political upheaval he experiences during the Russian Revolution. Phyllis Dalton’s lush costumes not only won her an academy award, but also spurred a host of new fashion trends. The looks of Julie Christie, who played Zhivago’s mistress Lara, and Geraldine Chaplin, who played Zhivago’s wife Tonya, in particular inspired fashion trends of the time.

Violette Leduc’s article detailing her visit to the set of Doctor Zhivago was released in the September 1965 issue of Vogue. The article was complete with a full spread of photographs of the set and stars of the film. Geraldine Chaplin’s photograph, in full Tonya Zhivago costume, is particularly striking. Chaplin stands on a street set up to look like revolution-era Moscow. She is decked out with a huge, round fur hat, fur stole, and an enormous fur muff. Her face his hidden between the hat and stole, and thus only her eyes and nose peer seductively out at the viewer. She is standing between two imposing portraits of Lenin, Marx and Trotsky, thus setting the scene for the contrast between the lush costumes and world of the early film, and the revolution and hardship that comes later on. This article came out two months before the film was released, likely as part of the intense media blitz on the part of MGM to promote it, and thus generated early excitement and awe at the costumes.

Following the release of the film the ‘Zhivago look’ took full effect. Marc Bohan for Christian Dior drew inspiration for his autumn 1966 line from the film. He used soldier’s caps, long military greatcoats, boots, and fur trim, which all recalled Dalton’s looks for the women of Doctor Zhivago. The fur trimmed ‘Zhivago collar’ and fur hats, in particular became popular following the release of the film, and remain so today. If you search ‘Zhivago style’ on google there are entire sections of Etsy dedicated to the fur-trimmed coats and fur hats that were made popular by the film. Advertisements found as late as 1987 make allusions to Doctor Zhivago when trying to sell fur. The look of fur, silk braiding, military coats, and boots of Phyllis Dalton’s costumes remain a key reference point for top designers. It was not just the women of Doctor Zhivago that inspired trends, but the men as well. Omar Sharif, as Yuri Zhivago, sported a large, well-groomed moustache that spurred a renewed interest in facial hair. The impact of Doctor Zhivago’s costumes has extended beyond the year, or even decade, of its release and into the cultural lexicon.

By Olivia Chuba

Lily Visits “Irving Penn: The Centennial” in Paris

The 2017 “Irving Penn: The Centennial” exhibition in Paris is a guaranteed highlight of the Grand Palais’ autumn season programme. Marking the centenary birth of Irving Penn (1917-2009), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Réunion des musées nationaux– Grand Palais, in collaboration with The Irving Penn Foundation, organized one of the most comprehensive retrospective since Penn’s death, and the first of its kind in France.

Irving Penn is regarded as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century. To many, he is most well-known for his portraits of notable societal figures. However, as a ‘Documenting Fashion’ student, I see him as inseparable from 20th century fashion; his name alone conjures up some of the most iconic images in fashion studies. His celebrated fashion photos taken during his time at Vogue including Tobacco on Tongue (1951), Balenciaga Mantle Coat (1950), and The Twelve Most Photographed Models (1947), are all on display in this exhibition.

Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn wearing a Balenciaga Mantle Coat in Vogue, September 1950

This retrospective looks back over Penn’s seventy-year career “with more than 235 photographic prints all produced by the artist himself, as well as a selection of his drawings and paintings.” The exhibition is laid out on two levels, covering a range of genres and themes that were of great importance to Penn’s career. The ground floor starts with his still life and early street photographs taken using his first Rolleiflex in 1938, and spans the 40s to early 60s-era, including his early days at Vogue. The portfolios of Cuzco indigenous people, small trade series and classical ‘portraits of personalities’ are all covered in this period. The upper floor showcases his advertising and personal projects. These ranged from his series of nudes, to cigarette butts and four major series of other detritus, titled: Street Material, Archaeology, Vessels and Underfoot.

The exhibition is successful in showing all these facets of Penn’s career and his wide-ranging interest in subject matter. But truth be told, all these genres and themes can be split into two major categories: objects and humans. And in my opinion, his most interesting photos are still the ones he takes of people, whether it is of fashion models, celebrity portraits, or indigenous villagers. These photographs reveal his instinctive grasp of material, weight, pattern and the tactile quality of a garment. Paired with his knack for posing subjects, Penn’s photographs of people are both visually and psychologically more interesting for viewers.

The Irving Penn centennial exhibition was originally shown this year between April and July at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Lucky for those in Europe, the same show will be exhibiting at the Grand Palais in Paris until the 29th of January, 2018, before heading to Germany and Brazil.

By Lily Mu

All photos authors own