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.